Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Great Albums: I Am The Sea; Listening To Quadrophenia

First off, when discussing this monumental achievment, there are many who don't consider "Quadrophenia" even the best Who album ever. Now, I must emphasize that I claim this as my personal favorite album of all time, a very subjective view that does not try and make a case for this double album as the most significant pop recording ever made. The populist, conventional choice for best Who record is "Who's Next", the 1971 collection that was salvaged from the "Lifehouse" project. It is unarguably a masterful bunch of songs and contains some of their most popular tracks ever. 1969's "Tommy" is embraced by many a critic as the definitive concept album. This is the record that really put The Who on the map on an international scale. Its allegorical story of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a cult leader until he is turned on and deposed is very prescient for its time of the late 60's and all the gurus and cults that were arising. It is also an album whose narrative can be a bit confusing and whose production could have been better. The mid-60s era rock fan and the choice of many a hipster is 1967's "The Who Sell Out", a concept record in the presentation of songs linked by radio commercials both real and fake ones recorded by the band. It is also a brilliant work.

"Quadrophenia" was released in October 1973 and rose to number 2 in both the UK and US. It was the first album by the Who since "Who's Next" and was highly anticipated. It was produced by Pete Townshend, with the mighty Glynn Johns listed as Associate Producer and Engineer. It is a concept record, another "Rock Opera" in the vein of "Tommy" or the abandoned "Lifehouse".

It is worth noting that "Quadrophenia" was seen as something of a disappointment back when it was released. England was in the throes of the glam rock explosion and this exploration of a youth culture now at least 6 or 7 years dead was seen as not particularly relevant. American audiences found it even more puzzling, the specific Englishness of the work was lost on many of the Who's now mass audience who just wanted to hear more about this "Teenage Wasteland". Actually, if they had been more open-minded to the project, they would have heard a story that related to them just as much as it did to a disaffected teen from Shepherd's Bush, West London. Nevertheless, the album did not shift the units that "Who's Next" did. To add insult to injury, the Who embarked on an ill-fated tour in which they attempted to play the album in something approaching its entirety, but due to the necessity of relying on analog backing tapes to replicate the complex instrumentation of the album, the tour was DOA. They played a handful of shows in which the backing tapes malfunctioned and they soon abandoned playing anything more but a handful of tracks from their latest masterwork.

The album tells the tale of Jimmy Cooper, a teenage mod who lives in London, circa 1964 or 5. Townshend wanted to write another concept record that dealt with The Who's early fans, the mods. This protagonist was given the affliction of having a multiple personality disorder and each personality would be represented by a musical theme and each theme also represents a member of the band. 'Bell Boy' is Keith Moon, 'Helpless Dancer' is Roger Daltrey, 'Is It Me' is John Entwhistle, and 'Love Regin O'er Me' is Pete Townshend. All four of these themes are weaved in and out of various songs on the record. Townshend also had the bright idea of extending this idea of Quads a bit further and recorded the album in the fleeting trend of quadrophonic sound, sort of a 5.1 concept for the early 70's. I have always thought the title character only thought he had multiple personalities, seeing as he represents every confused teen. I am more inclined to think that it is, as suggested by another song on the album, 'Is It In My Head?', that his personality crisis is an imaginary one.

Side One

1) I Am The Sea: The track begins with the sound of waves crashing against the shore and the wind howling. Very moody stuff, kids. We hear snatches of the four themes as they drift in and out of the mix. We hear mournful piano chords. We hear...a cat's meow? What is a cat doing on the beach? Anyway, this is the perfect setting to begin the album's journey. One could say that it is beginning at the end. All of a sudden we hear a very distinctive Daltery vocal, "Can you see the real me? Can ya?"

2) The Real Me: Bang! We are off into the album proper as this loud, crunching rocker introduces our main protagonist and presents his general state of mind. He goes to his doctor, his mother and his preacher trying to get answers to why he feels the way he does. He says to his mother, "I'm crazy ma, help me". Her only reply is "I know how it feels son, 'cos it runs in the family." Later in the lyrics we discover that the girl he used to love is now ignoring him and "doesn't want to know me now." Yes, young Jim is pretty messed up. He keeps asking "Can you see the real me?" This is a prototypical teenager who is in doubt about his true self and identity. And yes, this album is going to be one raging ride into teen angst of the highest order.

