Friday, May 20, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge Pt 1: 30-21

I think the 30 Day Song Challenge on Facebook was one of the coolest Facebook time wasters they ever came up with. I decided when I was finished with the challenge I would write a blog about my choices and kind of go into more detail about why I made some of my decisions. This is the first part of what will be a three part series.

Part I - 30-21

30. My Favorite Song At This Time Last Year

My Uncle Frank was responsible for introducing me to Mumford and Sons. My uncle gives me a lot of burned CD's that he thinks I'll like, and most of the time it's generally stuff that I don't get overly excited about. I'm not saying I hate, or dislike, the stuff he gives me. I just don't do back flips over it. One day he came by to help me clean my carpet and gave me a stack of CD's. There was some Joe Bonamassa (take it or leave it), some Derek Trucks Band (meh), and a CD by this band Mumford and Sons. "You should listen to that one first," he said. "It's veeeeeeeeeery good." So after he left I popped it in my CD player. I thought it would probably turn out like all the other attempts at trying to sway my musical tastes. I was wrong. From the first song on the CD (this one, in fact) I was hooked. I loved the build of all their songs, the heavy handed pub feel of the vocals, and the blend of their instruments. But what I loved most of all were the lyrics! The person writing these words knew what they were doing, and what's more, had the ability to craft songs that teetered on the balance of commercial and abstract.

Out of all the songs, and there are some ones of notes - The Cave, Winter Winds, Little Lion Man - I kept coming back to Sigh No More. It's probably a sentimental choice for me because a bulk of the lyrics are taken straight from Much Ado About Nothing which after Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play (despite my animosity toward Shakespeare I have learned to enjoy at least some of his works). In fact the first line of the song - "Serve God, love me, and mend." - is what Benedict says to convince Beatrice either to convince her that she should marry him, or he says it to her after they're married. I can never remember which. Also, "Sigh No More" are the lyrics to a beautiful ballad from that same play.

So that is why this song was my favorite song at this time last year.

29. A Song From My Childhood

I could have picked any song from Sesame Street or the Muppet Show to answer this question. There are so many songs from the Muppets that bring me a lot of vivid memories of childhood. I picked this one for a lot of reasons, but really, for three main ones.

First, this was probably my favorite song on Sesame Street. It always felt like a treat when I'd watch an episode and this song came on. Even as a child I knew this was a very pretty song that made me think about stuff beyond the normal ABC and 123 themes of Sesame Street. I remember thinking how much I agreed with Ernie, how if I lived some place far away I would probably long for home and the people I loved. What I didn't know at the time was that Sesame Street was preparing me for the future. Growing up is like living on the moon. We grow farther away from youth, we have to part with loved ones, and we move away to new places, and it's scary. As an adult, I think this song has an even greater effect on me than when I was a child for this very reason.

Secondly, this song prominently features Jim Henson. Jim Henson was a cornerstone of my childhood, not only because of my love for the Muppets, but because his death was something that shook me. The death of Jim Henson was like a wake up call for me. It showed me that nothing was permanent, and that at any time something you're very used to can be snatched away from you forever. Did I mention I was 10? That's a lot of stuff to go through the mind of a 10 year old, particularly one who had personal dealings with death. Ultimately, though, Henson's death taught me to enjoy the time you have with people you hold dear, a philosophy I still practice to this day. This song, more than others he sang through the mouthpiece of his Muppets, drives that point home a little more for me.

Lastly, it's just beautiful. The chord progression is gentle and sweet, and the lyrics, for a children's song, are brutal and honest. I want to hug Jeff Moss for writing it.

28. A Song That Makes Me Feel Guilty

I didn't really have a good one for this category. I couldn't think of any song that made me feel guilty. So, because I'm a smart ass, I posted this one.

27. A Song I Wish I Could Play On An Instrument

In high school band we played this as a warm up. The percussionists didn't have to play during the warm up. I can't express in words the way the music made me feel when the woodwinds and the brass sound would swell and crescendo to this song. It was a very personal and spiritual experience, and I've only had that kind of experience with a few songs. Anymore, all I have to do is here the first few bars of this song and I'm instantly back in high school and all these memories and emotions come bubbling to the surface. Yeah, that's probably why I wish I could play this.

