Saturday Songs and Stories

I really like song covers. One of my absolute new favorites is I Wanna Dance with Somebody, as done by David Byrne.

This is a bop.

It’s maybe the perfect cover. Of course, David Byrne can do no wrong in my eyes. So I am inherently biased, but aren’t we all?

The other best cover of all time has to be Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ cover of Just Dropped In.

I love Kenny Rogers’ original. Of course I do–I also love The Big Lebowski. But have you heard this version?

This is also a bop.

What is the term for a cover that becomes more popular than the original? What do we do with songs like Tainted Love, made zeitgeist by Soft Cell in the 80s, covering Gloria Jones’ original?

This, too, is a bop.

I think I will call them “fitted sheets,” these songs that get overshadowed and covered up by other versions.

I guess I don’t have much of a story about song covers, except the reason I truly enjoy them is that they’re retelling stories, reframing a narrative, and finding ways to make something known their own. I guess my problem with covers like the one done by Soft Cell is that I get the impression they weren’t paying homage to the original, or building on top of it. (It feels like we weren’t meant to know there was an original? What do I know, though! Not my generation.)

I don’t know what to think about Weezer’s cover of Africa. It’s so similar, except where it’s not. What do we do with ironic covers, like Cake’s I Will Survive and Ben Folds’ B*tches Ain’t Sh*t? (Actually, I know what to do with the latter–throw it out. It’s a fun song, but it fetishizes an entire genre for a joke, and I don’t have a lot of room for that, personally. And I love Ben Folds.)

Is this really about storytelling? Surely.

Saturday Songs and Stories

Today’s theme is good jams from the 90s that mention shotguns, and the universal (?) rules of claiming the front seat of a friend’s car as you rush to Steak ‘N Shake or Denny’s at 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday in mid-summer.

“You’re a shotgun, Bang! What’s up with that thang?”

Honestly, hearing this song when I was eight confirmed for me that I was gay. I didn’t tell anyone for years, but damn–the sheer thirstiness of this song, y’all. It resonated with me in high school.

When I was in high school, everyone drove and no one drove, all at once. Nick had weird, old-model foreign cars. Aaron drove high-mileage, low-quality American coupes. I drove big American tanks, with bench seats and cigarette burns. Drew drove little Japanese cars with kits. And in all these cases, if one was not driving (gas was expensive, sometimes nearing a dollar a gallon), one sought the front.

So there were rules. Calling “shotgun,” was easiest, most respected. A tie was broken by “Shotgun, bang! What’s up with that thang?”

Which, in hindsight, did not pay good homage to Madames Salt, Pepa and N.

The other story, with the song below, is related to cars but not about front seats. My friends S & J (who are remaining unnamed because S is an elementary school principal, and they are, always have been and [one assumes] always will be the kindest people, I don’t want to scandalize them)–we would sit still in their car, and begin this song, and after the fanfare, shake the damn car like there was no tomorrow.

Why it was so funny to us, I don’t know. But traditions are traditions, I guess.

Cause I got lyrics, but you ain’t got none; if you come to battle, bring a shotgun

Saturday Songs and Stories

Happy Fourth of July! Let’s talk about John Phillip Sousa.

Semper Fidelis

I like John Phillip Sousa. I often say his name with the same inflection as Robert Preston in Seventy-Six Trombones (the movie version that I watched 18,000 times as a child)–“Johhhhn Phillip! SOO-SZA.” His music, for better and worse, defines a certain era of Americana in my mind–the Midwest, between 1877 and 1917, let’s say.

And yes, history is far, far more complex than suggesting Sousa defined the Midwest (a consideration he’d hate!) and between the end of Reconstruction and the entry into WWI–but as I walk around Riverside and Midtown here in Wichita, and see red, white and blue bunting (which respects the flag because it invokes without involving our protected, important national emblem!) I hear Stars and Stripes Forever.