Meanwhile the music that sets the template for this album is muscular 70's hard rock, the kind that has nothing in common with the 60's R&B that mods worshipped,but is certainly an extension of the sound the band was honing post "Tommy". Crash chords from Pete's guitar, thundering drum rolls from Keith, and John's stunning and melodic bass work will set the tone for all the rockers on the album. Many tracks will also include brass parts dubbed by Entwhistle. The Who were probably at the top of their game for this album.

3) Quadrophenia: This is an instrumental that incorporates the four main themes. This and the 'The Rock' were reportedly the most difficult things the band has ever attempted in their quasi-classical complexity. There are beautiful, clean guitar solos and orchestral synthesiser swells that really draw you into the (melo) drama of the piece.

4) Cut My Hair: Very expositional song that describes Jimmy's day-to-day existence. It is a quiet song,sung by Pete and tells of how Jimmy feels he must "move with the fashions or be outcast". It is certainly the eternal dilemma of a teen wanting to fit in and thinking he has to conform to exactly what other kids are doing to achieve it. This song goes a long way to articulating the universality of the Jimmy character. It doesn't matter that he is a mod in mid-60s Britain. His story is the story of millions of teenagers since and to be. Jimmy says he is "still living at home,even though it won't last." The mid-section of the song has Daltrey and band kicking in as Jimmy fantasizes about looking like the perfect mod and achieving a sense of belonging and freedom--

"Zoot suit, white jackets with side vents, five inches long (Who as the High Numbers song reference)

I'm out on the street again, and I'm leaping (reference to speed or "leapers", by the way) along

I'm dressed right for beach fight, but I just can't explain (Who song reference)

Why that uncertain feeling is still here in my brain"

That uncertain feeling is his doubts that he can be that cool and fit in, and perhaps he is wondering if this is something worthwhile to begin with. Jimmy, even at this stage, has the makings of a free thinker and individualist. Another narrative link is introduced as we hear a radio report at the tail end of the song that talks of gangs of mods and rockers rioting at the seaside resort town of Brighton. The Jimmy monologue included in the booklet to the album states that Jimmy is supposedly a participant in the disturbances.

One of the brilliant touches on this album is the extensive use of sound effects to convey certain moods and plot points. The BBC radio report is just one such example. I also love the concluding verse with it's "I'm coming down, got home on the very first train from fried egg makes me sick first thing in the morning."

5) Punk and the Godfather (US title, Punk Meets the Godfather): This is a somewhat confusing song to follow, but it is supposed to be about Jimmy waiting to meet the leader of his favorite band (Pete? The Who?) and being thoroughly disappointed that they don't live up to his expectations. The song quotes "My Generation". One confusing element of the song is that it is supposed to be a dialogue between Jimmy (the punk) and the rock star (the godfather), yet both parts are sung by Daltrey. This is now more cleared up since I have the lyrics in the booklet. This also a story of one kid's gradual disillusionment with all the things he believed in and held dear. Finding out his favorite rock band are not heroes but real people who cannot help him either is one of these.

Side Two

1) I'm One: We gently land on side two and witness Jimmy sulk and feel sorry for himself. Pete handles the vocal and plays acoustic guitar.

" I'm a loser, no chance to win

Leaves start falling, comedown is calling

Loneliness starts sinking in"

He then starts to feel a resilience (or is it bitter resolve) to, you know, show em'

"But I'm One, I'm One.

And I can see that this is me

And I will be, you'll all see I'm the One"

It is either a determination to become something or at least a declaration that he is an individual.

The full band crashes in and Jimmy then reverts to worrying about fitting in.

