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Top 100 Lyricists #68: Jimi Hendrix

14 Jul

I don’t know if the crowd who came to see an obscure band in the basement of Temple De Hirsch in Seattle in the late 50’s really respected what they saw. Well, considering that this particular band was fired because of too wild playing, I am sure just one or two true rock n’ rollers in the crowd really enjoyed the concert. Around 10 years later, the band’s young guitarist played in front of a slightly larger crowd at White Lake, NY and propelled himself into the prestigious slot of the top 5 guitarists of all time. I am talking about the sultan of amplified guitar skill himself, Mr. Jimi Hendrix. And, after he received a $5 acoustic guitar from one of his father’s acquaintances, he simply did not turn back. Well, he did eventually switch to electric. Hendrix single handedly re-shaped the electric guitar and how it is even heard today. That is how influential he was…and that was only with the guitar.

Okay, now listen…I can go into an entire Hendrix biography and trust me I wouldn’t mind doing it. But, I will contain myself and show all readers that I can resist sharing tidbits of music minutia. Okay, maybe just one.

Did you know that Hendrix formed a band called the Blue Flame in 1966? The Blue Flame featured a 15-year-old guitarist named Randy Wolfe. It also featured a bassist who shared Wolfe’s first name. Hendrix, anticipated confusion and began calling Wolfe Randy California because he had just moved from there to NYC. Randy California would go on to form the band Spirit with his stepfather, drummer Ed Cassidy. Spirit, perhaps, is best known for being a huge inspiration to Led Zeppelin. Ed Cassidy often played extended drum solos with his bare hands which influenced John Bonham, Zeppelin’s drummer, to do the same. Also, Spirit’s “Taurus” is often cited as being “Stairway to Heaven” without the huge success. The famous Zeppelin riff is eerily similar to Spirit’s classic. Personally, I think “Taurus” is a better song. Shoot me. Now, back to Hendrix

The reason this post is being written is not to celebrate Hendrix’s guitar ingenuity. That post can be read here: https://musiccourt.wordpress.com/2009/10/17/court-polls-defense-for-jimi-hendrix/. This, instead, celebrates an art that Hendrix fans do not usually comment enough on. Hendrix was a pretty skilled wordsmith.

Let’s look at one of my favorite Hendrix compositions, “The Wind Cries Mary.” Supposedly, Hendrix wrote this song after he and his then girlfriend Kathy Etchingham had an argument over her cooking. Kathy, I am so very happy your cooking did not please Jimi. Kathy, whose middle name is Mary, stormed out of the house and Jimi was left with a decision, eat the unpleasant food or write the song. Just kidding of course. Maybe Jimi was just not very hungry. Here are some lyrics:

“After all the jacks are in their boxes
And the clowns have all gone to bed
You can hear happiness staggering on down the street
Footprints dressed in red
And the wind whispers Mary

A broom is drearily sweeping
Up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life
Somewhere a queen is weeping
Somewhere a king has no wife
And the wind, it cries Mary”

Hendrix demonstrates a great adroitness for metaphor and sensitive repetition. I, obviously am partial to the court references, but, they work quite well in the song. “Somewhere a queen is weeping, Somewhere a king has no wife.” These two lines in the second verse are by far the best in the song. The words elevate the song to an ethereal level and help represent Hendrix’s situation mystically. And they said Hendrix was only good at the guitar. Well, the guitar definitely helps.

Lyric of the Day #78: Top 100 Lyricists #69 – Stevie Nicks

28 Apr

Stevie Nicks has said that her vocal style evolved from female singers like Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. She was inspired after seeing Joplin live. Nicks’ career success has inspired such modern artists as The Dixie Chicks, Michelle Branch, Mary J. Blige, Sheryl Crown, Tori Amos, and the list just goes on. If one judges artists by who they were inspired by and who they inspired themselves, Nicks is a prime example of a tremendous musician. Artists obviously aren’t judged this way, but, in Nicks’ case at least the conclusion is true. Nicks is a fantastic musician and her musical, lyrical, and even clothing and jewelry style has been an influence to many modern musicians. In this post, we will specifically focus on her lyrics.

