Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tony Joe White -- "Polk Salad Annie" (1969)


Down in Louisiana
Where the alligators grow so mean
There lived a girl
That I swear to the world
Made the alligators look tame

I have a strict policy of staying away from any woman who makes alligators look tame.  

Maybe if I found myself in New Orleans on business and I could avoid giving this woman my real name, I might consider one teeny little "date" with such a femme fatale.  Especially if I had been drinking at this fine French Quarter establishment:


But it's probably a better idea to steer clear -- especially if the woman's momma was working on a chain gang as the result of a rumpus involving a straight razor, which was the case with "Polk Salad Annie's" momma.

Polk salad -- American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) -- is a large herbaceous perennial that is native to the eastern half of the United States.  ("Poke salad" seems to be the more common spelling, but I'm following White here.)

Parts of the plant are quite toxic, but the leaves are apparently safe to eat if you pick them before they mature.  (One source I found says leaves that are under seven inches in length are OK, but I think I'll take a pass on pokeweed altogether -- there are plenty of varieties of lettuce, spinach, etc., at my local grocery store to satisfy my needs.)

Pokeweed (a/k/a/"Polk salad")
If you live out in the woods and have no money and decide to pick you a mess of polk salad and carry it home in a towsack, my understanding is that you need to rinse the leaves in cold water, cook them in boiling water, rinse them again, boil them again, and rinse them again.

Of course, you can just buy them in a can:


Polk salad is similar to collard, turnip, or mustard greens, and is at its best when cooked in bacon grease and served with bacon.  But you could say the same thing about almost any green vegetable (e.g., Brussels sprouts).

Click here for an article that tells you everything you need to know about cooking polk salad.

Tony Joe White was born and reared (not raised -- as my high-school English teacher taught us, you raise animals but you rear children) in a small town in northeast Louisiana, near the Mississippi River.  

"Polk Salad Annie," White's only hit single, was recorded in 1968 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and released late that year.


Initially, the record went nowhere.  White was living in Corpus Christi, Texas, at the time, and the people who heard him play live bought enough copies to make it a local hit.  Eventually, it charted nationally in July -- months after its initial release -- and stayed in the top 10 throughout August of that year.  (We started school in August in those days, so "Polk Salad Annie" qualifies for inclusion in my ongoing series of one-hit wonders from my senior year of high school.)

White's other singles didn't do nearly as well, although his "Soul Francisco" single was something of a hit in France and Belgium.  ("Rainy Night in Georgia" -- which he had written in 1962 -- became a big hit for Brook Benton in 1970.)

Here's "Soul Francisco":


Tony Joe appeared in the 1974 movie Catch My Soul.  That movie -- think of it as "Othello" meets "Hair" -- was directed by Patrick McGoohan, the star of two of my favorite television series of all time, Secret Agent and The Prisoner.  

The movie starred Richie Havens (of Woodstock fame) in the Othello role, Lance LeGault as Iago (you might remember him from The A-Team), Season Hubley as Desdemona, Susan Tyrrell as Emilia, and White (who wrote and performed several songs on the movie's soundtrack) as Cassio.  Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett and Billy Joe Royal also appeared.

Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner
Catch My Soul was -- in director McGoohan's words -- "a disaster."  (He never directed a movie again.) 

Here's an excerpt from Vincent Canby's review in the New York Times:

The music, a lot of it written by Tony Joe White, who plays Cassio ("a wino from Baton Rouge, Louisiana") is not at all bad, especially when it's being sung by Mr. White or Richie Havens, who is as creditable an Othello as it's possible to be under the nervy circumstances.  It's the hybrid plot and dialogue that keep one in what is genteelly called stitches. . . .
Says Desdemona in plighting her troth: "Whither thou goest, I will go. Whither thou lodgeth, I will lodge."  . . . You wouldn't be at all surprised if she added: "In whatever car thou renteth, I will be beside thee, on the fronteth seat."
When Desdemona, asks Cassio why Othello no longer favors him, the sodden Cassio pulls himself together just long enough to say: "Ah don' know.  A mess a things.  Ah ain't much of a talker."
"I like not that," says Iago, as Desdemona goes off to whisper into Cassio's ear. Says the distracted Othello: "Wha's dat?" . . .
Susan Tyrrell, who was so good in Fat City, turns up as Emilia, a woman who talks like Mae West and who dresses as if she had access to the wardrobe of the Madwoman of Chaillot.
Forget the movie and get the soundtrack album.
"Polk Salad Annie" has been covered by a number of artists -- unfortunately, Tina Turner was not one of them.  

