Posts Tagged ‘1990s’

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Last week, while flipping through my photo library, I came across pictures from just prior to our move last year from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, when we were sorting through the collected ephemera of two lives and deciding what to take and what to toss. Among the latter: cassettes I made in the late 1980s and early 90s to listen to in the car. (I know: How quaint.) The above tape, from sometime in late 1992 or early ‘93, was one.

For those who don’t recognize the songs on Side A, they represent Paul Weller’s 1992 eponymous solo debut in full, with the closing “Kosmos” spanning onto Side B. My stereo setup had the ability to fade in or out when recording to tape, so I might have done that here, but since the song also fades out and in, who knows? I may have made use of one of the natural stop, cut out the five minutes of recording groove (see Wikipedia’s entry on the album for more on that), and kicked off Side B with the 30-second reprieve that closed the album. The remainder of the second side consists of Jam tunes, most likely lifted (for expediency’s sake) from Snap! and Extras.

Paul Weller’s solo debut, which followed his days with the Jam (1976-82) and Style Council (1983-89), has never been far out of my reach since its release. In some respects, it laid down the blueprint he’s followed ever since, mixing heavy soul with jazzy touches, self-reflection and self-recrimination. It opens with the propulsive “Uh Huh, Oh Yeah,” which sets the stage: “I took a trip down boundary lane/trying to find myself again…”

Though he’d been to the top with both the Jam and Style Council, by the end of the ‘80s he seemed in danger of teetering into oblivion. This Coventry Live article delves into that fall from and return to grace, but to cut to the chase: Instead of giving up, he formed a band, hit the road and self-released a single (“Into Tomorrow”) that turned enough ears to land him a record deal.

The urgency that drives the performance coupled with the philosophical/questioning bent of the lyrics equals Paul Weller at his best, and defines the album in total. Another high point: “Above the Clouds,” which is one of my favorite Weller songs.

The early ‘90s were a time of CD singles laden with bonus tracks, of course, and Weller released a few in support of the album. (They were hard to find in the States, but I managed to locate most.) In 2009, however, a deluxe reissue made those long-ago efforts moot by gathering them all together alongside alternate mixes and demos, plus a cool cover of “Abraham, Martin & John.” It’s well worth the expense.

Of those bonus tracks: My favorite was and is “Everything Has a Price to Pay.”

(The two studio albums that immediately followed, Wild Wood and Stanley Road, are equally essential to my ears, as are a smattering of his latter-day albums, including 22 Dreams, A Kind Revolution, True Meanings and this year’s double-disc live opus, Other Aspects.) 

Here’s the track listing of the original release:

Years long ago, with the old website, I routinely received requests to review new releases from independent artists and bands. The emails arrived in my inbox (the same Yahoo Mail account I use today, believe it or not), contained links to low-quality song snippets, and if interested I replied with my address. A week or so later, a CD would show up in my mailbox.

I usually ignored such enquiries.

In late 1997, however, I received a request from an Arizona-based band called Permission to Breathe, who thought that their song “(Leanin’ on) Neil Young’s Soul” was a natural fit for my site. As astute Internet historians should know, the original Old Grey Cat site leaned on Neil Young-related content to attract hundreds of visitors a day. I figured what the hell, and told them to send a CD my way.

A few months later, on February 8th, 1998, I posted the below essay, which used the “(Leanin’ on) Neil Young’s Soul” song as a launching pad for something more than a straight review; I’m sure it wasn’t what the band wanted, but c’est la vie. (I have edited the piece for clarity, excised a few digressions of digressions – back then I subscribed to a stream-of-consciousness approach I now find abhorrent – and added the YouTube clips.)

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That’s me in 1972 or ’73, above.

Yeah, even then I was something of a hippie, an outsider, a rebel, ready, willing and able to sneak off with a buddy for a smoke – of tobacco. The smoke seduced and corrupted our young lungs, with the coughs erupting from within us little more than echoes of our fading innocence.

Music was a known entity to me: My mom and dad liked “the anti-Neil,” Neil Diamond, and me, I thrived on Johnny Horton. If you’ve never heard of him, it’s a shame: In the late ’50s, he hit the charts with a variety of historical-based novelty songs -“The Battle of New Orleans,” “Sink the Bismarck,” “Jim Bridger” and “Johnny Freedom” – to name but a few. I played his Greatest Hits album on my portable record player, listened to the music and memorized the words.

I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but he was a “Honky Tonk Man” who mined the rich veins of hillbilly music, a pioneer who helped pave the way for Buck Owens and, later, Dwight Yoakam. “Guitars, Cadillacs and hillbilly music/it’s the only thing that keeps me hanging on,” Dwight sang on his first album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., capturing on vinyl (or cassette, in my case) the reflection of his – and mine, and yours – soul. It’s an undeniably great album. If you don’t have it, get it, and crank it up. Hell, yes, it’s hillbilly music. It’s real. Authentic.

