Song of the Week – Warren Ellis’ Picks

I recently finished reading the book Nina Simone’s Gum, by Warren Ellis, a musician in the Dirty Three and collaborator with Nick Cave in the Bad Seeds and Grinderman.

The book synopsis reads:

I hadn’t opened the towel that contained her gum since 2013. The last person to touch it was Nina Simone, her saliva and fingerprints unsullied. The idea that it was still in her towel was something I had drawn strength from. I thought each time I opened it some of Nina Simone’s spirit would vanish. In many ways that thought was more important than the gum itself.

On Thursday 1 July, 1999, Dr Nina Simone gave a rare performance as part of Nick Cave’s Meltdown Festival. After the show, in a state of awe, Warren Ellis crept onto the stage, took Dr Simone’s piece of chewed gum from the piano, wrapped it in her stage towel and put it in a Tower Records bag. The gum remained with him for twenty years; a sacred totem, his creative muse, a conduit that would eventually take Ellis back to his childhood and his relationship with found objects, growing in significance with every passing year.

Nina Simone’s Gum is about how something so small can form beautiful connections between people. It is a story about the meaning we place on things, on experiences, and how they become imbued with spirituality. It is a celebration of artistic process, friendship, understanding and love.

I have to admit, when I started this book, I was very skeptical that a whole book could be interesting about a piece of chewed gum, even if it came from Nina Simone.  But in the hands of Ellis, it works.

Warren’s memoir weaves stories about his musical influences, his instruments, and his obsession with collecting artifacts into the main thread about Simone’s gum.

But the SotW is about music, so I’ll focus on that.  Although there are no recordings that survived the Meltdown Festival performance, it was contemporaneously reported in a review in The Guardian that she opened with “Black is the Colour (sic) (of My True Love’s Hair).”

This version is the lead track from Simone’s1959 live album, Nina Simone at Town Hall.  I wonder if it is a coincidence that it was still her opening song, 40 years later.

Ellis tells the story of being introduced to the Greek singer Arleta when a girlfriend gave him a cassette by her in 1988.  He writes:

“I stayed in Europe for ten months and I ended up hitchhiking across the continent with my violin, busking in the streets, or wherever, drenched in a song, ‘Mia Fora Thymamai’, sung by Arleta.”

“I loved the whole album but there was that one song called ‘Mia Fora Thymamai’, which stopped time.  I didn’t know what it was about, or anything about Arleta, but I thought it was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard, and it comforted me for 2 minutes, 31 seconds.”

This simple folk song was a huge influence on Ellis.  His band, the Dirty Three, recorded their version under the title “I Remember a Time When Once You Loved Me.”  There’s much more to the story of Ellis’ connection to Arleta and ‘Mia Fora Thymamai’ but I don’t want to be a spoiler.  Read the book.

In 1984, Ellis was looking for a violin instructor.  He was rejected by several teachers until he was accepted by Phil Harrington, who tried to help Ellis select music that fit his playing style.  Harrington introduced him to Beethoven.

“One day he [Harrington] brought in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and every time we rehearsed the second movement, it sent me catatonic.”

Ellis has opened my ears to some wonderful music that I would otherwise have never heard.  I hope you get pleasure from sharing that experience with me.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Woman to Woman, Shirley Brown, and Henderson Thigpen

I’ve been a huge fan of the Memphis based Stax label for a long time. Their brand of southern soul music appeals to me much more than the sanitized sounds that came out of Motown, though I love a lot of Motown too.

Over the years I have immersed myself in the Stax catalog and history.  I downloaded The Complete Stax/Volt Singles compilations as soon as they were released.  One of the best music books I ever read was Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom.  While that book isn’t only about Stax, the label plays a huge role in his story.  I have also watched the Wattstax concert movie and listened extensively to the soundtrack record.

Now there is a new four-part documentary series about Stax on HBO called Stax: Soulsville U.S.A.  I watched it a few weeks ago and highly recommend it to anyone who loves 60s/70s soul music.

The docu-series devoted significant time to the story behind Shirley Brown’s “Woman to Woman,” the 1974 single that was a #1 R&B hit but stalled at #22 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The song was penned by the trio of James Banks, Eddie Marion, and Henderson Thigpen. On the website, Thigpen is quoted saying:

James and I used to get together every day, and we were at a studio one day trying to come up with some ideas, something different. When people get serious, they say ‘hey, let’s talk man to man’. So we came up with a concept. We thought it would be interesting to have a song with somebody coming up ‘hey, let’s talk woman to woman’. I had overheard my wife at the time arguing over the phone with a friend of hers about a man with another woman, so we – James, myself and Eddie – came up with the monologue. But no females were doing it. Isaac Hayes was doing long monologues at the time. Whenever we came up with an idea, we demoed it to give the rough idea of the whole song.