"Where do you get those blue blue jeans

Faded patch secret so tight

Where do you get that walk oh so lean

Your shoes and yer shirts all just right"

He later laments that he, on the other hand, has "ill fitting clothes and I blend in the crowd, fingers so clumsy, voice too loud." Our protagonist seems uncertain what he wants. To be simultaneously part of the crowd yet separate from it?

2) The Dirty Jobs: This song is supposed to be about Jimmy's humiliating job as a "dustman" or janitor. He is getting "put down and pushed round". It also details other working men's grim tasks. This song, as well as the next one, I always felt were minor songs that almost don't seem to belong to this piece, like perhaps Pete wrote them separately and then decided to incorporate them into the story.

One misheard lyric now corrected with the help of my lyric sheet:

Actual lyric: "My karma tells me, you've been screwed again"

I heard: "My father tells me, you've missed school again"

I think mine was more relevant to me at the time.

3) Helpless Dancer: The most theatrical number on the album and also the least compelling. This is supposedly Roger's theme and it is a song that is supposed to illustrate Jimmy's social conscience. Like I said about the last song, it seems out of place and superfluous to the story.

4) Is It In My Head?: Another more low key number where Jimmy is in a reflective mood. Song about uncertainty regarding his mental state. "Is it in my head?" he asks over and over. There is also intimations of possibly drug fueled dislocation and paranoia, "I feel I'm being followed, my head is empty". Young Jim is starting to crack and this reveals itself on the next song.

5) I've Had Enough: One of the key, epic rockers on the album and a welcome relief after a side of low key-ness and at times unfocused narrative. This is the track where Jimmy loses it and articulates his contempt for everything and his desire to escape and return to his glorious days as a mod.

Its opening salvo is:

"You were under the impression, that when you were walking forwards

You'd end up further onward, but things ain't quite that simple"

Jimmy concludes that he has been under the mistaken impression that hard work and forward progress would actually get you somewhere.

He then begins to fantasize about having the mod identity again. This idea of obtaining identity through conformity. It is a romanticized vision.

"My jacket's gonna be cut slim and checked

Maybe a touch of seersucker and and open neck

I ride a GS scooter with my hair cut neat

I wear my war time coat in the wind and sleet"

We then hear a recurrence of the "Love Reign O'er Me" theme/refrain. Next is a break down section, underscored by a killer banjo part from Pete, where Jimmy goes about rejecting everything in his life.

"I've had enough"

and then

"I've had enough halls...pills...street fights...fashions"

He then concludes with the line "I'm bored with hate and passion, I've had enough of trying to love". This last word is shouted and gradually fades away as if Jimmy has jumped off a building. This is followed by a police siren and the cheers of a football crowd. I always thought that last word was "cope" not "love". I stand corrected again.

According to Townshend this song is supposed to represent Jimmy's rejection of his current reality. He breaks up with his girlfriend, accidentally destroys his scooter and makes the decision to hop on the train to Brighton to recapture the glory he had with his friends fighting rockers on the holiday weekend we hear about on the radio at the end of "Cut My Hair".

Side Three

1) 5:15: The second half of the album all takes place on Jimmy's ill-fated return trip to Brighton. "5:15" details pilled up Jimmy's train ride from London to Brighton. This is one of the more well known songs from the album and one of the most direct and rocking. Song is punctuated with multiple brass overdubs from Entwhistle.

"Inside, outside, leave me alone

Inside, outside, nowhere is home

Inside, outside, where have I been?

Out of my brain on the 5:15"

Fairly explanatory.

2) Sea and Sand: Jimmy returns to the beach at Brighton and tries to relive the most recent past. Only now he is alone and those glory days seem an eternity away.This is another great exposition song and an overlooked gem.

" They finally threw me out, my mom got drunk on stout

My dad couldn't stand on two feet, as he lectured about morality"

Jimmy fantasizes about being with his girlfriend just a few weeks earlier. Now everything has changed and he is on his own.

"I'm wet and I'm cold, but thank god I ain't old"

"Nothing is planned by the sea and the sand"

The High Numbers (early Who) song "I'm the Face" is quoted on the fade out.