Elvis Presley regularly performed "Polk Salad Annie" in concert.  Here's a video of one such performance featuring Jerry Scheff's fuzzy bass solo.  (Scheff, whose first achieved success as the bass player on the Association's "Along Comes Mary," was a member of Presley's "Taking Care of Business" band from 1969 until 1977, and also played bass on L.A. Woman, the final Doors album.)



Click here if you'd like to watch a video of Tony Joe singing "Polk Salad Annie" with Johnny Hallyday, also known as "the French Elvis Presley."  (You've never heard of Hallyday, but he has recorded 18 platinum albums and sold 110 million records.)  Why Tony Joe and Johnny were sharing the stage in Memphis in 1984 is a very good question.

And click here if you'd like to hear Dan Aykroyd and Jim (not John) Belushi's version of "Polk Salad Annie."  It's OK, although Aykroyd's faux-Louisiana accent is a bit much.

Here's the original "Polk Salad Annie":


Click below to buy the song from Amazon:




Sunday, July 29, 2012

PJ Harvey -- "Down by the Water" (1995)


Little fish, big fish
Swimming in the water
Come back here, man 
Gimme my daughter

I've been doing 2 or 3 lines for almost three years now, and I have written about almost 400 different songs.  But there are still many, many worthwhile recording artists whose music hasn't yet been featured on my wildly popular (but disappointingly unlucrative) blog.

I can now check PJ (Polly Jean) Harvey off my list.

PJ Harvey was born in 1969 in Bridport, a British town of about 13,000 souls that sits on the English Channel.  Bridport is located at the western end of Chesil Beach, a long shingle beach -- which means it consists of pebbles rather than sand.

Chesil Beach (UK)
Chesil Beach was the setting for Ian McEwen's short 2007 novel, On Chesil Beach, which is about the honeymoon of a young British couple in 1962.  It is a compelling novel, but not a happy one.  (It's one of those heartbreaking books that is made even more heartbreaking by the fact that things could have so easily turned out happily.)  

"Down by the Water" is from PJ's first of six solo albums to date, To Bring You My Love, which was released in 1995.  (She had previously recorded two albums as the frontwoman of the PJ Harvey Trio.)  The song got a lot of airplay on college radio stations, and the music video appeared on MTV quite a few times.


"Down by the Water" was nominated for the Grammy for "Best Female Rock Vocal Performance," but lost out to Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know," her sweet little musical bouquet of flowers for Dave Coulier.  No disrespect to PJ, but "You Oughta Know" deserved the top prize.  Click here to read what 2 or 3 lines had to say about "You Oughta Know."  

A lot of people have posted online explanations of the meaning of this PJ Harvey song, most of which are completely loony.  (All of you people, listen to me -- you need to get a life.  Or maybe you need new meds.)


In 2005, PJ was asked by Spin magazine what was the most ridiculous thing that anyone had ever written about her.  Here's her answer:

People assume my songs are autobiographical, but I'm not a dark person like the characters in my songs.  Some critics have taken my writing so literally to the point that they'll listen to "Down by the Water" and believe I have actually given birth to a child and drowned her.

The music video features Harvey in a red dress wearing a very big wig and lots of bright-red lipstick.  (She described the look as "Joan Crawford on acid.")  As you'll see, she spent a lot of time in the swimming pool during the shooting of that video, although she did have a body double for some of the shots.

Here's the "Down by the Water" video:



Click here to order the song from Amazon:

Friday, July 27, 2012

Jay-Z -- "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" (1998)


From standin' on the corners boppin'
To drivin' some of the hottest cars 
New York has ever seen
For droppin' some of the hottest verses 
Rap has ever heard

It has been quite some time since our last "Hip Hop 101" class, hasn't it?  Well, better late than never.

Today's lecture features one of Jay-Z's biggest hits, "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," from his third album (its title was Vol.2 . . . Hard Knock Life), which was released in 1998.  

The album, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, made Jay-Z a superstar -- driving "some of the hottest cars New York has ever seen" as a result of his coming up with "some of the hottest verses rap has ever heard."  But as the lyrics quoted above indicate, Jay-Z hadn't forgotten what it was like to be a teenager standing on a Bed-Stuy street corner, working on his rhymes while peddling crack. 

Jay-Z and his Rolls Royce Phantom
Most of you don't know much about rap music, but I'm betting that you know the song that Jay-Z samples on this track: "It's a Hard Knock Life," from the very popular Broadway musical, Annie.  

