Corinne Bailey Rae’s husband Jason Rae died in his sleep, his breathing suppressed by an accidental overdose of methadone. It’s difficult to listen to her singing “I’d Do it All Again” and not imagine you are hearing a woman coming to terms with the death of her lover.
Johnny Cash’s cover of “Sea of Heartbreak” fades out with the guitarist in his band (the Heartbreakers) locked on the familiar, insinuating riff from Bob Dylan’s “I Want You.” Cash’s endgame mixes up his story of lost love with fanship. It’s a rootsy, Prousty lesson in counterpoint that hints what Dylan’s song owed to Don Gibson’s 1961 hit, even as it bows to what Cash’s old friend found down by the “Sea.”
Charles O’Brien helps launch the new First Choice section focusing on our writers’ favorite things.
“Twenty-Something” is the third track on Pet Shop Boys’ latest cd, Super. You can find it on YouTube in a few different versions. The two most obvious go-to versions are the “official video” and one remix. The “official video” is a b&w short about a gangbanger in San Diego, fresh out of the joint and trying desperately to adjust to the world. It’s about as efficient a short narrative as you’re likely to see, and as an illustration of these lyrics, not what you’d be likely to expect.
Jon Langford of the Mekons goes back to the roots of his British Punk band’s feeling for hard country music before memorializing Merle Haggard.
Merle Haggard was probably the greatest singer-songwriter I’ve ever seen. The only artist I can think to compare him to is Sam Cooke, who like Merle possessed the gift for writing songs that were at once both deeply personal and universally applicable to the human condition.
“My monthly income is $500. I just spent $130 of that on the newly released Dylan Basement Tapes. My daddy thinks I’m no good with money.” That’s the opening of the following diary in which the late Carmelita Estrellita noted down her responses to Bob Dylan’s sixties sessions with the Band in Woodstock.
For a long time, my image of the Ugly American was a thick-necked Prince hater I met (early in the Age of Reagan) when he drove me around the Upper West Side as I delivered Christmas gifts for a package store. This piece of work (who had a familial connection to the owners and wanted me to know he was tight with my bosses) had seen Prince open for the Stones in 1981. He’d been among thousands in the overwhelmingly white crowd who booed the “faggot” unmercifully.
It was the fall of 1978 and I was in Jimmy’s Music World in downtown Brooklyn. Having recently rewired my collecting impulses from baseball cards and comic books to LPs and 45’s–that’s vinyl albums and singles for you young ‘uns–I was looking for some product to play on my new Onkyo stereo component system. I was leafing through the R&B bin when I began to pay closer attention to the music on the in-store speakers.
A version of this previously unpublished non-fiction article was incorporated into the author’s novel, “The Death of Frank Sinatra” (1996).
Every musician wore a tuxedo. The conductor was a small round man sitting at a grand piano wearing earphones. With a slash of the conductor’s hand the rhythm and brass burst into a loud, up-tempo number and Sinatra flashed a smile that made him look uncannily young, a young smile in his old pasty face, and his eyes were the same as they’d always been, brighter in person than they ever registered on screen, and, like the smile, the eyes were young to the point of seeming unnatural.
Bobby Keys and Jim Price put some horns on the end of “Honky Tonk Women” mixed down so low you can only hear them in the very last second and half on the fade. Chuck Berry had a saxophone just for the very end of “Roll Over Beethoven.” We loved that idea of another instrument coming in just for the last second. Keith Richards, Life
Part 2 of an essay that begins here.
It is absolutely false to imagine that there is some providential mechanism by which what is best in any given period is transmitted to the memory of posterity. By the very nature of things, it is false greatness which is transmitted. There is, indeed, a providential mechanism, but it only works in such a way as to mix a little genuine greatness with a lot of spurious greatness; leaving us to pick out which is which. Without it we should be lost.—Simone Weil, “The Need for Roots”
“Loss of the past, whether it be collectively or individually, is the supreme human tragedy, and we have thrown ours away just like a child picking off the petals of a rose… We owe our respect to a collectivity, of whatever kind—country, family or any other—not for itself, but because it is food for a certain number of human souls.”—Simone Weil, “The Need for Roots”
Simone Weil once lived in a building around the corner from Tiemann Place in West Harlem where we held our 29th annual “Anti-Gentrification Street Fair” in October.
The date was November 19, 1995. The place was the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. It was there that a two-hour television special was being taped—yes, taped—celebrating the oncoming eightieth birthday, December 15, to be exact, of the preeminent singer of the twentieth century: Francis Albert Sinatra. Broadcast on December 17 by ABC, the program Frank Sinatra: 80 Years My Way featured a hodgepodge of acts from Salt-n-Pepa to Vic Damone to Steve & Eydie to Bruce Springsteen performing songs Ol’ Blue Eyes had made famous. Seated at an elevated table facing stage right, surrounded by family, a tuxedoed Sinatra appeared to take in the parade of performers with a respectful, ruminative restraint. He dutifully applauded each rendition—even joined the star-laden audience in a couple of standing ovations for Patti Labelle and Ray Charles—but maintained a sense of emotional remove. Age and frail health be damned, the Chairman of the Board was holding court in public and he was determined to maintain his legendary cool.
Then Bob Dylan appeared onstage.
First is reposting this piece in honor of the great jazz pianist Don Pullen who died 20 years ago today.
About 100 pages into David Ritz’s unauthorized biography of Aretha Franklin, Respect, I flashed on Greil Marcus’s tagline for his book on Punk, Lipstick Traces, which he dubbed: “the secret history of the 20th Century.” Ritz’s concept of Respect is less expansive, but his deeply sourced raps on black musicking speak to the “secret history” of the African American nation in the second half of the 20th C.
Respect’s lost and found historical conjunctures include one night in 1962 (February 20th to be exact), when Aretha Franklin played NYC’s Village Gate along with Thelonious Monk.
Get On Up, the James Brown bio-pic, has moved your editor to re-up on First‘s 2007 tribute to JB, which includes contributions from Amiri Baraka, Chuck D., Anne Dannielsen, John Leland, W.T. Lhamon Jr. Michael Lydon, Charles O’Brien, Robert Farris Thompson, Richard Torres, Casey Wasserman, & Mel Watkins.
“Shake It Off,” director Mark Romanek’s recent clip for Taylor Swift, depicts bad new trends in beautiful old ways. It works the same way as the best ‘80s-‘90s music videos—using semiotics to express up-to-the-minute changes in pop culture, producing the sort of imagery commentators and marketers now glibly call “iconic.”