Today’s Top 5: And That’s the Way It Is

Sometimes I listen to music in the car. Other days, however, I tune in KYW-1060AM, the Delaware Valley’s all-news channel. It provides local and national headlines, breaking news, traffic reports, business updates, weather and sports, and at 6:30pm – if I’ve left work late or am just stuck in traffic – a simulcast of the CBS Evening News. I also read/subscribe to the digital edition of the Washington Post, and check out the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer from time to time – aka the “fake news” outlets so labeled because they report actual facts, not the partisan propaganda our dear leader prefers.

And with that, here’s today’s Top 5: And That’s the Way It Is.

1) Neil Young – “Ambulance Blues.” This song percolates through my synapses pretty much every time America’s answer to Erdogan speaks. The line “I never knew a man who told so many lies” may have been inspired by Nixon, but it describes him, too.

2) Juliana Hatfield – “When You’re a Star.” I came to the conclusion, long ago, that Juliana is basically Generation X’s Neil Young. Think about it: She started her career in an influential, but commercially under-appreciated group; she’s at home on acoustic and electric guitar, solo or with a band; and has a distinctly idiosyncratic outlook on life. And no one can write her songs but her. This week, after the sordid news from Hollywood broke, she tweeted a link to this song, which was inspired by both the lecher-in-chief and a former Jell-O salesman. It’s from her Pussycat album.

3) Bob Dylan – “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues.” Originally slated for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but yanked by Columbia due to lawsuit concerns, this classic satire of political paranoia remains relevant today. The dear leader and his minions, after all, see enemies everywhere.

4) First Aid Kit – “This Land Is Your Land.” Diane and I watched the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory a few weeks back. Great movie. It got me to thinking that that era, more than any other, is the era Trump and the GOP want America to return to – where some have plenty, but most nothing at all. First Aid Kit’s cover of the song includes the two “radical” verses that speak to the song’s message that America is for all its people, not just the rich and well-off. (See the Wikipedia entry for more.)

5) The Long Ryders – “Masters of War.” The Ryders’ cover of Dylan’s classic, about old men sending young men to their deaths, still rings true today. (The pulpit’s bully is itching for war, after all.)

And two bonuses…

6) Grant Hart – “Now That You Know Me.” During the winter of 1989-90, I played Hart’s Intolerance CD more than most – and this song wound up on many a mixtape. I won’t lie and claim to have kept up with Hart’s career in the years since, but the news of his passing in September shook me all the same. Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade and New Day Rising were monumental albums in my life.

7) Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – “Peace in L.A.” The L.A. riots of 1992, sadly, weren’t the last riots spurred by racial injustice. One of Petty’s best yet lesser known singles, this call for peace was recorded mere days after the figurative fires were put out; and was on the radio a day later. “Stay cool. Don’t be a fool.”

 

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When Worlds Collide: Juliana Hatfield at the Ardmore Music Hall, 10/12/17

Three weeks back, trumpets blared, timpani rumbled, clouds parted, and an angel came forth to announce that Philadelphia’s favorite Brit wordsmith (or, at least, one of them), Wesley Stace – aka the artist formerly known as John Wesley Harding – and his band, the English UK, were to play the Ardmore Music Hall…on the same night as a Philadelphia Eagles matchup against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night Football. With him: Juliana Hatfield.

Was he opening? Was she? The social-media advertisements, as well as the poster outside the venue, never quite made it clear. Their names were in equal-sized type; and hers was preceded by a plus sign. Was she solo or with the Three, as at the Boot & Saddle earlier this year? (The brutal grace of that night will stay with me forever.) The Juliana Hatfield Three Facebook page was advertising the show, after all. Those questions of a thousand dreams haunted my nights and days – well, not really. We had our tickets and, either/or, it was a guaranteed good time.

But in football-crazed Philadelphia, unless one is Springsteen, Joel or similar stadium-name headliner, scheduling a last-minute show against the Eagles – especially when they’re doing well, which they are – is asking for a sparse turnout.

Which, this night, it was.