Fortunately for us, last February a boxed set titled Written In Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos was released.  It includes 146 demos from the Stax stable of songwriters – 140 previously unreleased – including the one of “Woman to Woman” made by Thigpen and mentioned in the quote above.

So, sit back and enjoy both versions of this slow jam, soul classic.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Deco Dance, Elliott Murphy

Billy Joel has been all over the news in recent months.  In February he dropped his first new song in over 20 years, called “Turn the Lights Back On,” and performed it to an ecstatic audience at the 2024 Grammys that same month.  In April he gave the 100th performance of his concert residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden.  The show was broadcast on CBS on April 14th.  On the personal side, it was recently disclosed that he purchased a 5-acre property in East Hampton, complete with a horse farm, pool, and lily pond, making him a neighbor to Alec Baldwin.

But this being the SotW, you know there’s a curveball coming.  Instead of making the obvious choice of some Billy Joel obscurity, today’s SotW is “Deco Dance,” by Elliott Murphy.

You’re probably thinking “How did Tom get from Billy Joel to Elliott Murphy?”  Let’s talk!

In 1975, Murphy released a particularly good album called Night Lights.  At the time, Murphy was vying for some of the same turf Bruce Springsteen was claiming.  That may seem quaint with the benefit of hindsight, but it’s true.

Anyway, one of the best songs on Night Lights was “Deco Dance.”  Billy Joel played piano on the campy cut.  It’s blatantly evident on the opening piano intro.  Joel’s style is unmistakable.

The track also takes advantage of the stellar horn section of Michael Brecker (too many credits to list!), Howard Johnson (The Band, John Lennon), Lou Marini (Frank Zappa, J Geils, Blues Brothers), Lew Soloff (B,S&T) and Tom Malone (B,S&T, Blues Brothers).

Night Lights is of its time, but still satisfies today.  Besides “Deco Dance,” Murphy’s rant about the fleeting satisfaction of celebrity culture and fame, it has another song called “Lady Stilletto (sic),” written as an homage to Patti Smith.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Black, Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam hit the national scene in 1991, at the height of the Seattle-based grunge rock movement led by Nirvana.  I liked their debut album, Ten, but was skeptical of all the hype the grunge bands received.  I asked myself, “Is this band for real or not?”

Then I saw them perform on Saturday Night Live in April 1992, and I was hooked.  The video is no longer available, but there is a YouTube “video” of the sound recording from that performance of “Alive” and “Porch.”

In 2017, Rolling Stone rated that appearance at #13 on their list called Saturday Night Live Rocks: 25 Greatest Musical Performances.

Today’s SotW is Pearl Jam’s “Black,” also from Ten.

The lyrics to “Black” were written by vocalist Eddie Vedder.  They tell the story of a very personal, emotional breakup with a lost lover.  As the song builds to a sentimental peak, the singer howls:

I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life 
I know you’ll be a star 
In somebody else’s sky 
But why 
Why can’t it be 
Why can’t it be mine?

Rarely has a male rock star exhibited such naked vulnerability.  It is easy to understand how this song has endured as a fan favorite for over 30 years.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Third Rate Romance, The Amazing Rhythm Aces

In the mid to late ‘70s, the eclectic Amazing Rhythm Aces released a series of incredibly good albums on the ABC label that contained their own brand of “roots” music, though it wasn’t called that at the time.  Their debut album, Stacked Deck (1975), contained their greatest hit, “Third Rate Romance,” which reached #14 on the Billboard Hot 100.

“Third Rate Romance” has a “Margaritaville” Caribbean feel with some nice guitar fills played by its songwriter, Russell Smith.  It is a story song about a dalliance at the Family Inn after a couple connects at a “ritzy” restaurant.  The tryst is humanized when the woman says, “I’ve never really done this kind of thing before, have you?” And her partner replies “Yes, I have. But only a time or two.”

You can often measure a song by the company it keeps.  In this case, “Third Rate Romance” has been covered by Jesse Winchester, Sammy Kershaw, Roseanne Cash, and Elvis Costello (on the unreleased Flip City Demo album that can be heard on YouTube).  Not a bad group of characters.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week Revisited – The Finer Things, David Sanborn

I recently learned that alto sax player David Sanborn died on May 12th. In tribute to his artistry, I’d like to post a SotW essay I originally published on July 5th, 2008.