Certain songs, certain albums stay with you for the long haul. They take you back to a time, a place, a street like a lot of other streets in a town like a lot of other towns – and, yes, I more or less copped those last lines from the final episode of The Wonder Years. But great music does more than just take you back: It speaks for you in the present, too. We change, it changes.

Neil Young’s music is like that. “Down by the River” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere) means many things, few of which are actually articulated in the lyrics. It’s the guitar rising, falling, swirling in space like a Deadhead twirling, each time ’round different from the last. It speaks volumes – especially when played loud.

Another album, another year: Neil’s Old Ways in 1985. Not a great album by any means, but “Bound for Glory,” a duet with Waylon Jennings, is sublime. Came out the year before Dwight’s LP and another landmark, must-buy album, Steve Earle’s Guitar Town. In that same time frame came yet another genre-busting effort: Lone Justice’s debut, which featured the absolutely sweet Maria McKee’s mercurial vocals on such songs as “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling),” “Ways to Be Wicked” and “You Are the Light.” 

If you don’t have Lone Justice’s debut, hunt it down. I recommend investing in – at the least – Maria McKee’s entire catalogue; whether live or on album, she sends shivers up the spine with just about every song she sings. That’s a cliché, I know, but that’s what happens when you write about music: you find yourself groping for words and phrases that accurately sum up what it is the music makes you feel. ‘Cause in the end, that’s what great music does: It makes you feel.

It doesn’t matter if it’s new or old; the best songs and albums, like great literature, communicate in the moment, not the past. I wasn’t at Woodstock; I don’t remember Kent State. When I was five, I met then-Vice President Spiro Agnew and was thrilled to shake his hand. I knew nothing of hippies or the anti-war movement, of his or President Nixon’s crimes. But I was in the stands in Atlantic City when Neil Young dedicated “Ohio” to the students slain in China.

That song – although about a specific time and place – transcends its origin. For good and ill, Kent State has entered the lexicon as a metaphor. And, to paraphrase David Crosby, metaphors are the driving force behind great songs.

“My heart wants to be unbroken/my dreams rattle here unspoken/my days have all got a number/I need a good song so I don’t feel so wrong/so I’m leanin’ on Neil Young’s soul/I’m leanin’ on Neil Young’s soul…”

Those lyrics are from a recent find which came the Old Grey Cat’s way quite by chance. There, in my mailbox last December, was an invite from an Arizona-based band called Permission to Breathe: Review us, they said. They’d just released a song they thought I might appreciate: “(Leanin’ on) Neil Young’s Soul.” It’s a sentiment, obviously, that captured my imagination.

The first time I heard their self-titled CD, I said to Diane, “They’re going far.” It was neither an affirmation of the music nor a condemnation, just a recognition that they possess all of the ingredients necessary to storm the charts.

I’ve lived with the disc for just over a month and can honestly say I like the Neil Young song: “You say I’ll never be forgiven/your way is taking no giving/that my role is that of a sinner/I need a strong song/that rockin’ free world song/I find myself…leanin’ on Neil Young’s soul.”

It rocks and, as importantly, it captures in “feel” that part of us that turns to certain songs for inspiration. There are other moments of clarity as well, including “Crooked by Design” (“This life of mine, tangled in twine/May not be pretty, but it suits me/Rebel inside, just won’t hide…”) and “Nothing Now,” which documents a relationship’s dying days. 

I don’t know how or where Permission to Breathe and/or “Leanin’ on Neil Young’s Soul” will rank in the pantheon of music that makes up the soundtrack of my – or your – life. But, that’s the thing about music. You meet a song, you embrace and it’s with you for the long haul unless and until, for reasons best left unsaid, you leave it stranded on the roadside. “Leanin’ on Neil Young’s Soul,” that one is in the “probable” stage right now. It’s great on a tape right before…you got it: “Down by the River.”

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

There was a harvest moon last night. For those who don’t know what that is, the Oxford Dictionary definition describes it as thus: “the full moon that is nearest to the time of the autumnal equinox.” An equinox occurs when Earth’s equator aligns with the center of the sun, which happens twice a year. One marks the start of spring and the second marks the beginning of fall. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the autumnal equinox almost always occurs on September 22nd or 23rd; and this year it’s early morning of the 23rd. 

The term “harvest moon” itself dates to the early 1700s, if not before, in England, and Oxford credits it to the “country people.” With days growing short, farmers made use of the moonlight while harvesting their summer crops.

