Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter T

1. This Guy’s in Love with You — Noel Gallagher, covering Burt Bacharach
One of my biggest pet peeves in music is when an artist swaps genders during a cover, as though the world may screech to a halt if a man were to sing a love song about a man, or vice versa. If the song is so great that it warrants a cover, then isn’t it inappropriate to muck it up by changing the lyrics? I’m sure someone could present me with a reasonable argument, but in general, the practice annoys me. Once again, if I were a person with some musical talent, I’d cover this song and I would sing it exactly as is. Changing it to “This Girl” amounts to sacrilege, and singing it as-is only changes the story. This song is one of my all-time favorites, no matter the letter.

I dig Burt Bacharach in the same way I dig Carl Sagan — in the short span of my lifetime, they’ve always been old guys who know what they’re doing. They’re also a bit amusingly retro. I’ve said that I love a good horn section, and Bacharach certainly does not shy away from them. Oddly enough, I’ve never heard anyone but Noel Gallagher sing this song. Were it not for the brief heyday of Napster, I’m not sure when I’d have heard it at all.

One of many artists asked to appear at a Burt Bacharach tribute show, Noel Gallagher performs on his own. With him being a lifelong fan, I can’t imagine the rush of feeling, shocked that not only did someone think to schedule him, but then he had to sing in front of the man. They say it’s tough to meet your heroes, and most people don’t have to impress them on television. I’ve never seen the footage, and I don’t know if it’s Noel doing the piano playing. I imagine that before, during, and after, he acted much more level-headed than I would if I met Noel himself. Some very scatterbrained and moronic things have come out of my mouth when I’ve met celebrities I only barely cared about (Ryan Gosling, Roger the bassist from Less Than Jake), so I’d need some forewarning for someone like Noel or anyone else whose work I’ve loved. If I wasn’t armed with something interesting to say/ask, I’d blurt out the same nervous crap everyone else does while trying not to lose my mind. It’s probably best that the chances are slim, and I would likely settle for an acknowledging nod.

“This Guy’s in Love with You” starts out quiet, in the same way the beginning of an admission does. “When you smile, I can tell we know each other very well/ How can I show you?” The music builds, works its way up the scale into the big chorus:

My hands are shaking
Don’t let my heart keep breaking cos
I need your love
I want your love
Say you’re in love,
in love with this guy
If not, I’ll just die

Even with such simple lyrics, I find it impossible to keep my heart from swelling whenever I hear it. It reminds me a little of “Baby Talk to Me” from Bye Bye Birdie, which has the lines, “Say you love me/Tell me so/Honey, let me know.” Both songs feel made for the stage, a declaration for everyone to hear. I used to listen to this song a lot driving back and forth between Great Falls and Missoula. Singing along felt compulsory, and it relieved either the stress or boredom of driving. It’s a wonderful tribute to the way our heroes make us feel, and how from their great work, we become strong enough to stand on our own.

2. To Be Young (is to be sad, is to be high) — Ryan Adams
Never a truer title, right? This song is made for the most excellent of bar jukeboxes. It’s full of pedal steel, tambourine and hand claps. Ryan Adams drawls the word “high” like Bob Dylan did in “Rainy Day Women.”

You were young and man,
you were sad
When you’re young, you get sad,
When you’re young...
you get sad and you get high...
Oh man!

It’s a satisfying sing-along looking back at all the emotional drama we put each other through — “Young gal, you done me bad/ So I went and did you wrong” — and how when you’re young and stupid, everything is overdone and then is topped off with some sort substance. Sad, in this case, can also double for pathetic.

When I first heard this song on one revelatory drive home from Rockin’ Rudy’s, my young and unstable days were just ahead of me. Well, I may have already been a bit unstable, but I had yet to have the opportunity to really kick into the next level. I did not know that when I’d move to that city, I’d make decisions that I knew were wrong as I made them. I could have done worse, and others did, but at least one funny story came from it.

Hanging out with a group of people who were my friends for just a few short months (and all crazier than me), we had the bright idea to play hide-and-seek at 3 a.m. Everyone assumes that I must have been drunk, but no. In a stunning feat of clumsiness, I managed to fall over a park bench while attempting to avoid being tagged. I might have fared okay if the other side of the bench had not been a foot and a half lower than where I’d stood. I broke my arm, two weeks into college.

I react a little too well to painkillers. Given permission to take two at a time, I headed back to class that Monday high out of my mind. I informed my professors of how little use I was to them for at least the next week — “Right, so I’m a little stoned right now, so I’m just going to sit here quietly, if you don’t mind.” Luckily, the professors were amused. Before class, I became more talkative with these new strangers around me. Tyson says this is how I first started talking to him. One morning, trying to wrestle open a package of peanut butter crackers with one hand, I saw Tyson sitting in the hallway with a liter-sized soda. I pointed at my liter soda and said, “Ah-ha! Breakfast of champions!”