Sometimes a song immediately transports you back to a certain time and/or place.  When it comes on, you can remember every detail of some moment in your life when it was playing.

This week’s song is that way for me.  It is called “The Finer Things” and is credited to saxophonist David Sanborn.  But it was written by Donald Fagen and is performed by the usual Steely Dan cast of characters (that also included Sanborn), so it sounds to me more like The Dan than Sanborn’s usual smooth jazz.

It comes from the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s black comedy, The King of Comedy.  Incidentally, that soundtrack also includes out takes and special one off recordings by several other top notch artists such as Robbie Robertson, Van Morrison and Rickie Lee Jones. It’s worth picking up.

But let’s get back to my visceral connection to this song…  Back in the early 80s I spent a few 4ths of July at the beach in Ogunquit, ME.  At the end of one long day of tanning in the sun, it seemed like the whole beach decided they’d had enough at the same time.  As the exodus of beach goers packed up and started walking back to their cars, bars or motel rooms, I popped a cassette tape of this song into a boom box I was carrying.  The song (more or less an instrumental) seemed to perfectly capture the mood of the moment.  As we walked along, a couple of different strangers even tapped me on the shoulder to ask what was playing.

Every time I hear this song I “feel” the heat of the sun in my tanned skin.  I “see” the tired crowd of people dragging their coolers and beach chairs toward town.  I can “smell” the salt water and sun tan lotion.  (Remember Bumble?  Debbie?)

Obviously, this song won’t have the same meaning for you, but if you like Steely Dan (and who doesn’t?) I know you’ll enjoy this selection.

Until next week.

Song of the Week – Happy Together, The Turtles; Immigration Man, Crosby & Nash; Miracles, Jefferson Starship

John Barbata is most well-known as the drummer for Jefferson Starship.  He died on May 8th at the age of 79.

His career began much earlier than his mid/late 70s run with the Starship.  In the mid-60s, Barbata joined the Turtles at the recommendation of the Byrds’ Gene Clark.  He was the drummer on their first hit, “Happy Together.”

“Happy Together” spent three weeks at the top of the charts in 1967.  It’s a chestnut that we all know and love.

By the early 70s, Barbata had hitched his cart to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.  He was the drummer on the tour that produced the 4 Way Street album.  He collaborated with those fellows in all their different configurations.  One of the best is “Immigration Man,” a song from the first Crosby & Nash album, simply called Graham Nash David Crosby (1972).

“Immigration Man” was released as a single and should have fared better than its peak of #36 on the Billboard Hot 100.  It has luxurious harmonies and a tasteful solo provided by Dave Mason.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge his work with the Starship.  Their most successful album was Red Octopus which contained the Marty Balin classic “Miracles.”

“Miracles” didn’t quite reach the heights of “Happy Together,” but it came damned close.  It soared to #3 and parked there for three weeks in 1975.  Non-band member Irv Cox adds a screaming sax solo to this soft rock gem.

Besides the groups mentioned, Barbata contributed to the work of many other artists.  Too many, in fact, to mention in this short post.  But to name a few, he drummed with Lee Michaels, Linda Ronstadt, Ry Cooder, Johnny Rivers, and the Byrds.

John Barbata, RIP.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Chevrolet; Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie, Donovan, Jim Kweskin & His Jug Band, Foghat

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written a post featuring the Evolution Series.  I’m returning to that today with a fun one!

Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie recorded many songs together, including “When the Levee Breaks” in 1929.  (As most of you will recognize, that song was later recorded by Led Zeppelin in a reworked version.)  In 1930, they recorded another song called “Can I Do It For You”, written by Memphis Minnie.

The country blues number is a duet between the artists where the male singer offers several expensive items to his woman.  He wants “to do something for” her.  But she’s a feminist that can’t be bought.  For each offer, she responds “I don’t want nothin’ in the world you got, and you can’t do nothin’ to me.”

In 1965, Donovan resurrected the song in an updated version he titled “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)”.

Donovan’s version was a tribute to his friend Gyp Mills (Gypsy Dave).  By this time, the “expensive” gifts included different cars, including a Chevrolet, a Ford Mustang, a Cadillac, and a sugar cube to which the response is “I don’t want to go for no trip”!

The song was picked up again in 1966 by Jim Kweskin & His Jug Band, but by now it was called “Chevrolet.”

This version harkens back to the Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie version with a male and female call and response in each verse.  The woman’s voice is Maria Muldaur, of “Midnight At the Oasis” fame.