Stace and the English UK started the night with a taut 45-minute set that mixed new and old songs, including “Making Love to Bob Dylan,” the wondrous “Canterbury Kiss” and selections from his recent Jayhawks-backed Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding album. He also offered humorous anecdotes and explained (as had the bartender when we arrived) that he and the band would join Juliana after her solo set. The show came about, he said, a few weeks earlier while he was walking in the Philly neighborhood of Fishtown. It dawned on him that, with a day off between two of his Cabinet of Wonders shows, they might as well make use of it. He texted the Ardmore booker, who texted back, and voila! A gig was born.

Juliana took to the stage at about 9:15 and, once her electric guitar was plugged in, began her solo set with “Butterflies” and “If I Wanted Troubles.” She hit a speed bump in “Parking Lots,” first messing up the lyrics and then singing out of tune. After one more attempt, she cut it short and moved on. “Slow Motion,” the song I most hoped to hear, was absolutely sublime:

After that song, she switched to acoustic and…in what’s fast becoming my favorite overused phrase, “wow. Just wow.” On electric, especially at first, she seemed a little off – almost as if she was waiting for a band to kick in. And, too, there were moments near the end of songs when she’d stop, applause would start, and then she’d strum a few more bars. On acoustic, there was none of that. “Choose Drugs” was, in a word, mesmerizing, and “I Want to Be Your Disease” simply venomous.

And then the English UK joined her for “Shining On” and then Stace returned…can I say “wow” again? The band ably accented Juliana’s material. “Somebody Is Waiting for Me” was beyond any and all superlatives I can think of.

And “Wonder Why,” one of the stellar tracks from this year’s Pussycat, just rocked.

At that stage, I would’ve been happy if Juliana and Stace said their farewells – it was a great show, already. But what followed put it in the stratosphere: Juliana played two songs from her forthcoming album…an Olivia Newton-John tribute album (!) tentatively titled Hopelessly Devoted to Liv.

While I’m sure that Wesley Stace never once imagined himself singing the immortal lyrics of “let me hear your body talk” prior to this night, hey, all I can say is this: shivers reverberated up and down my spine. I found the performances phenomenal and fun.

Diane, on the other hand, says they were “interesting”; and, tongue hopefully in cheek, blames me for the turn of events. Way back in 2012, in a “20 Questions” for the covers album, I posed a wordy question to Juliana that (for brevity’s sake) I trimmed for the published Q&A. The full exchange read:

Me: In your book, you write about liking ONJ as a kid. If you were to cover one of her songs, which would it be? (I can hear you singing – and having a hit with –  “A Little More Love” or “Deeper Than the Night.” Not that that should influence the song selection for your current covers project).

Juliana: I don’t think I could do any of her songs. I thought about [it] for this covers album but nothing feels authentic when I try to do it. She had such a sweet voice and a personality and could bring to life songs that I wouldn’t be able to bring to life. And some of her songs are really goofy.

Aside from the hard-hearted, anyone who came of age in the late ‘70s and/or early ‘80s can likely attest to the powerful charm of Olivia’s songs and albums (one of which is a future Essentials pick) of that era. True, those tunes primarily dealt with matters of the heart. Sometimes they were sweet, sometimes goofy, but they were rarely saccharine. And when I hear them today? They take me back – in a good way.

That Juliana is paying tribute to ONJ and those songs – it’s cool.

Here’s the set in full:

Solo Electric:

  1. Butterflies
  2. If I Wanted Troubles
  3. Parking Lots (cut short)
  4. June 6th
  5. Everybody Loves Me But You
  6. I Picked you Up
  7. Slow Motion

Solo Acoustic:

  1. Christmas Cactus
  2. Choose Drugs
  3. I Want to Be Your Disease
  4. Evan

Juliana & English UK:

  1. Shining On
  2. Somebody Is Waiting for Me
  3. Wonder Why
  4. Have You Never Been Mellow
  5. Physical
  6. My Sister

Today’s Top 5: December 27th, 1969

It was a chilly December day in 1969 when my father, then 38, arrived home from Vietnam, where he’d worked the previous 15 months as an electronics field engineer attached to the 5th U.S. Marine Base at Da Nang. He maintained the Marine Corps’ communication system called TRC-97 at fire bases and outposts between Da Nang and the DMZ, and sometimes took sniper fire while riding a motorcycle from one site to the next. He wasn’t a G.I., having left the Army after serving in the Korean War the decade before, but an RCA employee.