I love the clip above because all those folks above the Dallas symphony are flutists, ready with their piccolos. Ninety-four of them! Why? It’s so wonderful and campy and beautiful and ridiculous and all of those words, I think, describe why I love my country. When it’s done right, it’s impossible and beautiful.

But really, I can’t talk about Sousa without mentioning The Liberty Bell March, because of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. They used the march as a theme song because it was free.

If I ever run for President (I have no intention to do so; I’d like to be Secretary of Education, if that’s still a national priority when Spiff finally runs) I will use this song to announce my candidacy. (Listen to the bell chime, and how the whole band breaks–which makes sense, one must let that Liberty Bell ring!)

Happy Fourth. Stop lighting fireworks. Go tear down the patriarchy.

Saturday Songs and Stories

So the summer between the sixth and seventh grade–that would have been 1996, or twenty-four years ago–I was the piano player at middle school jazz camp. Not for the eighth grade band (and that just devoured my little jealous liver!) but for the sixth/seventh grade band, which made sense, as I was in both and neither, the summer between.

At said camp was a kid from the other middle school, and his name was Louie. He now goes by Louis just like I now go by Arthur, not Artie. (He’s allowed to call me Artie, still. You? No.) Lou was a prodigy then just as he’s magnificently brilliant now. And he asked me if I would play Take Five with him, since he played the alto sax. Yeah, of course, I said. We got Clif and Nick to play drums and bass, and there you go. It sounded, to our barely adolescent ears, just like this:

Maybe a bit more like the recording, who knows. I loved that song, as Louis introduced me to it. I still love that song. It’s also really easy to jam with, on the piano, once one learns the bridge. (I still remember it, or at least, the ham-fisted bad comping I developed for it!)

Because there’s never just one song in these posts–Dave Brubeck converted to Catholicism, and began writing hymns and chorales. To Hope! A Celebration is just wonderful, because this horn-filled loud-voiced formal chorale breaks into jazz as Brubeck had cuts where he jammed with his combo. Because of course he did, and of course he should have. In the hymnal for the Disciples of Christ, the Chalice Hymnal, we have this neat little Christmas hymn, God’s Love Made Visible.

“His star will always be, guiding humanity, throughout eternity, his love shall reign.” Some day I’ll write about Riggs and the Jazz Mass we pulled off at Brite Divinity School.

The hymn above, you may notice, is in 5/4. Anglo congregations don’t do 5/4 well–and so it’s good on Christmas Eve, as everyone wants their favorite hymns and familiars, to bust out a little fast-paced syncopation on them. It’s good theology. (I’ve never heard the caroling and candy canes verses, in the version above them; they did not, in fact, make it into our hymnal!)

I can’t talk about Take Five and Dave Brubeck without mentioning one of my favorite covers of all time–Tito Puente’s version. He took the iconic, weird metered definition of cool jazz and dropped it into a hot Latin 4/4. I love it, and I love jazz because it does stuff like this. I leave you with it.

Saturday Songs and Stories

Can we talk about making room for a moment, and also, how big of nerds musicians are?

Note: I grew up in a house wherein my mom taught piano for three hundred hours every day, and my step-dad was (and still is) a professional trumpet player and teacher, so you know, we grew up flush with cash, is what I’m saying.

The piano’s keyboard seems enormous, until you get to a duet, and then, that little cushy bench becomes a little hazardous. Add a third person (why though) and it’s worse. Add another after that–and you’re probably playing Lavignac’s Galop-Marche, which is kind of tacky and kind of cheesy and absolutely wonderful.

Here’s four pianists at one… or two pianos.

I’ve found three recordings I like, and have put them all in this post. This piece is frantic and manic and hits that sweet spot of, “Is this guy serious?” All in all, it lends itself to comedy pretty well–even if we’re trusting musicians to do what they think is funny.

Here’s twelve pianists at one piano playing it.