A scene from Annie
Annie was based on the "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip, which I couldn't stand when I was a kid.  It opened on Broadway in 1977 and ran for nearly six years.  A 35th anniversary revival is scheduled to open on Broadway this fall.

"It's a Hard Knock Life" is performed by a number of young orphan girls leading a very barebones existence:

Instead of treated, we get tricked
Instead of kisses, we get kicked
It's a hard knock life! 

Even Christmas -- the best day of the year for most children -- is a bitter disappointment for the orphans:

Santa Claus we never see 
Santa Claus, what's that -- who's he? 
No one cares for you a smidge 
When you're in an orphanage
It's a hard knock life!

Annie
was made into a movie (starring Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, and Bernadette Peters) in 1982:



Last year, Will Smith announced that he wanted to produce a new movie version of the play that would star his daughter, Willow.  (Click here to read a 2 or 3 lines post featuring Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair.")  Smith wants Jay-Z to help write a new musical score.  I don't think the movie's been green-lighted yet -- we'll wait and see what happens.

The official music video for "Hard Knock Life" features a number of young children singing the lines from the Annie song.  While they might not be orphans in a literal sense, the video depicts their lives as far from easy.


"Hard Knock Life" was a big hit in the United States, and was Jay-Z's first single to achieve success outside the U.S.  It made the top 10 in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and all the Scandanavian countries.  (It reached only #21 on the French charts.  Why do the French always have to be so damn difficult?)

If Jay-Z can make a big hit out of a song sung by a bunch of little girls in a Broadway musical, he obviously has the talent to make a credible rap track out of just about anything.

Here's the parody of "Hard Knock Life" from Austin Powers in Goldmember, the third of the Austin Powers movies:



Here's the official music video for "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem):


Click here if you'd like to buy the song from Amazon:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sniff 'n' the Tears -- "Driver's Seat" (1978)


So pick up your feet
Got to move to the trick of the beat
There is no elite
Just take your place in the driver's seat
Paul Roberts, who wrote "Driver's Seat," was a hyperrealist painter before he formed Sniff 'n' the Tears in 1977.  Roberts has divided his time between music and painting since then.

Here's his 1989 painting, "Angel Redeemer":


And here's his 2004 painting, "Making Waves":



According to Roberts, the lyrics for "Driver's Seat" were inspired "by the bewilderment felt in the aftermath of a breakup and the need to be positive."

(Say what?)  

"Driver's Seat" is an irresistible pop song, and I'm crazy about it.  It's a great song to sing along to, but I don't think the lyrics mean much of anything.  So I'm not going to quote them or analyze them or do the usual 2 or 3 lines stuff.  I'd rather just listen to it.

"Driver's Seat" is one of those radio hits that comes and goes and is largely forgotten until someone decides to use it in a TV commercial or a movie soundtrack.  For me, "Driver's Seat" rose from the dead of one-hit wonders from 1978 when it was used on the soundtrack of Boogie Nights, the 1997 Paul Thomas Anderson-directed movie about the rise and fall of the Southern California adult-film industry.

Here's the trailer for the movie:



The movie's main character, Dirk Diggler (played by Mark Wahlberg), was based on notorious porn actor John Holmes.  (Holmes, who had sex with an estimated 3000 women, died from complications caused by AIDS in 1988, when he was 44.)

Hoffman, Wahlberg, and Reilly in Boogie Nights
Despite its rather sordid subject matter, Boogie Nights was a very appealing movie -- most of the critics loved it.  The movie revived the career of Burt Reynolds (who was nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar) and made stars of Wahlberg and Julianne Moore.  The cast also includes William Macy, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Heather Graham. 

I watched Boogie Nights on DVD several years after it was released, and then watched it again with the director's commentary going.  I think that's the only time I've ever listened to the entire director's commentary on a movie DVD -- Thomas never stops talking, but he's a very knowledgeable guy, and his enthusiasm about movie, the actors, and film-making in general is infectious.

Here's the scene from Boogie Nights that features "Driver's Seat":



Here's Sniff 'n' the Tears performing "Driver's Seat":


Here's a 2005 cover of "Driver's Seat" by the Belgian dance/trance music duo, DHT (which stands for "dance house trance"):


Click here to buy the original "Driver's Seat" from Amazon:

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Magnetic Fields -- "Washington, D.C." (1999)


Washington, D.C.
It's the greatest place to be!
It's not the cherries everywhere in bloom
It's not the way they put folks on the moon
It's not the spectacles and pageantry,
The thousand things you've got to see

(If Washington's not the greatest place to be because of all those things, then why is it the greatest place to be?  Don't worry -- we'll answer that question eventually.)