In 1978, the British hard rock band Foghat took a shot at the song.

I’ve never been a Foghat fan, but their rendition of this classic song rocks!  It begins acapella, then the band kicks in.  By the end, the guitar solos are screaming!

“Chevrolet” has been covered many other times in versions I didn’t feature in this post but include artists such as The Animals, The Soul Survivors, Taj Mahal, The Derek Trucks Band, and Jack White’s Raconteurs.

This “evolution” is a wonderful example of how a simple country blues can become a rock classic.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Tonight; West Side Story, The Raspberries, and Smashing Pumpkins

Today’s post is the next installment of my Contrast Series, this time analyzing a group of songs with the theme “Tonight.”

Let’s start with “Tonight” from the movie soundtrack for the musical West Side Story (1961), with music written by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

This is a key song from the show, portraying its version of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.  As such, it is an ode to teenage romance, though it sounds much more mature.

Tonight, tonight
The world is full of light
With suns and moons all over the place
Tonight, tonight
The world is wild and bright
Going mad
Shooting sparks into space

The Raspberries released the Eric Carmen penned “Tonight” in 1973.

This power pop classic opens with a count-in and a guitar intro the lead guitarist Wally Bryson has claimed “nobody knows how to play but me” because he made up “weird chords to get different sounds.”  Hmmm.

It is a typical Carmen teenage drama but without the innocence of the West Side Story song.  The protagonist wants to bed the “too young” person that smiled at him.  (I guess it doesn’t take much to make Carmen horny!)  I dig the “bop-om-doo-doh-woh-mop-shoo” he exhorts while “making love” in the bridge section.

Sadly, Carmen recently passed away in March at the age of 74.

“Tonight, Tonight” from Smashing Pumpkins’ epic Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995) is something totally different, both musically and lyrically.  It was recorded with a 30-piece string section that adds palpable drama to the recording, making it a very unlikely single release.

The lyrics are more vague than the other songs.  Exactly who is vocalist Billy Corgan singing to?  Wikipedia reports:

On The Howard Stern Show, Corgan has said that the song pays homage to Cheap Trick, with its black humoresque lyrics and theme, and that the song is addressed to himself, who escaped from an abusive childhood against all odds, so as to keep him believing in himself.

If this is right, the song’s final verses are the payoff:

We’ll crucify the insincere
Tonight, Tonight
We’ll make things right
We’ll feel it all
Tonight, Tonight
We’ll find a way to offer up the night
The indescribable moments of your life
The impossible is possible
Tonight, Tonight

Believe in me as I believe in you
Tonight, Tonight
Tonight, Tonight

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Finding Out True Love Is Blind, Louis XIV

Today’s SotW has me conflicted.  It is “Finding Out True Love Is Blind,” by Louis XIV.

In 2005, when this song was released, I was living in San Diego, the home base of Louis XIV.  I remember hearing it on XETRA-FM, Radio 91X .

I know, you’re confused that the prominent British accent of the lead singer, Jason Hill, could be from a guy based in San Diego, CA.

So, what is my conflict?  The track has a very cool sound.  It has primal guitar riffs and a great arrangement with sweet female backing vocals.  But the lyrics!?!  Oh, those lyrics.  They are so troublesome.  Here’s just a sample from the first two verses:

Ah chocolate girl, well you’re looking like somethin’ I want
(finding out true love is blind)
Ah your little Asian friend well, she can come if she wants
(finding out true love is blind)
I want all those self-conscious girls who try to hide who they are with make-up
(finding out true love is blind)
You know it’s the girl with the frown with the tight pants I really want to shake up
(finding out true love is blind)

Hey carrot juice, I want to squeeze you the way until you bleed
(finding out true love is blind)
And your vanilla friend well she looks like something I need

I want miss little smart girl with your glasses and all your books
(finding out true love is blind)
And I want the stupid girl who gives me all those dirty looks
(finding out true love is blind)

Where do we go from here?  We can go totally woke and cancel the song, or we can accept it as the same kind of misogynistic, rock and roll stance that the Rolling Stones took with songs like “Stupid Girl” and “Under My Thumb.”  Tell the truth.  We love those songs, even though the lyrics might make us cringe, having the benefit of current enlightenment.  It’s only rock and roll, and I like it.

Walmart doesn’t agree.  They censored the cover of the band’s album by cropping off the bottom of the model’s butt crack.

Hill went on to work with David Bowie, The Killers, and The New York Dolls.  He also wrote film music for director David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Mindhunter, among other soundtracks.

So don’t judge me.  Just groove to the music.

Enjoy… until next week.