Everything is a learning experience, and some of the best relationships are born out of the right sequence of events and a splash of coincidence. Had I not broken my right arm, I’m sure I’d feel a lot better day to day, as it never healed quite right. However, it makes for a great “How We Met” story. Though I’d said a sentence or so to Tyson before that week, I don’t know if we would have started talking as regularly if I hadn’t been under the comfortable haze of prescribed opiates. Breaking my arm was only the start of a condensed period of crazy, and how fortuitous it was that Tyson saw me through the beginning and in the end, we saw through it together.

3. The Big Guns — Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins
Contrary to what this list may imply, I do actually listen to music that was released within the past five years. Jenny Lewis’ solo album is only two years old, so see? I’m not permanently trapped in 1997. Still, I have the ever increasing feeling that I am becoming harder to impress. I fall in love less frequently with new artists, finding what little disposable income I have going mostly towards new releases of old favorites. Every once in awhile, even in my slow internet connection world, someone new catches my attention.

David Letterman introduced Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins on his show one night, after talking about the album cover and back photo all night — some joke about Jenny Lewis disappearing. I already enjoyed Rilo Kiley, and when they started with album’s intro “Run Devil Run,” I paid attention. However, I didn’t really perk up until they segued into “The Big Guns.” The song won me over in the first lines:

Well you praise him
then you thank him
til you reach the by and by
And I’ve won hundreds at the track
but I’m not betting on the afterlife

The slight folk-country lean to the album leads me to believe that my dad and I would have overlapped on our enjoyment. I don’t think he would have fallen in love with the songs, but he would have at least asked for a copy. I wonder how many albums he had that never made it past one or two plays before he moved on to something else he’s acquired. The stack of ‘new’ music never shrunk. The last time I was in his computer room, one year ago, the stacks remained unmoved. Bruce Springsteen’s Devils and Dust sat on top of one pile. I doubt my mom has moved anything. It’s one thing to shuffle out and organize other belongings, but that room holds so much, it’s easier to wonder why anyone should be in a hurry to mess with it.

Sing mercy, Sing mercy
Sing mercy on me
Let’s pretend that everybody here wants peace.

I’d like to say I’m at peace with everything, but two years later, I still fluctuate between anger and depression when thinking of him. I don’t really feel this is the venue to talk about it, however cathartic and well-received other personal moments I’ve covered have been. Without the perspective of more than a couple of years to work through it, I have a hard time articulating my thoughts, and in a way, I don’t really want to share. Don’t mistake that for bottling up — I am sure readers understand that one does not typically work through grief in a public way. It’s easy to identify with a break-up, but not everyone has experienced the sudden death of a parent. Believe me, it’s a semi-exclusive club of which I’d rather not be a member.

With the weight death brings, finding a song that lifts the pressure does immeasurable good. Is it possible to feel depressed when a great song also has hand claps? (My interwub-friend Michael suggested constructing a list of all the great hand clap songs. It’s worth looking into.) For centuries, people have used music to pull themselves out of sadness, or at least wallow in it awhile before moving on. For now, I prefer to sing it all out instead of more serious discussion. My dad was a fan of David Letterman and all his odd extended jokes, so I suppose it’s only appropriate that the song came to me in that way. He always used to say we should have had our dog, Maggie, on the show for “Stupid Pet Tricks” (She would play keep-away with an invisible ball. Much barking ensued), but now even Maggie’s gone. Either I need to do something that gets me booked on the show or my pets need to develop new “skills.” Guess it’s all on me, then.

4. This is Love — PJ Harvey
Do people still make mixes for each other at the beginning of relationships? Since I haven’t had to romance anyone new in quite some time, I don’t know how the iPod has affected the process of compiling songs onto a disc. I’m just old enough that I made and received my fair share of mixtapes as well, lovingly compiled for maximum message in the time allotted. The infinite space offered online takes some of the thought out of it, doesn’t it? The mix could be half an hour, or a person could profess their love for three. I suppose there’s an argument to be made for a more freeform mix, but to paraphrase Nick Hornby in High Fidelity, there are rules when it comes to mixtapes and the rules are half the fun. They force you to concentrate. Over the course of this list, I may have broken my self-imposed rules a handful of times, but keeping everything in the range of 5 songs has provided the right amount of quality and insight for what I looked to explore. I had to think about what songs truly felt like favorites and how much I had to say about them. Declaring my love of the songs is one thing; figuring out why I love them has proven quite the mental exercise.