3) Drowned: Townshend refers to this as being a stand alone track, very spiritual in nature. The ocean is a metaphor for God and all of us are just drops in his ocean.

I must take time out to mention the spectacular piano playing on this track and throughout the album by Chris Stainton, ex-member of Joe Cocker's Grease Band. I always thought it was Pete playing or maybe that session mainstay Nicky Hopkins, but it is Stainton who handles the tricky keys work here.

This song is Jimmy desiring a spiritual release or redemption via the ocean, which may also be interpreted as a highly romanticized death wish.

It is a spectacular number that just bursts with joy and instrumental improvisation.

4) Bell Boy: Jimmy sees Ace Face, his mod leader hero from the mods/rockers battle and it turns out he is a bell hop at the same seaside hotel that the mods wrecked a few weeks back. Far from being the enviable and liberated star of the mod scene, this guy has a menial job where he rather meekly says "I wander in early to work, spend my days licking boots for my perks." This song is a "vocal showcase" for Keith Moon who, similar to his turn as Uncle Ernie in "Tommy", now takes on the role of the Ace Face/Bell Boy, and gives it his cock-er-ney best, singing lines like "I gotta get runnin' now! Keep the lip button down! Carry the bloody baggage out! Always runnin' at someone's bleedin' heel!" This is a brilliant and unforgettable use of Keith's outsized personality in service of the story.

This song wonderfully conveys how one can idealize people we hardly know and then one day we discover they are far from the exalted heroes we imagined. Another of Jimmy's illusions is smashed.

Side Four

1) Dr. Jimmy: Begins with storm noises, including thunder and lightning.

Pete Townshend says: " Dr. Jimmy was meant to be a song which somehow gets across the explosive, abandoned wildness side of his character. Like a bull run amok in a china shop. He's damaging himself so badly that he can get to the point where he is so desperate that he'll take a closer look at himself.

One can infer from this song that Jimmy gets extremely drunk and his thoughts and judgement run wild and completely out of control. " Doctor Jimmy and Mister Jim" is the Jekyll and Hyde that drunks can become.

The "Is It Me" theme is repeated in this song. Jimmy is still trying to figure out who he is, questioning if this "Dr. Jimmy" persona really is him.

2) The Rock: Supposedly meant to convey Jimmy stealing a boat and riding it out to sea only to stop off at a huge rock in the ocean and then have the boat drift away, stranding him.

It is another complex instrumental piece which again introduces the four main themes.

The rock is a very obvious metaphor for Jimmy's emotional isolation and alienation from the rest of the world.

3) Love Reign O'er Me: Thematically similar to "Drowned" in its use of water as a metaphor representing God or at least some spiritual infiniteness that the protagonist is seeking or desiring to "get back to" or surrender to.

Epic power ballad with Roger Daltrey at the top of his game--shouting, bellowing his desire, no, his insistence, that love (spiritual, God's love) wash down upon him and envelop him. Song ends with the simultaneous sounds of both waves crashing and instruments, particularly Moon's drums, crashing down and bringing this 82 minute drama to an appropriate climax.

So concludes this mammoth record. Hearing it for the first time in a few years I am immediately transported into that world of Jimmy's. It is a small story really, told on an epic scale. How appropriate that the story of a troubled teen would be given such a large canvass. Teens have a heightend sense of drama about their own lives and feelings. They have a level of self-involvement that can magnify things to the level of the operatic. It is also so brilliantly executed at every level. It certainly is the the ultimate teen angst tale. I have not been a teen in a long time, but the album still resonates with me in many ways. The story is no longer relevant to me, but the emotional core of songs like "Drowned" and "Love Reign O'er Me" still do. And by the way, it rocks like hell. It is an album that I am sure will continue to be discovered by new generations of teens due to the fact the feelings and scenarios are universal and eternal.

