Fairly articulate mammal

Saturday, August 15, 2020

I Know I Need a Small Vacation, but it Don’t Look Like Rain

 My current crush band, Black Pumas, recently released a cover of “Wichita Lineman.” I really like it. I’ve heard the song a zillion times, of course. The iconic Glen Campbell version is the first and maybe best, but Dwight Yoakam does a great version as well. Also there’s a very good version by a New Orleans funk band called The Meters. 

The song was written by Jimmy Webb, who wrote many hit songs recorded by The Supremes, The Fifth Dimension, Waylon Jennings, Isaac Hayes, and others. Webb’s songs are probably most famously associated with Glen Campbell’s string of hits in the mid-to-late 60s. 

Anyhow, in one of those kismet moments, while I’ve been enjoying the new recording of an old song by a current favorite band, an old grad school friend posted about the song on Facebook. He wrote that while he likes the song pretty well, can see that it has merits, sure, he doesn’t get why it’s SO beloved by so many people. He asked if anybody wanted to try to articulate why “Wichita Lineman” isn’t just a good song, but a great one. I thought I might be the right person for the job. 

So I just now listened a few times, trying to do so with fresh ears, to the degree that’s possible. 

To me, it’s the synergy among three elements that makes the song not just good, but great. Those elements are the lyrics, the arrangement, and the melody. 

(1) Lyrics: There are very good lines, and the best is probably “I need you more than want you/ And I want you for all time.”  I also admire the double meaning of "still on the line" to mean both "having another long damn day at work" and "still in love, still thinking about you." But the whole thing is very strong, from the images to the way the words sound to the balance of concrete details (“if it snows, that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain”) to the speaker’s lost-in-thought flights of fancy. Just as important to the lyrical excellence of the song is what there isn’t: there isn’t much. The song is spare. And that minimalist approach reinforces the themes of empty space and loneliness. The song doesn’t get in its own way by being over-written. 

(2) Arrangement-wise — and here I’m specifically referencing the Glen Campbell version that made the song famous — there is a cool high/low tension thing going on with the lofty violins versus Glenn’s down-to-earth singing and his rich baritone guitar solo. I also like the staccato section, the instrumentation that comes in just under and after the lyric “still on the liiiine.” In the Black Pumas version, the song starts with that. It sounds a little like an electric beeping signal or something. To my ear, it goes with the idea of an electric signal, or the pulsing energy that the lines carry. Anyway, all my reactions to the playing and the arrangement don’t need to make easily paraphrasable sense. There is plenty for my ear to do, and these elements of instrumentation sound good AND sound good together AND are theme-reinforcing. 

3. But the MAIN thing among the elements, the aspect that is the strongest by far, is the melody. For decades, most pop songwriting has had just-okay melodies. Some writers, though — Paul Simon comes to mind — still labor to craft artful, beautiful, instantly memorable melodies that evoke a lot of emotion and could stand alone as instrumentals. 

This comes and goes as a matter of artistic fashion, just like attention to visual detail versus big sweeps of color in painting, or the relative importance of clean lines versus  ornamental detail in architecture. Melody is and has been at a low ebb for a while. In the music I grew up with, this was already true, but the trend is on steroids now. Hum to yourself part of a big hit from the 70s and forward, and chances are pretty good that it is simple. Maybe not a lot of range. Maybe not a lot of variety in how long the notes stretch. Maybe derived from some other song. 

Whatever song you're thinking of, there's a decent chance that the song’s appeal lies elsewhere. It might be a forceful vocal delivery and presentation of persona, or it might be rhythmic complexity, a killer beat, or something about the storytelling. Maybe it is the virtuosity of a guitar solo, or the way the harmonies lift the song’s energy going from the verse into the chorus. With rock, with lots of radio pop, and with hip-hop, melody has steadily lost position in the ranking of how important each musical element is. 

But not so for Jimmy Webb. He’s like one of those old school Brill Building or Great American Songbook writers, where the melody matters more than anything else. 

And this one soars. As it relates to this character, the melody is the channel by which a beautiful and romantic longing bursts out of the prosaic details in his blue collar life. The melody elevates his thoughts. It lifts him from his ordinary dirt-under-the-fingernails kind of reality to something aspirational: true love. 