Nicks was born in Phoenix, Arizona, to a corporate executive and a homemaker. Her grandfather, Aaron Jess Nicks, was a struggling country singer. He taught Nicks how to sing quite early in her life (try before the age of five). After receiving a guitar for her 16th birthday, Nicks wrote her first song “I’ve Loved and I’ve Lost, and I’m Sad But Not Blue,” and joined her first band while attending Arcadia High School in California. While attending Menlo Atherton High School as a senior, she met Lindsey Buckingham at a Young Life social event. He was playing “California Dreamin'” and she provided some harmony. They became a unit and eventually started recording duos together. They were signed briefly to Polydor records who helped release an album Buckingham Nicks in 1973. It was not a commercial success and the label dropped them. Nicks was sent into a stage where she worked several jobs and even wrote one of the songs I will be profiling today “Landslide” while debating whether to continue to pursue music. But, like every successful and lucky artist, Nicks and Buckingham caught their break on New Year’s Eve, 1974, after playing their track “Frozen Love” for Mick Fleetwood in Studio City, California. He originally only extended the offer to Buckingham, but, after Buckingham insisted they were a duo, Fleetwood caved and allowed Nicks to join the ride. This was most likely the best decision he ever made. No, seriously, passed the cliché, if he did not allow them to join no one would know the name Fleetwood (unless they were using the home company).

Why? Well, in 1975, with Nicks’ voice and lyric at the helm, the band released the eponymous Fleetwood Mac which hit number one and had three top 20 songs. After the album was released, Nicks ended her relationship with Buckingham and the band went into to the studio to record Rumours. The sessions for Rumours were lined with band tension, drug use and various other issues. This, oddly, was the formula for success. Rumours was released in 1977 and is now considered one of the better albums of all time. Once again, Nicks’ work was instrumental to this success.

She became a symbol. Yes, there were problems along the way (the band did eventually fall apart). Nicks’ personal love life and drug use did certainly

Like so.

take a toll. But, her music and lyric are extraordinary. They are rich with emotional symbolism and they are delightfully airy and ethereal. She is also known for the image she created for herself. This attributes to her status as an icon or, as Rolling Stone Magazine called her, “The Reigning Queen of Rock N’ Roll.” Nicks is known for her somewhat anagogic wardrobe that is Gothic and almost witch-like. Hence, witchcraft rumors that have followed her. Nicks humorously is known to have stated, “I am not a witch. Get a life!” Her dresser is full of chiffon skirts, lace, top hats and platform boots. Her style has been worked on by Californian designer Margi Kent since the 1970’s.

But, this is not an article about clothing. So, how about some lyrics. Let’s first explore “Edge of Seventeen,” which was released on her 1981 solo début album Bella Donna. The song focused in on the grief she was feeling because of the death of her uncle and the murder of John Lennon which occurred during the same week in December of 1980. It features a simple chord structure and great, noticeable riff. The lyrics hit you right away:

The white winged dove (Mark A. Hicks, illustrator.)

“Just like the white winged dove… sings a song …
Sounds like she’s singing…
whoo…whoo…whoo

Just like the white winged dove… sings a song
Sounds like she’s singing…
ooo…baby…ooo…said ooo

And the days go by….
like a strand in the wind
In the web that is my own…
I begin again
Said to my friend, baby…Nothin’ else mattered”

Song:

Nicks has said that the “dove” in the lyric represents the spirit leaving the body after death. It is a wonderful portrayal of grief. Nicks stated in an interview with BAM in 1981, ” The most recent [song on Bella Donna] is Edge of Seventeen, which is also my favorite song on the record…. Edge of Seventeen closes it [the album] ~ chronologically, anyway ~ with the loss of John Lennon and an uncle at the same time. That song is sort of about how no amount of money or power could save them. I was angry, helpless, hurt, sad.” She portrays this with her rich symbolism quite well.

My favorite Nicks song is definitely “Landslide.” It was released on Fleetwood Mac’s first album. Nicks said in an interview, “”looking out at the Rocky Mountains pondering the avalanche of everything that had come crashing down on us…at that moment, my life truly felt like a landslide in many ways.” She wrote the song while sitting in a friend’s house in Aspen, Colorado. Good setting! Here are my favorite lyrics:

So, take my love, take it down
Climb a mountain and turn around
And if you see my reflection in the snow-covered hills
Well, the landslide will bring it down”

Song:

These lyrics are sung so delicately by Nicks that you cannot dislike them. But, the symbolism is certainly there. She feels like she is falling. She dedicates this song to her father. Great song. Great artist. Great lyrics.