I think I like this the same way I like amateur wrestling and drag shows–there’s something intentionally out of place here, an invitation to participate in the absurd, even as an audience member. What does it mean to pause and gesture for a man to come out–I’m assuming he’s the big name at this recital of beautiful people dressed in black–and then run in a circle to play a chromatic scale?

Dare we just have… fun, sometimes? Do things just for joy?

Eight pianists, 2 pianos–performed by eight champions

Don’t we need these invitations to the absurd, so that we do not take ourselves too seriously? Not always, surely, but every now and again?

I struggle in these times, because I am an absurdist. We need to have serious, intentional conversations and take good hard looks at ourselves and make lasting, systemic changes. And I do not wish to distract from nor detract this important work.

But also, we will destroy ourselves if we cannot access the resilience that comes from the occasional pause for joy. Breathe, friends. Get on the floor and play the trill, just for a second. And then go back to Chopin and Rachmaninoff and Bach, please–the world needs it.

Saturday Songs and Stories

Can we talk about Nirvana for a second?

Kurt Cobain died when I was nine years old, in the fourth grade. By the time I got to middle school, Nirvana was still very much a thing, and though I had no idea what the song was, I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit a thousand times every year for the three years at Southwest Middle.

I think about Marcus, from About a Boy, and his attempts to understand why Ellie loves Kirk O’Bain.

I became more familiar with the song when Weird Al covered it. My friend Shelly told me, eons ago, that Nirvana was honored to be covered, and that they were surprised there was no mention of food. (This is in the food-heavy, early days of Mr. Yankovic, and before his policy of asking permission of/informing bands of impending parody.)

It is the best Weird Al parody, in my opinion.

This song is ingrained into Generation X, and we early Millennials. It lends itself to covers, like from the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain…

Smells like… you’re a teenager in love…

To mash-ups, like this one (notice the speed shift!)…

Destiny’s Child x Nirvana = Smells Like Bootylicious

to re-genrefication, like by Paul Anka…

On the album cut, he actually gets the lyrics correct.

I love this song, in all its forms. Is it interpretation or irony? Tribute or teardown? Where’s the line?

I was told I wasn’t cool enough to listen to Nirvana, which I believed, and still maybe do. But is it about being cool? I think not–look at how much fun Dave Grohl has, look at his passion. Is he passionate AND cool, or cool because he’s passionate, or in spite of it? What is hip, anyhow?

Saturday Songs and Stories

In one of the countless attempts to get in shape, my friend Riggs and I tried going to the Fitness Center at TCU (Go Frogs!) at like, 5 a.m. when it opened. This lasted… three tries, I think.

Riggs drove a Mercury Marauder, which is somewhere between a muscle car and a cop car. It was one of the best cars I’ve ever sat in–one just felt cool in the leather seats and dark interior. The Marauder was totaled by a drunk undergrad. We can’t prove it, but a yellow Jeep that was across the street from where Riggs’s car was parked disappeared the very day the car was destroyed with yellow paint streaks all over it. Go figure, I suppose.

But I digress. Riggs loves jazz, and I love jazz. He introduced me to a lot, including this song by Frank Sinatra, The Coffee Song.

It has a good Latin beat, and the fun lyric, “They put coffee in the coffee in Brazil,” which I have always found funny. And yet, the question always sits in the back of my mind: is this song racist?

It’s a song about an actual place, and actual people inhabiting that actual place. It’s also a novelty song–meant to be a novelty, and speaks more of Brazil’s coffee surplus rather than making direct claims about Brazil’s culture, people or heritage. Yeah, the politician’s daughter was accused of drinkin’ water, and was fined a great big fifty dollar bill–but fifty bucks was a lot of money to anyone then, and it’s because she was drinking water, not because she was inherently corrupt?

I don’t know. This song walks a line for me, and perhaps others? I don’t want to create controversy where there is none; I do not want to ignore controversy if it is there.

One time at karaoke, I wanted to sing this–they did not have it, but I thought they did, because I selected Brazil in the Frank Sinatra section. They are not the same song. I always post at least two songs in this post, so I’ll close with Pink Martini’s cover of Brazil, which for three years was my happy song. More on that, I suppose, another time!