The way those three things work together — the spare but vivid lyric, the interplay of the production/arrangement details, and a melody that somehow communicates a yearning beyond words — make 1+1+1 equal a thousand. That’s why so many artists are drawn to it. That’s why it’s great. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Around the Block

I am really good about getting a lot of steps per day. Over 11,000 almost every day for a few years. And I make sure some of that involves stairs or going up a hill. However, when it came to the more strenuous exercise, really getting out of breath and getting my heart rate up, I knew I needed to up my game.

So, last November 27, I decided to start doing a timed short run most weekdays. Around my block is just under a quarter-mile. I decided that would do. The first few times I did it, I couldn’t maintain a run for even that short distance. Too much rust.

I had some guilt about how I hadn’t maintained my fitness level from my younger years. At my peak, I could run 3 miles in 21 minutes, and I just didn’t do the work to maintain it.

But, as anyone who exercises can testify, gains happen fast when you’re first starting (or starting back). So, in November, I started at a little over three minutes, part of it walking. In short order, I could run the whole way around and could get around the block in just over two minutes.

The day after Christmas, I finally broke the two-minute mark with my new late-middle-aged record of 1:56. By January 11, my NEW-new record was 1:42. And then I coasted a while and was less consistent.

However, when we began our quarantine in March, I got back into it more seriously. And I nudged Harrison to join me. Being young and in decent shape, he was pretty quick to match my best times, or get pretty close.

I finally broke another new record in April ... 1:38! 

Harrison was stuck at 1:40. And on we went, most every weekday morning, through May and June.    

Then, at the very end of July,  Harrison shattered the around-the-block record with a time of 1:34! He’s been under 1:40 several times since then. I can still get in the 1:30s, too, but haven’t (yet) matched his (temporary) record.

It’s now been over five months that we’ve been doing this. The ritual is that we walk the dog around the block, then one of us holds the leash and times the other one’s run around the block. We switch, and then we all three take another spin around the block. Bella loves it. A lot of days, H and I also take a longer early-morning walk, the Sun not yet up, two miles or so. 

Sometimes we’re silent for long stretches. Sometimes we just bullshit about this or that, songs we like, whatever show we’re watching, and so on. Other times we talk about life in a deeper way. I like it a lot.

This is such a difficult time we are all living through, but I am really grateful for this sweet part of it. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

13 Songs: Everything Falls Apart

Death, Trouble, and Hard Journeys

1. “Everything Falls Apart,” Dog’s Eye View.
“Don’t look now, things just got worse.”

2. “Next Best Western,” Lucy Wainwright Roche. 
“The highway takes its toll, the green light flashes go.”

3. “When I Get to Heaven,” John Prine. 
“Dah-dah-dah, doo-doo-doot.”

4. “Opelousas (Sweet Relief),” Maria McKee
“It’s in a bottle of wine or just losing some time.”

5. “Nobody Dies,”  Thao and the Get Down Stay Down
“What to say? What to say? What to say?”

6. “All Kinds of Time,” Fountains of Wayne.
“The clock’s running down.”

7. “Hummingbird,” Tim Easton.
“I take you on.”

8. “Might as Well Get Stoned,” Chris Stapleton. 
“Since my whiskey’s gone . . .”

9. “If You Have Ghosts,”  John Wesley Harding.
 “The moon to the left of me is a part of my thoughts and a part of me is me.”

10. “A Long Way Home,” Dwight Yoakam.
“Without one clue that it’s a long way home.”

11. “Step into the Light,” Mavis Staples. 
”See what you will as you’re climbing up that hill.”

12. “Farther on up the Road,” Johnny Cash.
“Got a song to sing. It keeps me out of the cold.”

13.  “Runnng on Empty,” Jackson Browne and David Lindley
“Running into the Sun, but I’m running behind.”


Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Jeff’s Next Page is 5 years old!

So, I missed it yesterday, but this blog is half a decade old. 

Back when I was just starting this, I was feeling a need to jump-start my creative life. Because of other priorities — my marriage, family life, friendships, the work I do for money — my creative energy tends to be invested here and there, in a scattershot way that can lead to some satisfying projects and experiences, but doesn’t really build. 

I decided it would be good to have a place to write out my thoughts in a way that is a little more sustained than a social media post. I thought it would be good to make some art and use this blog to talk some about whatever art I made. 

And thus it has gone! Now I have a YouTube channel with short videos of songs and poems I’ve written, and I’ve once in a great while managed to land a poem, story, or essay in some cool online journals, wrote a published an ebook novella, and I’ve upped the ante as a storyteller/performer. 