Anyway, last night, by the time I left work, cascading clouds in the night sky blocked my view of the moon, yet I felt its power and heard its vibrations thanks to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon album, which he released on November 2, 1992. The lore behind it is well-known, at least among Neil fans: Recording Ragged Glory with Crazy Horse in 1990 and reaching for electric nirvana on their subsequent tour left him with tinnitus. Rather than risk permanent damage to his hearing, he downshifted to a softer sound – and delivered one of his best albums.

He saw it as a sequel in style, mood and personnel to Harvest, his much-loved 1972 album, although the same could also be said, to varying extents, of Comes a Time, Hawks & Doves and Old Ways, among other outings. It did well, too, peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard charts, going double-platinum, and winning plaudits from critics and fans alike.

Accented by acoustic guitars, harmonica, and backup vocals supplied by fellow travelers Nicolette Larson, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and (half-sister) Astrid Young, the 10-song set is a contemplative affair that mixes brushstrokes of reality with hues of the heart. “Unknown Legend,” the opener, was written for the Comes a Time album, and tells the story of a woman in a diner who once lived free but is now dealing with the responsibilities of adulthood. 

“From Hank to Hendrix” tells the story of a couple’s relationship that may or may not last despite the years (“from Marilyn to Madonna”) they’ve put into it. (“The same thing that makes you live/can kill you in the end.”) Many folks like to read what inspired specific songs, but to me inspiration matters less than the result. And the result here is memorable.

The title track, on the other hand, is a celebration of a long-lasting, loving relationship – maybe even the same one. “But now it’s getting late/And the moon is climbin’ high/I want to celebrate/See it shinin’ in your eye/Because I’m still in love with you/I want to see you dance again/Because I’m still in love with you/On this harvest moon…” 

“War of Man” is another stirring track:

Another favorite track of mine is “Dreamin’ Man,” which sports a lilting melody and lyrics that spin a disturbing tale about a stalker: “I park my Aerostar/Dreamin’ man/With a loaded gun/And sweet dreams of you/I’ll always be a dreamin’ man/I don’t have to understand/I know it’s alright…”  

As Nicolette and Astrid sing behind Neil at the end, “He’s got a problem.”

One possible inspiration (though it’s just a hunch on my part): Robert John Bardo, the stalker who killed My Sister Sam actress Rebecca Schaeffer on July 18, 1989. Neil would have been exposed to stories in the newspapers and on TV, I’m sure. But, again, it matters not. The juxtaposition of the dreamy with the sordid is meant to jar, and make us think.

What else? Neil flipped the normal routine of albums for Harvest Moon, touring the songs first and then releasing them. We saw him in March of ’92 at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., from the back of the balcony. Everyone roared for the opener, “Long May You Run,” but murmurs began soon after he launched into the second of eight unfamiliar songs in a row (seven from the future Harvest Moon and “Silver and Gold”). It was a great night.

The track list:

Is there a better song than “Up on the Roof”?

According to Rolling Stone, the answer is yes – 113 songs, to be precise, as the original rendition by the Drifters, which was released in 1962, ranks No. 114 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list, which was put together in 2004.

I rate it higher.

Written by the husband-and-wife team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the single peaked at No. 5 on the pop charts and No. 4 on the R&B charts in early 1963. In the years since, it’s been covered by an array of artists, both in concert and on vinyl. The idea for the song came to King – who was all of 20 at the time – while she was out for a drive; her original title was “My Secret Place.” Goffin suggested the roof as the escape destination, as he was a West Side Story fan, and penned poetic lyrics that echo a universal truth. (American Songwriter delves deep into the song’s sophistication here.) 

Here’s the demo for it, which features Goffin singing and King playing piano.

As wonderful as the Drifters’ single is, however, it flopped in England – but East London-born Kenny Lynch’s version made it to the Top 10.

Up-and-coming singer Julie Grant made her U.K. chart debut with the song right around the same time.

In 1970, fellow New Yorker Laura Nyro recorded it for her Christmas and the Beads of Sweat album; it became her sole single to crack the Top 100, peaking at…No. 97?!

That same year, Carole King recorded it for her debut album, Writer.

A year later, Dusty Springfield performed it on the BBC’s The Rolf Harris Show

In 1975, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band covered it in concert:

In 1979, James Taylor – who had performed it with Carole King on Writer and their early tours together – scored a Top 40 hit with it.

Jumping ahead a few decades, Neil Diamond covered it on his 1993 salute to Brill Building songs…but the orchestral touches are a tad over the top, IMO.

The British pop duo Robson & Jerome topped the U.K. charts with their faithful cover of it in 1995…

 … and actor-singer Sutton Foster does a sweet version of it on her 2009 debut album, Wish.

There are far too many additional covers of the song to list here, so I’ll close with this: Carole King and James Taylor at the Troubadour in 2010. does it get any better than this?