Pete Townshend states that it is The Who's "towering achievement". I certainly wouldn't disagree. Is this still my all-time favorite album, even after all this time and all the twists and turns my life has taken autobiographically as well as taste-wise? Well, this album is of epic length, a cohesive piece and just about every song is brilliant. It is truly an album, in that it is designed to be listened to from start-to-finish in one sitting and the songs all go together in the order they have been sequenced and could not be altered. To this day I cannot listen to this album any other way.They say that the album as an art form is dying, that we are now living in the ala carte era of tracks that we consume in small bites along with other, often wildly disparate songs, by other artists in other genres. "Quadrophenia" is a testament to the power of the album. For that and for the fact I can't think of any other record that has come close to surpassing it in my own personal experiences, it still remains my personal number one.

-- JBC-15, Scratches & Skips

Monday, July 27, 2009

Song of the Week: "Summertime", Billie Holiday

And so Summer ends. Or maybe I should say our week long tribute to the George Gershwin song, Summertime, ends. Billie Holiday recorded her surprisingly perky version of the song for Columbia Records in 1936, as the opera for which the song was composed, Porgy and Bess, was still in first run. It is arguably Holiday's hit version of the song that propelled the number to a wider pop stardom. Her recording includes the work of Bunny Berigan on trumpet, the well known Artie Shaw on clarinet, Joe Bushkin at the piano, Dick McDonough strumming on guitar, Pete Peterson at bass and Cozy Cole behind the drums. Click here to listen to Holiday's classic version.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Song of the Week: "Summertime", The Chet Baker Quartet

Day six of our celebration of the song, Summertime, has us looking at Chet Baker's 1955 recording of the song. The trumpet-centric version of the song is a cool little number with an arrangement to include a nice walking bass line and a surprisingly upbeat drum beat. Enjoy on this lazy Summer Sunday. Click here to hear Chet Baker's version of Summertime.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Song of the Week: "Summertime", Big Brother & the Holding Company

Here is one of the better known versions of Summertime. It's by Big Brother & the Holding Company, which, fairly or unfairly, was seen as little more than a backing band for Janis Joplin. Recorded live at the famous Winterland Theater in San Francisco in April of 1968, the rendition showcases the famously unrestrained band in glorious restraint. The original middle eastern inflected dueling-guitar work arrangement of Peter Albin and Sam Andrew provides the central hook in the song. Janis is sublime in her tasteful performance, allowing -- too rarely for this listener -- the intrinsic beauty of her gravely voice to carry the load. Click here to here Big Brother's unique take on Summertime.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Song of the Week: "Summertime", Gene Vincent

And now for something completely different. Here is perhaps the most unique arrangement of Summertime I have ever heard. And considering the Billy Stewart scat-version posted just two days ago, that is really something. It's by rockabilly legend Gene Vincent and it was released on the album A Gene Vincent Record Date in 1958. (Me thinks Vincent did NOT choose the name on the album). I'm not even sure what genre or style this would be? It's not rockabilly is it? Rumba with Jazz influences? All I know is that it is an absolutely fab version of the song that owes parentage to know one but Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps. Guitarist Johnny Meeks -- who spent a career being referred to as the lesser guitarist in the Blue Caps (to guitar recluse Cliff Gallup) -- is absolutely brilliant here on his out-of-phase Telecaster. Meeks' guitar work is a constant shiv to the ear and it gets a well deserved lead in the middle, the highlight of which is the single note stutter stop in the middle right before he switches pickups. Listen for the second guitar on this. It's got a cool little budda-dump-bum-bum-bump-dee-dum-dum riff played throughout that is buried deep into the mix. It can be heard best in the background during the guitar lead. Rumor has it that Eddie Cochran played on some tracks of this album. Could that be him on second guitar? The piano work, which also gets a nice little lead, is spritely and tips its hat to jazz influences. The drumming propels the song along with a wicked little Caribbean backbeat. Back up vocals (done perhaps by the Jordanaires) give a creamy smooth feel to the song. And Gene Vincent himself, drenched in echo -- croons through the song with complete confidence. Bottom line -- this is not the dark brooding version done by so many others (see the Zombies' take on Summertime). I absolutely love this version of the song and am willing to bet that you will too. Click here to listen to Gene Vincent's radical take on Summertime. Until tomorrow, enjoy your Summertime.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Song of the Week: "Summertime", Wayne Hancock

