Archive for June, 2020

Live to see another day. #PlagueSongs, no. 16

This week’s #PlagueSong is more uptempo than last week’s, and not written for the acoustic guitar. Yes, it’s… the Bee Gees’ disco classic, “Stayin’ Alive.”

This is one of the earlier songs I remember. As a child, I checked the Saturday Night Fever record album out of the library, and then made a cassette of the songs I liked, which included most of them. As I recall, I omitted the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” because it was so long. Possibly also because it wouldn’t fit on the cassette. (I like the song now — though, yeah, it is nearly 11 minutes long.)

Listening to the song now, the sexist lines (“music loud and women warm”) land flat. They feel just tossed off, and needless. But I really like the danger and darkness of “Feel the city breaking, and everybody shaking,” and “Life going nowhere — somebody help me.” And the line “We can try to understand the New York Times‘ effect on man” takes on new resonance, given the New York Times‘ decidedly mixed record — extraordinary journalism like Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project, and fascist crap like the work of White supremacist Tom Cotton, and prize-winning bully Bret “Bedbug” Stephens, etc.

So, the song may not have been intended for guitar, but Bruce Springsteen did a great version on his Australian tour back in 2014.

I assume you know the Bee Gees’ 1977 original. But do you also know the video? It features all three Bee Gees lip-synching as they stroll through an imagined evocation of New York City — though you see “New York Central” near the video’s conclusion, it’s actually a set at MGM Studios in Culver City, California. That said, the crumbling façades do nicely evoke the sense of a “city breaking” and the song’s pleas for help.

Of the three Brothers Gibb, only lead singer Barry Gibb is still alive today.

Keep social distancing, wearing masks in public, and washing those hands. Contrary to the behavior of some, we are still in a pandemic. If you won’t take your own health seriously, then please think of others: wearing a mask prevents COVID-19’s spread.

In other words, keep stayin’ alive and helping others stay alive. I’ll be back again next week.

Seeking a #PlagueSong to perform? I continue to compile this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome!

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What’s Your COVID-19 Routine? Part 5

Back by (not especially) popular demand! It’s the fifth and final episode, in which I share five things keeping me going during the pandemic.

As noted previously, what works for me may not work for you, and indeed may not be available to you. If you feel so moved, do share what’s keeping you going! I think it’s helpful for us to share how we’re doing. We’re all facing challenges and, though they differ in number and severity, we should recognize that we have corona-related challenges in common, and try to hold each other up as best we can.

This is the final episode in this series. Links to the first four episodes (from March, April, and May) are below.

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If you’re lost, I’m right behind. #PlagueSongs, no. 15

You’ll know Everything But the Girl’s Amplified Heart (1994) for its hit single “Missing.” But take a listen to a deeper cut from that record: “We Walk the Same Line” (Really, do listen to the original: Tracey Thorn’s alto is far more pleasing than my tenor.)

The lyrics’ evocation of love and worry resonate in this era of COVID-19 and uprisings against racist violence. Will the people you love return home safely? As Thorn sings, “I don’t need reminding / how loud the phone can ring / when you’re waiting for news.” Bringing us into the perspective of a person who is concerned and waiting, she then sings about how “that big old moon / lights every corner of the room.”

I appreciate, too, the tone of understanding. As she sings in the first verse, “And I bet you could tell me / how slowly four follows three.” She knows that you know what sleepless waiting is like. She understands you, too.

The declaration of faith — sung as much to the listener as to herself, I think — affirms that need we have right now, also expressed in “Lean on Me” (Plague Song no. 9). We need to hold each other up.

I don’t know enough about music to explain why the F7 chord works so well here, but it does. “We Walk the Same Line” is never too far away from an F7 or a G chord. They recur the most frequently — in both the verse and the chorus. At least in this song, landing on the F7 deepens the emotional experience a little bit, as when it comes on and lingers after “news” (in the line “when you’re waiting for news”).

Here’s a home demo that I heard for the first time while composing this blog post.

I’m struck by how similar it is to the final version. Even at the demo stage, Thorn and Ben Watt already had the lyrics and arrangement very clearly worked out.

Keep the faith, everyone. I’ll be back again next week.

Are you seeking a #PlagueSong to perform? I continue to compile this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome!

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My neighbor and my friend. #PlagueSongs, no. 14

Fred Rogers (1928-2003) was one of the kindest, most empathetic people in human history. We need more of his kindness and care in the world. That is one reason why this week’s Plague Song is the theme to his children’s television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001).

I think, these days, fans of the show are thinking of this 1969 episode where Mr. Rogers and François Clemmons (as his character “Officer Clemmons”) put their feet in the same wading pool. Lest this seem a small gesture, remember that U.S. public pools were segregated and, when forced to integrate, many cities simply withdrew funding from their public pools. This is one reason why far fewer African Americans know how to swim today.