Lyric of the Day #77: Top 100 Lyricists #70 – Beck

7 Apr

“In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey
butane in my veins and I’m out to cut the junkie
with the plastic eyeballs, spray-paint the vegetables
dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose”

– Beck: “Loser” off of Mellow Gold (1994)

Beck being Beck

Please, do not spend a lot of time attempting to decipher the lyrics above. “Loser,” multi-instrumentalist Beck Hansen’s most popular hit, is a string of somewhat unintelligible poetry that provides no apparent pattern or lyrical rhythm. It is the definition of complete musical entropy. Beck’s perplexing lyric is a wave of wonderful randomness and that is what makes it awesome. Yes, you heard it hear first. Sometimes there is just no meaning.

Now, do not get the idea that all of Beck’s lyrics are an odd mixture of random words and phrases picked out of a grand hat. “Loser” is just an example of an experimental lyric. The regurgitated words come together and form a hugger-mugger. A jumbled mass of images set to an acoustic slide and callisthenics in a graveyard. It is Beck, the idiosyncratic music master, at his very finest.

Beck was born in Los Angeles, California to musician David Campbell and former Andy Warhol “Star” and visual artist, Bibbe Hansen. After his parents separated, he chose to stay in Los Angeles with his mother where he was introduced to a burgeoning hip-hop scene and with his mother’s art crowd. His influences were beyond diverse and he caught much of his parent’s talents.

Beck dropped out of high school (like so many musicians) in the mid-1980’s and took a tour of Europe, honing his musical skill through busking. He eventually found his way into the anti-folk movement of New York City in the late-1980’s and was further inspired. After returning to Los Angeles, he started taking several dead-end jobs before finally recording. His first official single was released in 1993 on Flipside Records.”MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack” remains one of my favorite Beck songs. It combines hilarious social criticism with true frustration. It is real and I always respected that about Beck.

“mtv makes me wanna smoke crack
fall out of the window and I’m never comin back
mtv makes me wanna get high
can’t get a ride no matter how I try
and everything’s perfect
and everything’s bright
and everyone’s perky
and everyone’s uptight
I love those videos
I watch ’em all day”

– Beck: “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack”

Beck opens the song with these lyrics. He depicts the fraudulence of MTV. “Everyone’s perfect,” delineates Beck’s annoyance at the sitcom-like nature of the artificial music videos of the time. It has further expanded into the deceiving programming that currently makes the MTV network the true trash of television. Beck anticipated its arrival.

“Loser”

“MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack”

Lyric of the Day #76: Top 100 Lyricists #71 – Keith Reid (Procul Harum)

17 Mar
It should be lyrics and music!

It should be Lyrics and Music!

What do you call a musician who cannot sing or play an instrument? Give up? The correct answer is a lyricist. Yes, a lyricist; the most under-appreciated band member next to the drummer and the hard-working roadies. When you think about Elton John do you also think of Bernie Taupin. When you’re singing “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” understand that those words came from the mind of Bernie Taupin. Elton John put the beautiful music and voice to it, but,without Bernie Taupin there would be no yellow brick road immortalized in song.

Keith Reid concentrates only on words. His craft is language. He may not sing or tickle the keys of a piano, but he certainly knows how to create lyrical poetry with the best of them. His words are somewhat unconventional but that is what makes them great. Reid left school at 15 with hopes of becoming a lyricist. He was inspired by Bob Dylan (who has not made a rash decision because of Bob Dylan?). Luckily, through Island Records chief Chris Blackwell, Reid was introduced to Guy Stevens (producer of The Clash’s London Calling) who then introduced him to vocalist/composer Gary Brooker. Yes, the meeting seems convoluted but it was a match made in heaven.

Another quasi-cliche cemented Reid and Brooker’s relationship. Reid set surreal lyrics to a song named “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” while Brooker and the rest of Procul Harum set a melody to the lyrics. Six million copies later, “A White Shade of Pale” is still considered one of the best progressive rock songs of all time. Rolling Stone agrees. It is #57 on their list of the Top 500 Rock N’ Roll Songs of All Time. So, let us explore the lyrics of Keith Reid.