It's still Summertime! Today we turn our attention to a version of the song as recorded live in 2003 at the Continental Club in Austin, Texas by Wayne "The Train" Hancock. Astute followers of On The Flip-Side will remember that Hancock got some action from us back in the nascent days of our existence with his original song, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs. Hancock's version of Summertime was recorded at the same time as Thunderstorms and appeared on the same album, but as an unlisted hidden track. It closes out the flawless live album, Swing Time, and features a vocal duet with Hancock's sister, Rebecca Snow. It's an interesting mix of vocal jazz and traditional honky tonk. The genre mixing by Hancock's band again proves the structural integrity of Gershwin's composition. From horns to pedal steel to breathy jazz vocals to hard core honky tonk vocals. It's a great mix. Click here to hear Hancock's live version of Summertime. We'll be back tomorrow with another version of Summertime. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Song of the Week: "Summertime", Billy Stewart

Today's look at George Gershwin's Summertime has us digging up one of the most unique takes on the classic song. It hails from 1966 and appeared on the blues label, Chess Records. It's by scat-soul singer and all around unique showman, Billy Stewart. Two versions of this song were released. A single, which became a minor hit, and this version, the longer album version. This longer version includes more scat, more sax and more crispy good Summertime love. Click here to listen to Billy Stewart's remarkable take on Summertime. We'll see you tomorrow with another very different version of the song. Until then, cheers.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Song of the Week: "Summertime", Santo and Johnny

Listen - Santo and Johnny perform Summertime.

Today's look at Summertime has us focusing on an instrumental version of the classic as performed by Manhattan-based brothers, Santo and Johnny. The two Farina brothers are unquestionably best known for their indispensable composition, Sleep Walk, a song that can make a strong argument for being the progenitor for surf music. Following the unlikely success of Sleep Walk, Santo and Johnny released Summertime as the flip-side of their next single, the foot stomping Caravan. The Farina brothers' arrangement of Summertime is centered around the slow, jazzy chord structure of the arch-top guitar and a piercing lead performed on the lap steel guitar. A simple string arrangement briefly ads to the patina of the all-too-short song. But it is the molasses-in-winter slow leads on the lap steel that make the instrumental take on Summertime so compelling. Chiming with the reverb drenched sound first laid down in Sleep Walk, the brothers make another dreamy AM radio classic. A song that would have been the perfect sound track for a hot summer night's make out session performed in the back of dad's Oldsmobile while parked at Inspiration Point overlooking Wenatchie Lake. Click here to hear Santo and Johnny's version of Summertime. We'll check back in tomorrow for another version of Summertime. Until then, enjoy.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Song of the Week: "Summertime", The Zombies

Today we start a week long salute to one of the greatest songs ever written. The song is Summertime and was penned by George Gershwin in 1935 for the musical, Porgy and Bess. Some songs are brilliant because of the performance, but not necessarily the intrinsic nature of the composition. See MC5's Kick Out the Jams video diary entry directly preceding this post as an example. Other songs are so perfectly composed that it is nearly impossible for anyone to do a bad version of it. Summertime, I would argue, falls into this latter category. In celebration of Summertime (and Summer), we will post a new version of the song each day this week. Upbeat, sorrowful, latin, soul, jazz, rock and country. We may just explore them all.

Today we start things off with the criminally underrated British Invasion band, The Zombies. Their version is pretty straightforward. Slow and brooding, the moody nature of the song is first tipped by the bass work of Chris White who gives us the first melodic hint as to what song we are enjoying. Then the beautiful, breathy voice of Colin Blunstone comes in. Blunstone, perhaps best known for voicing the band's hit, Time of the Season, sings Summertime with a sultry heat that would fit well into any Tennessee Williams play. Rod Argent's electric piano punctuates our song and the three front men harmonize with a gentle ghostly feel to it. Click here to hear the Zombies version of Summertime.