26. A Song I Can Play On An Instrument

I play ukulele. I didn't want to go with the typical Somewhere Over The Rainbow (which is becoming the Stairway To Heaven of the ukulele in that everyone knows how to play it) for this one, but all the other ones I know how to play didn't seem too great either. I ended up choosing this one because I think The Mountain Goats are great and I think more people should like them. Also it's a really great song!

25. A Song That Makes Me Laugh


Let me tell you why this song makes me laugh so much. For starters, I'm kind of a fucker. For the most part, I'm a nice guy. I do onto others as I would have them do onto me. However, there are times where I am taken over by some sort of evil, and I do things to people that I really shouldn't do - like give someone a mint that has been in my ass, or pay a tuition bill with money that I have blown my nose on. Usually, I only commit evil when I am wronged in some way (which in my defense...those two previous examples were my reaction to some endured injustice). However there have been times, though very infrequent, where I have done things to people that otherwise didn't deserve them. I am about to tell you about such a time. And let me say, in retrospect, I am not proud of this.

One year at the YMCA, we had a group of volunteer counselors that would come in every couple of days and help out with the summer day camp. The paid staff could not stand these people. They were lazy, annoying, and in some cases would actually get into physical confrontations with the kids. One of these people was someone I went to high school with. He was a couple of years below me and was known throughout the school as that kid who had a heart attack. For anonymity's sake we will call him Bob. Indeed, Bob had a heart condition, and had, at least once in his life, had a heart attack. I even remembering being the computer lab once, and Bob, seated next to me, just collapsed and fell out of his chair. He didn't have a heart attack, but it was pretty weird just seeing this guy fall out of his chair.

So one night, we had a family mixer/campfire for the kids and their parents. There were hot dogs, and campfire songs, and skits. The paid staff had a skit lined out for the volunteers to be in. At the end of the skit one of the volunteers, WITHOUT THEIR KNOWLEDGE, was going to get doused with a sizable quantity of bitterly ice cold water. The staff had a caucus to decide which volunteer was going to get doused. We went around the circle. Every vote cast was for Bob. I was the last vote. Now, at this point I could have objected, told them that it might not be a good idea, clued them in to his heart problem, but for some reason (mainly morbid curiosity) I said, "Yeah, Bob sounds good."

So the sketch goes off without a hitch. Everyone delivers their lines. The timing is great. The water hits its target - a terrific success. So everyone is laughing and clapping, and Bob, stunned by the blast of cold water wanders off and collapses in a patch of thick grass. The paid staff rush over to him. No, he wasn't having a heart attack. He was stunned, and felt like he needed to lay flat to catch his breath. However, when the staff rushed to him to see if he was alright, he told him he had a heart condition, and it became known that I knew this fact. So of course, they asked me why I didn't tell them this after they decided to dump a gallon of cold water on him without his knowledge, and all I could say was, with a morbid chuckle, "I just wanted to see what would happen." No one really looked at me the same way again.

Long story short, I'm a terrible person sometimes, and this song is an homage to terrible people, and reminds me of this story.

24. A Song I Want Played At My Funeral

This song is such a simple, yet deep, piece of existential philosophy. It will not only remind people of where I have gone, but where they will be soon. Nothing like making people ponder their own existence after seeing me off at the end of mine! It's how I roll.

23. A Song I Want Played At My Wedding

I don't plan on getting married. The handful of ladies that I have encountered who had wife potential have all been duds. Unless some Southern Belle comes along and sweeps me off my feet, I see a long chain of high end whores in my future. However, if I do get married, I want this song to play at my wedding. It's one of those love songs that has a tinge of cynicism in it. I call these bittersweet love songs, and I love them. There's a line in this song that goes, "The book of love has music in it./In fact that's where music comes from./Some of it's just transcendental./Some of it's just really dumb." I think this sums up my view of love to a tee. Sometimes love is pretty special, worthy of song, and beauty, and all these things that speak of heightened experience. And sometimes (most of the time), love is just fucking stupid.

22. A Song I Listen To When I'm Sad

I listen to a lot of songs when I'm sad. I chose this one because it has a couple of my favorite song dynamics going on.

First, it's mainly piano-centric. Newman employs some very simple chords and phrases them in very simple ways. It's not flashy. It's almost as if he is in the middle of writing this song, and the recording is a peek into that process. The orchestration is conservative and doesn't over power the tune.

Second, the lyrics are very simple. They're almost a throwback to the old jazz and ballad songwriters like Hoagy Carmichael. Randy Newman isn't hiding the fact that he's sad behind a bunch of poetry (which I also like, don't misunderstand). He's listing all these failures, and all this lost he's endured, but the real reason he's sad is because he lost this unnamed "you." You don't need to explain that. You don't need to delve into the meat of those lyrics. It's a situation we're all familiar with. It's the mark of a good songwriter when you can do something like this.

It's such a pretty song.

21. A Song I Listen To When I'm Happy

This song makes me happy for one reason, and one reason alone. It was the song my Papa Longan sang when he was happy, and I like this version because there are a lot of similarities between the way my Papa sang and the way Willie Nelson sings. My Papa Longan could carry a tune, but he wasn't a singer. He didn't hold notes, and he had a deep vibrato that was more noticeable as he developed lung problems later in life. Every time this song came on the radio, or if I played it in the car, he would sing along, and sing every word with a smile on his face. Every time I hear it I can't help but be happy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

That's What She Said - song lyrics

“Come in my bedroom, and baby, don't be blue.
I need a man. even if that man is you.”
That’s what she said,
and you wonder why I’m so blue.

“I need some loving. I need it all night long.
And you’re just right, even if that right is wrong.”
That’s what she said,
which is why I sing this song.

“I got good news. I think you're gonna pass.
Now get your clothes, hurry home, and make it fast.”
That’s what she said.
I came in first for being last.

Monday, May 9, 2011


So, yesterday was Mother's Day, and I meant to write a post about it, but as it turns out I am a very very forgetful person a lot of the time. I just have to say that I probably have one of the best Mom's in the history of Mom's. I mean, I am not a Mom Scientist by any means, but mine is pretty awesome. I was thinking about her yesterday, and all the bullshit she's had to put up with raising my sisters and I, and I realized how amazing it is that she was able to pull us all into adulthood while still retaining some semblance of sanity. As I thought about my mother, and the job she did raising me, I also realized that most of where I am, and who I am, as an adult can be credited to her and the way she approached motherhood. I then thought what better way to honor my mother but to give examples of how her approach to motherhood has molded me. My mom's approach to motherhood can be reduced down three key elements: lying, nagging, and letting her children fail at things. I know what you're thinking - this sounds pretty awful - but the truth is that all three of these elements have played a major role in my growth into adulthood. I may not have liked her application of these elements when I was younger, but I can tell you, as an adult, I love her for them.

01. Lying - Yes, my mother lied to me, and she did it all the time. And guess did yours. Some would say this makes my mother, or your mother, awful, but in truth, I love my mom for it. I'm a firm believer that: a) some people (especially kids) don't always need to know the truth about something; and b) that if you can lie to someone and get good behavior out of them then it's not a horrible thing.

On the first point, I believe kids should be kids. It's alright to speak to a child like they're an adult, and in some aspects treat the like an adult, but you should always remember they aren't adults. Truth can be a harsh thing, and there are many adults who can't even cope with it. A child's biggest fear should be getting their homework done and deciding whether they want chocolate milk or Kool-Aid with their cookies. So when reality hits the home, and hits it hard, parents, for the most part, should lie to their children, or at the very least bend the truth.

When I was a kid, and in the hospital, I knew I wasn't just sick. I was really sick, and what I was going through was serious. But even in my situation, which was pretty dire, I never knew the extent of my illness. I knew I had Leukemia, and I knew the tests and procedures I had to go through were supposed to help me get better. Beyond that, I didn't know much, and whenever I saw my mom and dad all I saw on their faces was strength...not fear. After my bone-marrow transplant, and throughout the years of my remission, my mother (and my father too) never let me think I couldn't do something, and they never let me think I was any different than any other kid on the playground. The truth is that all of this was a lie. When I first got sick my situation was so dire that my likelihood of surviving a year was very small (like under 10%). And after the transplant, and remission, and miracles I was different than the other kids...a lot different.

Were these such horrible lies for my mother (and father) to perpetuate? What if they had told me I was going to die as a child? Should they have treated me as different and put me in classes with the different kids? I love my mother (and father) for maintaining these lies. If I would have known at six that I was probably going to die then I probably would have given up right then and there. As it was, I had a childhood (be it a weird one). I played with my toys, and drew pictures, and read books, and laughed like a child who is unaware of the wolves that surround him. And as for believing myself to be no different than the kids at my school...well, that's translated to my life a thousand times over. Who knows if I would have had the drive to go to college, or get a job, or move out on my own, or end up in law school if this lie hadn't been perpetuated on my behalf. Yes, sometimes lies aren't so bad, and my mother knew this.

As for the second point, here is a story for you. When I was three years old I had spent the afternoon at my grandma's house. When my mom got their to pick me up I was in the middle of playing with building blocks. She told me I needed to pick up my blocks and get ready to go. I didn't want to, and a power struggle ensued. After some arguing my mother told me if I didn't pick up the blocks she was going to call the Mean Farm and they were going to come and haul me off.

Before I go on some background - The Mean Farm was a made up place my mom routinely referred to when she wanted us to do something like pick up clothes, or toys, or whatever. Also, at this age I had an irrational fear of dump trucks, and had once asked if there were dump trucks at the mean farm. Mom, knowing my fear of dump trucks just frowned and said, "All over the place." So, the Mean Farm was something that struck fear in my 3 year old head.

Normally, the idea of going to the Mean Farm would scare the hell out of me, but today I was going to be brave, and decided to resist. So my mother picked up the phone and dialed (what I didn't know is that she was calling her friend Starla who was routinely the receptionist at the Mean Farm. Starla thought my mother was horrible for doing this).

"Hello," Mom said. "Is this the Mean Farm? Yeah, we got a little boy here that won't pick up his blocks. You want to talk to him. Okay."

Mom handed me the phone. "Hello?"

"Little boy," said the gruff voice. "You pick up those blocks and mind your mother or we're going to come get you!"

So of course I pictured the Mean Farm people coming to haul me off in a big scary dump truck, and that was enough to get me to pick up my blocks. It would be years before I would defy my mother again.

02. Nagging - I think we can all agree that mom's nag...and nag...and nag...and nag until the point that we don't think we can take it anymore. Throughout my life I endured a barrage of nags ranging from "Did you take the trash out like I told you?" to "How in the hell do you lose a pair of shoes? How does that even happen?" And my god did I hate it! I hated all of it! I rolled my eyes, huffed, groaned, and sarcastically answered each nagging question (which always resulted in a glare that could cut a diamond). One nag in particular that I always hated was "Be sure to take a jacket." My mom always told me to be sure and take a jacket with me wherever I was going. I could've been going to see a movie on the sun, and my mom would say, "Be sure to take a jacket with you." A jacket? Really, Mom? Surely she must have realized how much of a hassle a jacket is to carry around, especially if you're going somewhere heated. I would debate her on this issue until the cows came home, but she would always shake her head and say, "You never know what the weather is going to be like. Get a jacket."

Once, I remember fighting her on the jacket issue until I bore her down. "The weather never does what you think it's going to do, and there I am, the only idiot with a jacket." "Fine," she responded, "go without. I don't care." As you might guess, the one time I did not take a jacket with me to where I was going was the one time a sudden cold snap popped up out of nowhere, and I yearned for my jacket. When I got home from my plans, my mother knew what had happened, but she didn't say anything. She just cracked this wise ass grin and asked me if I had a good time. From that point on I never went anywhere without a jacket, and I still don't. Now, at an older age I realize that when my mother told me to take a jacket with me she was really telling me to always be prepared. I really think this idea of being prepared is the essence of motherly nagging, and when we're young we just fail to see it.

03. Set Up For Failure - When I was ten years old I told my mom I had some clothes that needed washing. Up until I was that age she had done my laundry. She looked at me and told me to do it myself. I'd never done laundry before, and when I told her I didn't know how, she asked me if I could read, and if I could follow directions. When I answered yes then she said, "Well, the directions are on the washer for what to do. You can figure it out." She told me to be sure to separate everything into colors - jeans, darks, lights, whites, etc. I'd seen mom do this separation thing a million times, but it always seemed like a lot of effort. My load wasn't that big? Why waste all that water and soap on several small loads? Well my underwear turned pink and so did some of my socks, and when I told my mom about it she said, "Yeah, that's why you have to separate things." This is just one of a whole laundry list (no pun intended) of things my mother has let me fail at. There have been several things I've cooked that have ended in failure and several activities I've tried that have ended in failure, and my mom has let me try to do each thing my way first before offering advice. This simple gesture on her part has probably prepared me for life better than anything for a couple of reasons.

First, it's made me more open minded. I'm not so stubborn that I won't entertain the advice of someone else. I know that I'm fallible enough that the way I think something should be done might not be the best way for something to be done. I can take someone's advice, look at it rationally, and decide if it's something I want to do or not. A lot of people have a problem doing this, and I'm willing to bet it's because their mother's were quick to offer advice and less willing for their children to fail. Failure is actually a good thing, which takes me to my second point. If you're always used to success and have never failed then you're probably miserable. No one gets the right answer every time and not everyone can hit a home run every time they step to the plate. No one gets an A on every test, and no one gets something on the first try. Failure is what we learn from, and success is what we enjoy. This is something I've been able to glean from a simple gesture by my mother, and it's probably the greatest lesson I've ever learned.

In closing, I leave you with the image of the baby sea turtle crawling toward the sea. Its mother, like all mothers, has tried her best to give her offspring the strength to get passed the circling birds and into the bosom of the ocean.

Our world is a world of circling birds. My mother nagged, lied, and let me fail into strength, and now I am in the ocean, and I love her for it. To all the current and future mothers out there, try taking a page from Lindy Gipson's book on mothering. Your kids might just love you for it later.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Under The Covers - My Ten Favorite Covers Songs

10. Ray Charles performs Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash) on the Johnny Cash Show. This song proves, yet again, that Ray Charles can add a level of soul and passion to any song and elevate it to a new height. I love to watch the way his body moves, especially the feet.

09. We're going to stay on Cash for a second. I remember when I first saw the video for Johnny Cash's cover of Hurt (Trent Reznor). I was awe struck. It was remarkable how Cash interpreted the song and sort of made it his own, the sombre way he delivered it to us. You knew this was a man who recognized his own fate, and was greeting it with such a solemn dignity. I find myself, even now, watching this with a hopeless heart. It's tragic and perfect in one package.

08. Here Keb Mo covers my favorite Robert Johnson tune, and he keeps it simple and very close to original. That is to say, he doesn't ruin it. Here's Love In Vain (Robert Johnson)

07. I like it sometimes when bands take liberties with a cover song. Here Death Cab For Cutie does just that with Rockin Chair (The Band). I love this song because it reminds me of some pretty good times working at Hastings, but also because of the part at the end where the line "Oh to be home again!" is sang over and over. Very powerful.

06. Cat Power did a cover of Fortunate Son (C.C.R.). I'm not a huge C.C.R. fan, but Cat Powers voice couples with this salty blues piano makes this a very very good cover.

05. Bonnie Prince Bill does an R. Kelly song? Fuck yes he does! And he does it better than R. Kelly ever could. I love this song for a lot of reasons (mainly because it reminds me of Hole In The Wall), but I especially love the person who did the video for this song...very clever. Here's The World's Greatest (R. Kelly).

04. It takes a lot of balls for someone to cover Jimi Hendrix and to do it well. SRV not only pulls it off, but does arguably a better job than Hendrix. Here's Voodoo Chile Slight Return (Jimi Hendrix).

03. A lot of people have covered Dylan and covered Dylan very well, but I think of all of them this is my favorite - Stevie Wonder doing Blowin in the Wind. There is a lot of talking before the singing starts...just skip to 3:00 and you'll be fine. Here is Stevie Wonder with Blowin in the Wind (Bob Dylan).

02. My friend Paul Nelson posted this song earlier tonight. He defied anyone to feel bitter after listening to it. It's one of those covers that elevates the original version to another place that we didn't expect or think of, like a change in conversation. I think Iz's voice is fucking beautiful, and his uke is masterful. If it wasn't for the next song I would say it was my favorite cover of all time. Here is Israel Kamakawiwo'ole with Over The Rainbow (Arlen/Harburg)

01. There are very few covers that I think are better than the original. This is one, and I'm not going to say much about it, only that it takes me to some very emotional places because it's a son that definitely has some memories attached to it, and because the singer's voice, mixed with the lone electric guitar, is so haunting. In fact at one point toward the end he hits a note while singing and holds it for what seems like forever. I could live in that forever. Here is Jeff Buckley with Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen).

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Songwriting Spank Material - "I Need You"

I remember about ten years ago when cable internet and DSL became available to more households the internet saw an influx in file sharing, and they did it with a service called KaZaa. Yes, KaZaa. Remember this one? This was after Napster and before Limewire and the introduction of torrents. There was a seedy underbelly to the internet where people shared all kinds of files with each other - mp3, movies, porn, document files, computer programs. If it could be ripped or sent over wires you could share it, and I was in the midst of it. It was in this seedy underbelly that I found the artist I want to talk about tonight. I was searching for Bob Dylan mp3 files. My hope was that I could find some rare bootlegs that only a few people had access too. In those days (I think it's weird that I'm using that term to describe file sharing as if I were trying to describe rotary phones to someone whose never seen one) the search parameters weren't that good. You pretty much typed in the artist and waded through the result. I remember during all my Dylan searches seeing this one file pop up over and over again - "Chelsea Hotel/Don't Think Twice It's Alright Cover." I had just discovered Leonard Cohen and thought to myself, "Did Dylan do a show where he covered "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" by Leonard Cohen?" I downloaded it only to find out it wasn't Dylan. It was someone who sounded like Dylan singing a song they'd written called "Chelsea Hotel" and then going into a cover of "Don't Think Twice It's Alright." Later I would find out the artist's name - Dan Bern.

Who the hell is Dan Bern? This is a question you're no doubt asking. Trust me. I asked myself that same question when I discovered that very first song file. The truth is he is amazing. In fact, I have been saying for the past ten years that he is the best songwriter you've probably never heard of, and I still stand by that assessment. As it turns out, has been around for awhile. His first album - Dan Bern - came out in 1997, and he currently has 16 albums and EP's to his credit. His first album and another album - Fleeting Days - are two of my favorite albums of all time, and it is a song from Fleeting Days that I wish to showcase here today. Dan Bern is a songwriter who wears the comedy and tragedy mask. He can sing a song that can make you laugh like "Lightning Jazz" and then he can turn right around and floor you with a song like "God Said No" and absolutely floor you. He has a lot of great songs to choose from, but the one I want to talk about is a simple little tune from Fleeting Days called "I Need You."

There is a term fiction writers throw around a lot called "in medias res" which means "in the middle of things." The idea for writers is that a good story should put the reader in the middle of the action from the beginning. Build up will just bore and confuse a reader. From a songwriting standpoint, this little song by Dan Bern probably does this better than any song I've ever heard. The first few lines of the song put us in the moment and mood that he is trying to convey - "Walking around the happiest place in the world, but all I do wonder is if your hair's still curled. South of Brownsville Texas, South of Miami Beach, all it means to me is that you're further out of reach. Everywhere, sand and sun, blue sky water too. I need you." Instantly we know the problem. He's somewhere away from someone he cares about and it's making him miserable, and the rest of the song builds on the theme. It's actually very clever and brilliant. I also like this song because it is a "someone song." It's a "someone song" for Dan Bern, and it's a "someone song" for me. Around the time I discovered this song I had a relationship with someone and got hurt. This is a song that definitely delivers me back to that time and stirs in me a wide array of emotions. Most people run from songs like this, but I think of it more like I'm looking through old pictures and reflecting on my journey toward today. Some lines of note include the one I quoted earlier and also: "The last plane out of Saigon did not know that it was," and the penultimate line, "Sometimes you get lost and find something new." Such a great song that I wish I'd written.

Here is Dan Bern with "I Need You."