 Still not famous, and don’t expect to ever be famous in the worlds of literature, music, or performance. I can say, though, that my creative world is alive, humming with energy, and that I have a small but interested readership, listenership, etc.

For those of you who come here to read my writing, and who follow my creative work, thank you! 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Nobody wants to hear about Jason’s dreams

Jason Isbell is hanging in there with his attempts to get us to hear about his dreams. 

On his new album, Reunions, the gifted songwriter includes a cool callback that his most attentive fans will appreciate. I take it as a funny reference to a moment in “Chaos and Clothes” (from 2017’s The Nashville Sound), where Isbell sings: 

In my sleep, I build machines
Nobody ever wants to hear about my dreams, 
Last night I saw a burning Ferris wheel,
The meaning’s anybody’s guess ...

I like the brief passage a lot. It’s funny to me because the very first thing Jason does after telling us that nobody wants to hear about his dreams is to immediately describe an image he saw in a dream. It captures a thing a lot of us may have experienced on both sides: you have a (to you) striking dream but can’t get anybody to listen, or you get stuck hearing about somebody’s rambling-ass weird dream. Because there’s not much narrative sense in dream logic, listening is often frustrating and boring. 

But having set up that dynamic in “Chaos and Clothes” — “I’m telling you about my dreams whether you want to hear it or not!”— it’s even funnier for him to revisit it in the new album. The callback comes in the song “It Gets Easier,” which begins:

Last night I dreamed that I'd been drinking
Same dream I have 'bout twice a week
I had one glass of wine
I woke up feeling fine
And that's how I knew it was a dream

Last night I dreamed that I'd been drinking
Cold burn of whiskey down my throat
My hand turned into a rattlesnake
And I laughed myself awake
And that's how I knew it was a joke

As far as these lines or that song, anybody might appreciate them, on their own or in the context of the new album. You don’t need to have already been a fan to like it. 

But ongoing fans can appreciate it at a different level: those lines don’t live only in the context of a song or an album, but a body of work. His work and your (my) ongoing fandom becomes a years-long relationship. The work sinks in for the people who like it enough to, you know, LISTEN-listen, to let the songs become part of our lives, and to pay deep and repeated attention. When you listen like that, noticing things like the callback I’m describing can become tribal membership stuff. There’s a running gag, and you’re in on it.

I don’t even care how intentional it is (though I think Jason’s a noticer and likely knows what he did). Cool with me either way. 

I mention it here partly just to share my enjoyment of a smart, funny, cool thing that struck me in a song lyric. But I also want to use it as a representative example of the pleasures of context. 

There’s a joy to be had in having some artists that you follow. You listen to all their work for years. You have favorite songs, sure, but there’s more to it. They have a vibe, a way of being in the world, and it resonates for you. Their voice in your head becomes like a friend on your life’s path. You pull for them to do great work. Your share your fandom with people in your life. Maybe the songs become an important part of your relational culture with people you love. And when you get to go see one of your short-list very-favorites play live, maybe quite a few times over different chapters of your life, man, it is a burst of pure oxygen. 

I’ve got artists that crossed my path at a certain moment when my ears were really ready to hear them. Some fall away. But with some —and Jason Isbell has become one of them — they come along for the rest of the ride and you come to understand the work in a deeper and more satisfying way. 

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Kind of a While

I said, “You’re looking so good, 
Mmm, you’ve got the prettiest smile.”
She said, “I’m feeling good too, 
and it’s been kind of a while,
kind of a while.”

She said, “The days were blasting by
like a westbound train, 
the song in my head was 
‘I Wish it would Rain,’
But now I feel like the me
that knows how to be
free and wild . . .
It’s been kind of a while, 
been kind  of a while.”

I said, “I know just what you mean, 
when darkness stretches on for miles.
I was so hopeless and so lost,
for kind of a while,
kind of a while.

I couldn’t even breathe right,
yeah, it’s hard to explain.  
The closest  I can come is
 I was living in chains, 
Then you baked me a cake
and I laughed ‘cause
it was hiding a  file . . . 
It’s been kind of a while, 
been kind of a while.”

And we might know 
enough to know
There’s no such thing 
as a perfectly smooth road,
no places where the 
summers are cool
and the winters are mild.

She said, “The days were blasting by
like a westbound train, 
the song in my head was 
‘I Wish it would Rain,’
But now I feel like the media 
that knows how to be
free and wild . . .
It’s been kind of a while, 
kind  of a while.”

Words and Music by Jeff Knight