Keith Reid wrote all of Procul Harum’s songs; some by himself and some collaborating with other band members. He is known for his terrific imagery and excellent sense of poetic rhythm (and he is not a musician? I think so, just in a different, more written fashion). Reid is also a master storyteller and this ability is displayed well in his songs. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” proves this. Take a listen before you read the comments.

Great song, right? My favorite lyrics in this song have always been:

“She said, “There is no reason
And the truth is plain to see.”
But I wandered through my playing cards
And they would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast
And although my eyes were open wide
They might have just as well been closed

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale”

Set to a magnificent piano part and Brooker’s heavenly voice, these lyrics are highlighted well. The lyrics of this widely misunderstood song are about a boy/girl relationship and the somewhat nautical journey through sex and love. Reid explains a somewhat drunken exchange delicately and this helps the song remain rather cryptic to some, but clear to others. I just love the water imagery. We see this again in “A Salty Dog,” my second favorite Reid lyric.

Beautiful, right? I do not steer you wrong. My favorite lyrics:

“We sailed for parts unknown to man, where ships come home to die
No lofty peak, nor fortress bold, could match our captain’s eye
Upon the seventh seasick day we made our port of call
A sand so white, and sea so blue, no mortal place at all”

First, understand that a “salty dog” is one who has travelled much and witnessed a lot of the world. This song is a classic sea story and is written quite well. Reid enjoys sea stories and symbolism and I enjoy his lyrics a lot. He is the classic example of a lyricist who should get more credit.

Lyric of the Day #75: Top 100 Lyricists #72 – Paul Westerberg (The Replacements and Solo)

3 Mar

Paul Westerberg knows what he wants. He also knows how to take it. He has been using this strategy for his entire career. While on his way home from his janitorial job he heard a punk band practicing in a basement. Westerberg wanted in. He played guitar, wrote songs, and was a good singer. He regularly visited the jam sessions and was eventually invited to jam with Bob and Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars. After auditioning singers for the newly formed band, a vocalist was found and put in the lead position that Westerberg wanted. So, how could he get rid of the lead singer? Well, Westerberg simply manipulated him and convinced him that the band did not like him. The singer quit and Westerberg took over as the lead singer.

The band, which eventually changed its name to The Replacements, considered music secondary to drinking and doing drugs. Westerberg came to meetings well-dressed and concentrated on repeated practicing of songs so the band could get it perfect. What came of the hard work? Several hit albums. Tremendous song writing. The Replacements went down as one of the best alternative rock bands of the 1980’s and they have had a huge influence on bands like Green Day and The Goo Goo Dolls, to name a few.

Westerberg, after the fall of The Replacements, hit success with his solo projects. His first official solo work appeared in the 1992 movie “Singles.” One of the songs I will feature below was in this Cameron Crowe film. Westerberg continues to release songs today and his ambitious, independent approach to music has even strengthened his status as a respected man in music.

Two sings that push Westerberg above the 28 other lyricists that have somehow been featured on The Music Court are a Replacements song and a solo song.  “Dyslexic Heart” from the movie “Singles” and “Bastards of Young,” one of The Replacements best songs from the album Tim

“Dyslexic Heart,” as listened to above, is a catchy and fun song. Yet, sang above the active, effervescent beat is a lyric that focuses on the confusion one can get when attempting to read signals from a member of the opposite sex. He is confused. He has a wacked out dyslexic heart. My favorite part is the first verse.

“You shoot me glances and they’re so hard to read
I misconstrue what you mean
Slip me a napkin and now that you start
Is this your name or a doctor’s eye chart?”

“Is this your name or a doctor’s eye chart.” Just classic.

“Bastards of Young” is a punk attack with an angry lyric.

“Clean your baby womb, trash that baby boom
Elvis in the ground, there ain’t no beer tonight
Income tax deduction, what a hell of a function
It beats pickin’ cotton and waitin’ to be forgotten”

Great lyric. “Trash the baby boom.” Just youthful unrest at its best. It is great that Westerberg has managed to stay young in his music throughout the years.

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