According to the thorough family history written by my grandfather the following year, my dad left for Vietnam on Sept. 16th, 1968, and returned stateside on Dec. 15th, though I imagine he first touched ground in Hawaii or San Diego and, even if he flew straight through, made it home a day later. What I recall: my mom crouching beside me, who was all of 4 1/2, and pointing to a tall man dressed in fatigues walking toward us. “Daddy,” she whispered in my ear. I ran to him, arms outstretched, and bellowed the same.

Young children welcoming a parent home from war: It’s a scene played out many thousands of times every decade, it seems. And, as with me, I’m sure it’s the first memory many have of that parent.

I was reminded of the day by Herc’s thoughtful write-up of The Vietnam War, the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary series that recently aired on PBS. I haven’t watched it yet, though at some point I likely will, but it got me to thinking of December 1969 and the winter that followed – it’s the last time, I think, that I enjoyed snow. By the next Christmas we were in Saudi, and snow and frigid weather were non-factors for the next five years.

Anyway, Christmas of 1969, as I remember it, was great; the family was together and, in addition to my dad, I received one of the greatest gifts ever: Billy Blastoff. (It was an action toy, not a doll!)

To pull the magnifying glass away from me, major events of this month included, on the 1st, the initial draft lottery; on the 2nd, the 747 making its official debut; and, on the 6th, “Woodstock West,” aka the Altamont Free Concert, erupting into violence. Unemployment for the month was just 3.90 percent, but was about to begin a gradual climb to 6 percent by the end of 1970; and inflation was relatively high, at 5.5 percent.

(For more on 1969, see here and here, though each now features a clip that’s gone AWOL from YouTube.)

Movies released this month included A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Hello, Dolly!, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Topaz and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Top television shows included Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Mayberry R.F.D. and Family Affair. Brady Bunch aficionados will know that the kitsch classic’s lone Christmas episode, when Carol came down with a bad case of laryngitis, aired on the 17th; another historic Christmas-tinged TV moment came 10 days earlier with the first airing of Frosty the Snowman.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: December 27th, 1969 (via Weekly Top 40):

1) Diana Ross & the Supremes – “Someday We’ll Be Together.” This, Diana’s final single with the Supremes, closed out the 1960s in spectacular fashion. (Producer Johnny Bristol can be heard harmonizing along, and giving Diana encouragement.)

2) Peter, Paul & Mary – “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” I never knew this was written by John Denver until the mid-2000s, when I watched an excellent PPM biography on PBS. There’s this, too: PPM recorded it in 1967 for Album 1700, but didn’t release it as a single until October 1969. It promptly ascended the charts and, on Dec. 20th, became their only single to hit No. 1. This week, it dropped a notch to No. 2.

3) B.J. Thomas – “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” Written for the Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid film, this classic Burt Bacharach-Hal David song, which won an Oscar, has been covered more times than than ASCAP/BMI can count. (Just a joke.) Here’s B.J. Thomas singing it on Top of the Pops in February 1970:

4) Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Down on the Corner”/“Fortunate Son.” The double A-sided hit  – one of the best – dropped to No. 4 from No. 3 (its peak) this week.

5) Steam – “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” Who knew, as 1969 came to a close, that the chorus to this ditty – which topped the charts for two weeks in early December – would become one of the de facto sing-alongs at sporting events within a decade’s time?

And two bonuses:

6) Neil Diamond – “Holly Holy.” The No. 6 this week is this gospel-tinged classic, which may well be Neil Diamond’s greatest song. (And even if it isn’t, it certainly feels that way when he’s singing it.) Here he is performing on the BBC in 1971:

7) Gladys Knight & the Pips – “Friendship Train.” Topping out at No, 17 is this under-appreciated Norman Whitfield-penned call for peace, love and understanding. Here’s Gladys & the Pips performing it in 1972: