Archive for Plague Songs

Kick at the darkness. #PlagueSongs, no. 7

This week, a song from a different dangerous time that speaks eloquently to our present one.

“Lovers in a Dangerous Time” is one of two hits from Bruce Cockburn’s Stealing Fire (1984). The other is “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” “Lovers…” was the bigger hit in his native Canada, and “… Rocket Launcher” was the hit in the U.S. But “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” is one of Cockburn’s best-known songs. Barneaked Ladies’ 1991 cover of the song was the band’s first hit — #16 on the Canadian charts. U2 quotes the “kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight” lyric in “God Part II.” My own cover (such as it is) owes more to Cockburn’s acoustic version from Columbia Records Radio Hour, Vol. 1 (1995) than to the delightfully 1980s Stealing Fire version.

The 1984 music video, which is… very 1984.

Beautiful live acoustic performance from 2011.

Music video for Barenaked Ladies’ 1991 cover.

If you’re 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, too!


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Be an optimist instead. #PlagueSongs, no. 6

The final song on the Kinks’ Give the People What They Want (1981) is also one of the most hopeful songs in the band’s oeuvre. It has long been a favorite of mine, but I only just learned it for this Plague Songs series.

Unlike previous entries in this series, I had to record this on my iPhone. When using iMovie, either it froze/crashed … or the performer failed. So, that’s why the look and sound here is very slightly different than previous Plague Songs.

Would you like to hear a better version of the song? Of course you would! Here’s the Kinks’ original.

Here’s a great cover by Dar Williams from 1997.

Here’s Fountains of Wayne’s 2001 cover, introduced by Conan O’Brien in 2020, following the death of Adam Schlesinger (from COVID-19) on the first of this month.

And Pearl Jam!

Here’s a live Pearl Jam version, in which Eddie Vedder misses a few lyrics — but, hey, everyone’s enjoying themselves… and isn’t that what “Better Things” is all about?

BONUS this week! The Munich Blue Notes perform — in quarantine, from their home offices — Enya’s “May It Be.”


If you’re seeking a #PlagueSong to perform, check out this ever-expanding playlist. But, of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!


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There doesn’t seem to be anyone around. #PlagueSongs, no. 5

🤦🏼‍♂️ After last week’s #EpicSkaFail (my apologies to music-lovers everywhere), I’ve chosen a song that I can perform adequately.

Composed by Ritchie Cordell, “I Think We’re Alone Now” was a big hit for Tommy James and the Shondells in 1967.

The song was again a major hit for Tiffany in 1987 — the singer’s biggest hit, in fact.

I’m more partial to the Tommy James version, but Tiffany’s has its fans. And these are just the best-known versions. Lene Lovich did a cool new-wave cover in 1978.

There’s also the Rubinoos’ 1977 power-pop version, Snuff’s 1989 punk cover, and Girls Aloud’s 2006 slick pop performance, among others.

Beyond offering you the silliness of a middle-aged man singing a teen anthem, I chose this song to remind you that you are not alone. We may be physically separate, but we can still be together — via phone, video-call, texting, emails, physical mail, or even by talking to a friend or neighbor from a safe distance. Chat from the balcony of your apartment building, or across the fence, or when you see them out walking. There doesn’t seem to be anyone around. But we can be — and are — still here for one another.

If you’re seeking a #PlagueSong to perform, I invite you to check out this ever-expanding playlist. But, of course, you may well have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!


BONUS! Below is my personal mix of happy songs — the playlist that I turn to for cheery music. Many genres, and (as per my mix-making rules) only one song per artist. As of this writing, there are 116 songs and over 6 hours of music, including: The Muppets, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Eat World, Digable Planets, They Might Be Giants, P.O.S., R.E.M., Das EFX, Mavis Staples, Curtis Mayfield, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ennio Morricone, Ramones, Nina Simone, Paul Simon, the Clash, Beastie Boys, the Beatles, Blackalicious, Groucho Marx, Vince Guaraldi, Chet Baker, Robert Preston, Aretha Franklin, the Isley Brothers, the Mills Brothers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Lizzo, Metric, Dick Dale, Jack White, Big Audio Dynamite, Pizzicato Five, Jurassic 5, the Jackson 5, the O’Jays, the Dixie Cups, Barenaked Ladies, Billie Holiday, Maurice Chevalier, Bruce Cockburn, Fats Waller, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Toots & The Maytals, Sly & The Family Stone, David Bowie and Queen.


🥳 Incidentally, today is my one-month quaranniversary. I started quarantining on March 14th. So, happy quaranniversary to me, happy quaranniversary to me… 🎶


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The Bright Side. #PlagueSongs, no. 3

This week’s #PlagueSong is dedicated to my mother, Gloria Hardman. This is her favorite song, her motto, and very good advice.

The song is funnier when sung as Eric Idle’s “Mr. Cheeky” character (as it is in The Life of Brian). I suspect the song’s mixture of irony and sincerity is one reason it resonates with my mother, with me, and with so many others. Dark humor leavens its “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” optimism and makes that optimism somehow more plausible.

That said, in my performance (such as it is), I lean more into the song’s sincerity. When my mother sings it these days, she too draws more on its hopefulness than its irony. Indeed, she really only recalls the chorus.

Edward Lear, “The Owl and the Pussycat”
(from Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets, 1871)

Poetry she heard as a child (Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”) and some songs — from her childhood, my childhood, and the life she lived in between — are most likely to elicit a spark of recognition. So, when I visited her earlier this month (during the week of Spring Break), I signed her up for Spotify, and made her a playlist of songs she still “knows” — evident via a reference either to just the chorus, or to some other lyric.