I moved to Washington, DC, after I graduated from law school in 1977, and I've never really left.

I worked in San Francisco in the early 1980s, but that was only a temporary assignment -- a "TDY," as the government calls it.  And I had a job in Philadelphia in the early 1990s, but commuted back to my home in suburban Washington on weekends.

Every day, I take the subway downtown to my office -- which is situated almost halfway between the White House and the Capitol -- and every evening, I take it back to my home in the 'burbs.  I'm rarely in DC on the weekend.  (There were all those years of my kids' basketball and baseball and soccer games, with chores and errands and movies and bike rides squeezed in.)

Tonight was an exception to the usual rule -- and perhaps a preview of the empty-nest years to come, which will begin in just over a year when my youngest child heads off to college.

I left my office at 7 pm and walked exactly 1.7 miles (or so says Mapquest) to the apartment on Capitol Hill that my older son and his girlfriend rented when they got their graduate degrees a couple of months ago.  (He got a law degree, she got an MBA.)  

It was a hot and steamy July evening, and I was shvitzed in the pits at the end of my journey.  Here's the route I took:


Here's my office building.  It's a former department store (the downtown flagship of the local Hecht's chain, which is now part of Macy's) that was converted to office space a decade or so ago:


Here's what the building looked like in 1925:


Marshall Park -- named in honor of former Chief Justice John Marshall -- is just a couple of blocks from my office.  Here's a statue of the old Chief Justice himself (who  was a fervent opponent of the individual mandate) that stands in that park:


And here's a neighboring sculpture of two chess players:


Marshall Park is surrounded by both federal and D.C. courthouses.  South of the courthouses are the Canadian Embassy and the National Gallery of Art.  The U.S. Capitol is a few blocks further east:


There's a very interesting group of sculptures just west of the Capitol.  The centerpiece of that group is an impressive equestrian statue of Ulysses S. Grant, who was a hard drinker and a harder fighter:


On each side of the Grant statue's pedestal, there are reliefs depicting Union infantrymen:


North of the Grant statue is a group of cavalrymen:


South of Grant is a group of artillerymen:


I walked along the southern border of the Capitol grounds, passing a statue of President Garfield:


After passing the Library of Congress and a couple of House of Representatives office buildings, I came to St. Peter's Catholic Church, which stands directly across the street from the apartment where my son and his girlfriend live:


(I understand that St. Peter's usually has plenty of seats available for Sunday services.  That seems to be true of all the churches that are located close to the Capitol.)

Here's their circa 1850 building -- they have the top floor:


This door ornament -- a jackass holding an American flag -- was apparently left behind by the previous tenant of the ground floor apartment, a Democratic ex-congressman who lost his seat in 2010:


We strolled a couple of blocks to a local Tex-Mex restaurant, Tortilla Coast, and had dinner:


Tortilla Coast is next door to Bullfeathers, an aptly-named Capitol Hill watering hole:


Washington doesn't inspire nearly as many songs as New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or San Francisco, but it has inspired a few, including this song by Magnetic Fields -- an indie pop group whose music is just as precious and twee as it can be.

(By the way, the Magnetic Fields are named after the 1920 novel, Les Champs magnétiques, by André Breton, the founder of literary Surrealism.  Well . . . isn't that special?)

"Washington, D.C." can be found on the 69 Love Songs album, which the Magnetic Fields released in 1999.  That album does consist of exactly 69 love songs.  (That may sound like you're getting a lot for your money, but many of the songs are quite short -- several are less than one minute long.)


The group's frontman, Stephen Merritt, has said that "69 Love Songs is not remotely an album about love.  It's an album about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love."  (Doh!)

The singer of "Washington, D.C." loves the city, but it's not the history, or the grand public buildings and monuments, or the Smithsonian museums, or the cherry trees that attracts her to our nation's capital.  "It's my baby's kiss that keeps me coming back," she sings.  

On the whole, that's a much healthier reason to love a city than the fact that it's the most powerful city in the world and has a whole bunch of tourist attractions -- don't you think?

Here's "Washington, D.C.":


Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, July 20, 2012

Deep Purple -- "Hush" (1968)


She's got loving like quicksand
Only took one touch of her hand
To blow my mind, and I'm in so deep
That I can't eat and I can't sleep

(At first, I was just going to quote the first two lines above.  But I just can't ignore such a nice example of enjambment, so I included the next line as well.)