We'll see you tomorrow with another version of the song.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Video Diary: MC5, "Kick Out The Jams"

My buddy Greg Baxter turned me on to Kick Out The Jams some 22 years ago. This performance by the Detroit based MC5 was filmed in 1970 and, after almost 40 years, it still kicks out the jams mother f*****s!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Busker Days: 'Eyes of the Tiger, Tears of the Harlequin" Khevan Lennon-Onaje

Here's someone I've heard many times over the last few years at street level in the early morning hours.  His name is Khevan Lennon-Onaje and he's on the tenor sax. Usually I hear his soulful playing as I approach 2nd and Market, which is where I recently made these recordings on my way to work.   The first is an original composition entitled Eyes of the Tiger, Tears of the Harlequin - just an introductory passage it would seem - and the second a Parker tune, Bloomdido.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Song of the Week: "Aneurysm", Nirvana

Back from vacation and still listening to Nirvana. Maybe that is because my vacation took me to Aberdeen, Washington, the birthplace of Nirvana. Since Nirvana got play last week, I won't spend too much time on the write up. Today's SoTW was recorded for a BBC radio program back in 1992. It's called Aneurysm and was composed by all three members of the band: Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic. Another version of the song had appeared in England as the flip-side of Smells Like Teen Spirit, but I prefer this second version. In the US it appeared on the odds and ends/filler album, Incesticide. Aneurysm closes out that album and, in my humble opinion, is the standout on the album. In fact, I would suggest, with its powerful and evolving strong structure, and Cobain's gutteral vocals, it is one of Nirvana's two best songs.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Song of the Week: Leadbelly and Nirvana - Where Did You Sleep Last Night?


On November 18, 1993, Nirvana took the stage in New York for an intimate acoustic evening to be filmed for MTV. The band was in its last throws of life as Kurt Cobain would commit suicide just 5 short months later. The band was at the end of their US tour in support of the criminally underrated album, In Utero. I had seen them on one of the first dates of that tour. Front row, center in Denver, Colorado. They were amazing. Cobain stared down at the first few rows for the first half of the show. Then, about half way in to the show, as he stepped back from the microphone to take one of his famously spartan guitar leads he looked up at the entire audience. About 1500 people in all. I remember getting an odd feeling at that moment. He looked as if he was going to be sick as he nervously closed his eyes and exhaled a huge sigh. He stepped back to the mic and took another quick pensive glance at the whole room. The rest of the show he performed like a 13 year-old boy trying to work up courage to ask the girl in the blue dress at the other end of the gymnasium if she would like to dance with him. This was a man who was uncomfortable in his own skin. About the worst thing possible, I imagine. And on this night in New York, a few months later, he didn't look too much more comfortable. That night, Nirvana, as was their want, added a ton of songs they rarely if ever performed. Mostly covers of songs by the Meat Puppets, Bowie and The Vaselines. And the closer that night was a cover as well. A traditional American folk song called Where Did You Sleep Last Night (in the Pines). It was a highly impassioned performance that varied surprisingly little from the version by folk-blues artist, Leadbelly. It is the closing verse where Cobain shines with his raspy voice wailing away with sadness as he sings "I will shiver the whole night through". For most it would be the last time they would see Cobain perform and his final plea rings all the much more ghostly for it.

Leadbelly did not write the song (as Nirvana generously credited in their publication of the song), as the song probably dates back as far as the Civil War. But he did record the song as early as 1944 just a few short years before his own death. Unaccompanied (and by himself), Leadbelly plays Where Did You Sleep Last Night? with the scary precision of a man who, himself, knew of murder and life in prison. "My girl, my girl, don't you lie to me. Tell me where did you sleep last night?" Leadbelly's asides fit his cool demeanor perfectly. This is not, like Cobain's version, a man who is driven by emotion. This is the story of a cool level headed killer being interrogated: "My husband was a hard working man, 'till a mile and a half from here. {What happened to him?} His head was found in a driver wheel, but his body ever never be found."