Note to self for the inevitable Pink Martini post: Storm Large is amazing live and also, China Forbes is amazing on every album she recorded. Keep that in mind, future Arthur.

Saturday Songs and Stories

Let’s talk about I Will Survive.

It’s a B-Side–Gloria Gaynor experienced some failure to launch with Never Can Say Goodbye, and when she was called back in to record… I can’t remember the name of the song, she was asked what kind of B-Side she wanted to do, and she wanted something memorable.

Gaynor also lobbied DJs to play the songs at clubs, it got traction, restarted her career, and became, I’d argue, one of the best examples of good disco there are. (Last Dance, Pick Up the Pieces and Boogie Shoes are the other three.)

But that wasn’t my first exposure to the song. I attended the strangest summer camp growing up, in the middle of Missouri. It was ostensibly a church camp–but we usually limited Bible study and devotions to a boring hour in the morning. (At least, that’s how I remember it.)

The counselors were awesome, the coolest teenagers an eight year old could imagine. It was where I was exposed to They Might Be Giants in excess (there will be another long post someday about Flood, released thirty years ago somehow?), and of course, Fashion Nugget, by CAKE, an album with no bad songs.

It is a loving and yet ironic tribute. A lot of their stuff is; there are layers, like a disenchanted, Gen X onion, in this song. And this song, somehow, takes me back to a muggy camp in desperate need of updating, wherein I was free, for a week, from struggles and challenges kids shouldn’t have to live in, but so many do.

But then, picking up the trumpet (because I had to), there was hope of learning the descant, the string-part-turned-brass by CAKE. If John McCrea could sing (he can sing, don’t get me wrong) with, “Aaaah! Yeeeah,” so too could I. And perhaps, seeds were planted where I began to believe I could save all my loving for someone who loved me.

I needed survival, and found it with Ms. Gaynor and with CAKE. Perhaps though, too, I found some thriving as well.

Saturday Songs and Stories

When I was in high school, I was a little lost. I was drafted, two weeks from curtain, to figure out the music for the production of All I Need to Know in Life I Learned in Kindergarten, which (in my opinion, please don’t sue) is one of the worst shows ever written. From that, though, my friend Nick asked me if I’d figure out Jackson Cannery by Ben Folds Five, to play with his band for the talent show.

A lot of things happened because of that request and that performance. I fell in with the theater nerds, which led to improv, which led to Iowa, which led back to Missouri and my calling and then ministry and Texas and now Kansas. It was one of those moments in my life.

And plus, I like how much slamming and banging on the piano Ben always does.

I guess the other story for this Saturday is about another Ben Folds song, the one I dislike the most, The Luckiest. (Again, opinion! Please do not sue.) I know so many people love this song, including (one assumes) Ben Folds. In One Down and Three Point Six, a super-cynical song written before a tour in order to fulfill a contractual obligation, he writes, “I love you more than any man has loved before I, love you more than all the stars up in the sky. I think that we should settle down, and live happily forever… after… What do you think of that?” The last question being to those to whom he’s contractually obligated.

Here’s the song!:

(By the way, if you haven’t found the Ben Folds Vaults on Spotify and iTunes, listen to them, it’s incredible. But I’m kind of a Ben Folds nerd, obviously.)

Anyhow, about The Luckiest. Consider these lyrics:
I love you more than I have ever found a way to say to you.

It’s just… I don’t know. It even sounds reminiscent of One Down.

I will also say, and I’ll tell more of this story in another post, when at the 10,000 Hours Show in Iowa City, I watched one of the funniest people I’ve ever known improvise an interpretive dance as Ben Folds performed the song above. “In a wide sea of eyes…”

So I don’t know. Maybe I do like the song. Maybe, in fact, I am the luckiest.

I’m going to stop the post, though–I wanna be lonely, when seconds pass slowly, and years go flying by…