For example, when I’m about to take her for a walk, I’ll say, “Let’s grab your coat, and get your hat.” She replies, “Leave your worries on the doorstep.” Then we sing a bit of “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” But Mom knows the lyrics to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the best: during my last visit, after we had sung it a few times together, she managed a rendition unaccompanied.

I chose “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” because it’s her favorite, because I don’t know when I will see her again, and because I wanted her to have a recording of me singing this song to her. At any time, one of the good healthcare workers at the “Memory Care” facility where she lives can pull up this YouTube video and press play. Though Mom once programmed computers and taught students and faculty how to use theirs, she cannot now operate the computer in her room. For that matter, she cannot find it.

Gloria Hardman and her son, Philip Nel.  Concord, Mass.  9 March 2020.
Mom and me. Concord, Mass., USA. 9 March 2020.

Shortly after my visit began earlier this month, The Commons — the Massachusetts retirement community where she lives — went into lockdown. I could continue visiting only because I was staying in a guest room on site. As of March 10, everything was cancelled: all family visits, all trips off campus, all events, all tours (for prospective residents and prospective employees). Since I left on March 13, no other family member has been allowed in to The Commons. Mom and I still chat via Skype at least once a week — I have set up my computer to mirror hers so that I can answer the Skype on her end. But, like many people with elderly relatives, I do not know when I will be able to visit again.

That is one reason I say “I don’t know when I will see her again.” Another reason is that she is receding further into the fog of Alzheimer’s. During this visit, she recognized me about 80% of the time. Will she know me when next I see her? Possibly. Possibly not.

Although I could write other, darker paragraphs on the subject of “I don’t know when I will see her again,” context already implies these paragraphs and so they can remain, for now, implicit.

More important is that she is and has been The World’s Greatest Mother. Truly, when it comes to mothers, my sister Linda and I won the lottery. (Yes, exactly — who knew there was a Mother Lottery? We don’t even remember buying a ticket! And yet, here we are. Remarkable.) Most important of all, Mom knows we love her, we know she loves us, and her love is with us even when she is not.

And so. We look on the bright side of life. We also look on the bright side of death — as per the song’s third verse…. And we sing songs via Skype.

Will you sing this one with us?


If you’re interested in performing a #PlagueSong, but lack ideas for which one, I invite you to check out this ever-expanding playlist!


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Do Not Touch Your Face. #PlagueSongs, no. 2

Welcome to the second in my series of #PlagueSongs! As I say in my inaugural #PlagueSongs post,

Each Tuesday, I will post a video of me performing a “plague-themed” song, very broadly defined. It is my way of standing on my balcony and singing to you…. I am also inviting you to sing and post yourself singing whatever songs are keeping you going these days. I’ve deliberately defined “plague-themed” very broadly — this can truly be any song that is sustaining you.

In this week’s, I perform an international pop hit from 5 years ago that offers some excellent advice for life in the age of corona. Apologies in advance for my falsetto because no, you will not be able to unhear it.

The keen observers among you will notice that I do adjust my glasses near the end there — a near-miss that is common for the bespectacled. But I do not touch my face. And you should try to avoid touching yours.

It’s hard! I know. But perhaps the plaintive screech of my falsetto will help this stay in your mind. Or, better, check out The Weeknd’s version.

And… have any of you recorded Plague Songs of your own? Emily Wishneusky Petermann has recorded one, which she has posted to Facebook. Enjoy!

Looking for suggestions of what to sing or play? Perhaps you’ll find ideas on my COVID-19: A Coronavirus Pandemic Playlist 🎵💃🦠🕺🎶

Take care of yourselves. Take care of each other.

And stop touching your face already.


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Sing. Sing a Song. #PlagueSongs, no. 1

Inspired by videos of Italians singing to or playing music for each other, I am starting a new feature on this blog: #PlagueSongs

Each Tuesday, I will post a video of me performing a “plague-themed” song, very broadly defined. It is my way of standing on my balcony and singing to you. Since I do not have a balcony and you may be anywhere in the world, I am doing this via YouTube, and will be sharing via this blog, Twitter (@philnel) and Instagram (@thephilnel). I will be tagging them all #PlagueSongs.

I am also inviting you to sing and post yourself singing whatever songs are keeping you going these days. I’ve deliberately defined “plague-themed” very broadly — this can truly be any song that is sustaining you. Sing with those you’re quarantining with. (Do NOT go and find people to sing with.) Sing a cappella. Or sing with instrumentation. But do sing.

When we sing to each other, we offer hope. We have fun. We come together, even though we cannot be with one another. We affirm our bond to each other. Because we will need each other to get through these many months of quarantine, overwhelmed health care systems (such as in Italy and the U.S.), a collapsing global economy, and whatever other challenges we face.

So. Here I am, singing to you. Will you sing to me?

As the above makes evident, I am not a professional musician. Indeed, I chose Gloria Gaynor’s disco classic in part because it must be sung with enthusiasm, and in part because it was definitely not written to be performed on acoustic guitar. I knew I would look a little ridiculous.

Indeed, I hope I look a little ridiculous. I figure that you could probably use a laugh right now.

So, pull out your trombone, sidle up to the piano, pick up the banjo, dust off your flute, or just open your mouth in song.

Looking for suggestions of what to sing or play? Perhaps I can help. I’ve been assembling COVID-19: A Coronavirus Pandemic Playlist 🎵💃🦠🕺🎶

Because, yes, we are in a plague year — an older term for what we might now call a time of pandemic (or, to borrow a hashtag from Twitter yesterday, #coronapocalypse). And, in a plague year, daily life is different.  But remember that humankind has faced plague years before. As people have done in the past, we too will persist.  We will carry on.  We will do the best we can.  Because that is what we do.

And, to sustain our spirits during this plague year, let us make music together — even if we must be physically apart. We will survive! (Sing it! We will survive!)

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