Another reason I recorded this song is that, during this time of quarantine, I have seen far more of my own neighborhood than I usually do. Nearly every evening for the past 94 days, I have taken a walk through my neighborhood — and surrounding neighborhoods. I think many of us are seeing more of our neighbors these days. At present, these past three months mark the longest period of time I’ve been at home since April 2017. When I reach four months of quarantine, that will mark the longest period I’ve been at home for at least ten years.

Here’s Fred Rogers himself, performing the theme, from later in the run of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I say “later in the run” of the show because my personal memory of the theme brings to mind a younger Mr. Rogers, from the early 1970s. And that brings me to a third reason for choosing this song: like “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (the third in this Plague Songs series), “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a song my mother still remembers. If I start singing it, she will sing along and will recall at least some of the lyrics. When I played it for her on Sunday (via Skype), she sang some of the beginning with me, and smiled. These days, songs from her childhood and my childhood yield the strongest spark of recognition.

A fourth reason (and, yes, I’ll stop after #4) for this song is that singing it makes me happy. Though I only started learning it on Friday (guided by this excellent video tutorial), I was not at all anxious about having a passable version for my Monday morning recording. I found the C dim 7 chord a bit tricky — I land on it well about 50% of the time, and not in the above video. But playing the song puts me in Fred Rogers’ headspace — a loving, patient, and forgiving place. He would be glad that I was enjoying his song, and would not mind if I strummed the C dim 7 chord slightly late.

I hope you enjoyed hearing this song as much as I enjoyed playing it for you.

Friends and neighbors, are you seeking a #PlagueSong to perform? Check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome!

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This is the time. #PlagueSongs, no. 13.

For my first punk “plague song,” here’s “There Is No Time,” from Lou Reed, one of the godfathers of punk. I chose it because it’s an urgent call to action.

The song is two decades and many musical experiments after his Velvet Underground days, where he explores some of the sonic territory later embraced by punk. But New York (1989) — the album on which this song appears — is a lean, powerful rock record. And this track is its most punk. In some ways, it’s more early Clash or Ramones than it is VU.

I identify with its urgency, its directness, and its capacity to surprise. I mean, it’s in the form of a manifesto (another reason I like it), but — despite the claim that “This is no time for learned speech” — it has lines like “This is no time for circumlocution.” But also lines like these: “This is no time to swallow anger. / This is no time to ignore hate.” And “This is a time for action / Because the future’s within reach.”

Doing Lou Reed’s Sprechstimme without a microphone was … not entirely successful. When I sing, my voice carries above the sound of the guitar. But playing loud punky guitar without amplifying my speak-singing means you have to listen a bit more closely. In the video, you see less of the guitar and more of my head because I’m trying to get my mouth closer to my iPhone’s microphone. As I say, not as effective as I’d hoped.

Apart from the inadequate amplification, it’s a fun song to play — exactly five chords that repeat in the same order (chorus included!). The main challenge here was getting the lyrics in the right order. They’re memorable, but figuring out their internal logic — why the “no time for private vendettas” verse might follow the “no time to swallow anger” verse — was my challenge.

Reed’s original is easily one of my top five Lou Reed songs — which is saying something, given that he wrote “Sweet Jane,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Satellite of Love,” and “Turning Time Around.” Anyway. Here’s the late Mr. Reed himself, backed by Mike Rathke on guitar, Rob Wasserman on upright electric bass, and Fred Maher on drums.

Looking for a #PlagueSong to perform? Check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome!

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Love. #PlagueSongs, no. 12

It’s hard to know what to say that I haven’t already said or that someone else hasn’t already said better. And as for continuing this series of Plague Songs,… what to sing this week? My repertoire is limited, but I’ve tried to choose something apt for the current moment.

There are actually four songs in there. The two main ones are the O’Jays’ “Love Train” (1972), written by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, and Brinsley Schwarz’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding” (1974), written by Nick Lowe and made famous by Elvis Costello (1978). The very end is of course from the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” (1967). I’ve also interpolated a little bit of the gospel song “This Train” (popularized by Sister Rosetta Tharpe), altering the lyrics slightly. Keb’ Mo’s cover of “Love Train” alerted me to its allusion to “This Train,” and so credit to him for that insight and inspiration.

Looking to help?

As I say at the end of the video, love requires action. So, if you’re looking to help, here are some resources.

Here in Manhattan, Kansas, I’ll be attending the Protest at Triangle Park tonight (Tuesday, June 2nd) at 6:30 pm. If you’re local, I’ll see you there — well, as best I can. (We’ll be doing our best to socially-distance.) If you’re not local, seek the protest in your area or organize one of your own. Black lives matter. Fight fascism. Fight for justice. But please be careful out there.

This post is also part of the “Plague Songs” series, and so I’ll reproduce all of that information below.

Looking for a #PlagueSong to perform? Check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

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