Whatever the form mixes take now, “This is Love” would be a perfect, somewhat brave addition. Not many songs do “I want you” in such a great way:

I can’t believe life’s so complex
when I just want to sit here and watch you undress
This is love, this is love
that I’m feelin’

It’s just ballsy enough to work. I think a little straightforwardness should be peppered into song choices. “Wanna chase you ‘round the table/ Wanna touch your head” and “I can’t believe that the axis turns on suffering when you taste so good” leave much less room for the recipient wondering, “Is this getting more serious?” Subtlety may have its place, but sometimes you just gotta lay it all out and say what’s on your mind. The explosive mix of hope and desire may not ever be any higher than it is in the mixtape stage. The song is both delicious and private, with the guitar gnawing along in a very satisfying way. Near the end, Polly Jean breathes:

You’re the only story that I’ve never told
You’re my dirty little secret
Wanna keep you so
Come on out, Come on over
Help me forget

A thousand stories, a thousand thoughts spring from those five lines. Any personal way I can relate to the song, however, does not only involve me. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll keep those moments to myself this time around.

5. Talk Tonight — Oasis
The right conversation at the right time can change the course of everything. I am fascinated by moments of one-on-one introspection, the late night conversations that start out simple and end feeling as though you understand both yourself and the other person better. The right conversation can draw a person out of thinking they wander alone. The path redirects and falls into focus.

I wanna talk tonight
until the morning light
about how you saved my life
and you and me see how we are

Reading parts of Paolo Hewitt’s Oasis biography, Getting High, eleven years after its publication is difficult in some ways because I can see how close they came to not making it. When I was fourteen, reading the stories about the fights, the drugs and the chaos did not phase me — it seemed like a good rock n roll story, both amusing and rebellious. The music still seemed new and never-ending. Now, it reads a bit like a series of car crashes, impressive that they made it out intact. Noel, ready to quit the band, disappeared to Las Vegas with friend Tim Abbot during the band’s first US tour. He meets a woman from Philadelphia, who thinks he looks just like George Harrison and is surprised to learn that he is a musician as well. They begin to talk about music and how fully it affected their lives. In the book, Abbot recalls:

“She said, ‘When your band comes to Philadelphia why don’t you come round, we’d love to come see your show.’ Noel said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that.’ And that was the watershed because he’d really been touched by this complete stranger. I think he suddenly realized the power, how he could share his love for The Beatles and for music and that he had a thing he could do.” [pp. 287-288]

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that “Talk Tonight” kept Oasis from dissolving, however unclear that may have felt at the time. Hewitt later writes of the woman in Las Vegas, “He was thanking her as best he knew how, that is, in a song.”

I may claim that having a song written for you isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but maybe I’ve only ever dated mediocre songwriters. If that woman is not still a fan, then I don’t know what’s wrong with her. (The song even has hand claps, for godssakes. What did Michael and I say about hand claps?)

All your dreams are made of strawb’ry lemonade
and you make sure I eat today
You take me walking
to where you played when you were young

The best part about having a creative outlet is being able to take all those late conversations mixed with the solitary nights and channel them into something bigger. Somehow, life starts to make more sense when you can speak outside yourself because the conversation doesn’t always come. Sometimes, you need to be heard and hope that the ears find you. Even when I feel like something I’ve written isn’t up to par, the process still brings insight. At the very least, I discover weaknesses that must be tackled. Weaknesses may be endearing, but they’re no crutch. If I’m not always looking to get better, then what’s the point?

Not long ago, I read an interview with Noel: “Nobody’s fucking harder on this band than I am.”

One late night, likely around the time of that biography’s publication, Amanda and I laid in the dark and talked out an entire plot to a short story that loosely resembles some of the characters in my book. The ideas tumbled out. I remember feeling like I could sit down the next day and the entire thing would come pouring out of me. I had this big idea, born out of one conversation, and I felt like I could do it. From the talk the words would come, and I knew that at least one person would do what every creative person hopes: get it.

Honorable Mentions:
That’s Alright — Fleetwood Mac

Stevie Nicks does a sort of country song I like here. I sing it all the time, and it’s an underappreciated gem on the underappreciated Mirage album. “Sometimes I think that I must have/ I must have been crazy/crazy to wait on you, baby...”

Tonight (Live in Australia)— Elton John
A full symphony, big sound and the urge to choreograph — It’s obvious why I like this one. Elton John will also always remind me of Amanda’s mother and the very late night the neighbors didn’t appreciate hearing him at full volume.

The Days of the Phoenix — AFI
The desire in Davey’s voice when he sings the line “I want to stay” makes me tingly in all the right ways. He could read, sing or scream an encyclopedia and his voice would probably still turn me on, but this song is one of the band’s best. It’s impossible not to feel good while hearing it.

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