Jon Lord of Deep Purple died earlier this week at age 71.  The immediate cause of his death was a pulmonary embolism, but he also was suffering from pancreatic cancer.

Jon Lord in 2008
I don't enjoy writing obituary posts, but I have no choice here.  Lord was simply too talented and too unique a performer -- I have to acknowledge his passing, and I'm doing so by featuring "Hush."

Deep Purple's version of the "Hush" is one of the great classic rock singles of all time, and it's Jon Lord's organ playing that makes it so special.  Like many great jazz, blues, and rock organists of the pre-synthesizer era, Lord's instrument of choice was the Hammond B-3 organ.  (Actually, Lord usually played a Hammond C-3, which is mechanically identical to the B-3, but comes equipped with "modesty panels" that hide the performer's lower body from the audience -- very useful for lady church organists.)  

As this interview explains, Lord's signature Hammond sound results from the way he used amplification.  (This is a little "inside baseball" for many of you, no doubt, but anyone who ever tried to play a B-3/C-3 -- which includes me -- will find this very interesting.)



Keith Moon was an absolutely unique rock drummer because he could turn the drums into a lead instrument -- as he did on "I Can See for Miles."  Lord's organ style was very distinctive because he was able to turn the Hammond into a rhythm instrument, which gave the guitarist much more freedom.

"Hush" was written by Joe South, who had a big hit with another of his own compositions, "Games People Play."  It was originally released as a single in 1967 by Billy Joe Royal (of "Down in the Boondocks" fame), but failed to crack the top 40.  

Deep Purple's version of "Hush" -- it's first single -- made it to #4 on the U.S. charts despite the fact that was released on an obscure and short-lived label, Tetragrammaton Records.  (The name supposedly refers to the unspeakable Hebrew name of God.)


I cannot overstate how good a record "Hush" is.  It has not lost a thing in the 44 years since it was released, and it is simply inconceivable to me that any group of musicians in the world could do "Hush" better than this.  

Listen especially at the climax of Lord's organ solo (which almost sounds to me like two organists are playing at once, but which is all him):  Lord somehow ratchets up the intensity of his playing one more notch, then there's a drum roll that has the impact of someone kicking you in the behind, and then the  singer comes back in with "Naaah-nah-nah-naaah" and we are heading into the homestretch:



I also have to share with you a video of Deep Purple playing "Hush" on the Playboy After Dark television show.  It is a 100% live performance, and it's pretty bad -- Lord's organ is mixed way too low, and you can barely hear him.  Even worse is Hugh Hefner's painfully clumsy attempt to engage in small talk with Lord before the group performs.  (Watching this really makes you appreciate Johnny Carson.  Hefner was a major tool.)



(I don't think we got this show in Joplin, Missouri.  The only time I saw it was in Miami, when I represented the Parkwood High School Key Club chapter as a delegate to the organization's international convention in 1969.  We were lucky that night: the show featured Hef's main squeeze of the moment, Barbi Benton -- still the most appealing woman ever to grace the pages of Playboy.)

Barbi Benton
One final note.  Check out the lines quoted at the top of this post.  Can you name another song that mentions "quicksand"?

Of course, I'm referring to Spinal Tap's tribute to BBW, "Big Bottom":

The bigger the cushion
The sweeter the pushin'
That's what I said
The looser the waistband
The deeper the quicksand
Or so I have read

(Yes, 2 or 3 lines should feature "Big Bottom" some day -- and it will, I promise you.)

Click here to order "Hush" from Amazon:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bob Lind -- "Elusive Butterfly" (1966)


Don't be concerned
It will not harm you
From a story about the 2011 Joplin tornado by Todd Frankel that appeared last year in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

In the chaotic first days after the tornado, when nothing seemed real, word of the butterfly people began to spread. . . .
These stories, tales of guardian angels, could be dismissed as a child's fanciful imagination. But the stories have taken hold here. . . .
In one, a mother and daughter fled their vehicle as the tornado neared. The girl is 3 years old. In some versions, she is 4. They have no time to reach a nearby house. The mother and daughter hit the ground. The mother covers her child. . . . The tornado passes. They are not hurt. The mother is astonished. "Weren't they pretty?" the daughter asks. The mom is confused. "Didn't you see the butterfly people?" the daughter says. . . .
Marsha Sherrod heard the story while volunteering at a tornado donation center. She shared it with her Sunday school class at Forest Park Baptist. One boy, a quiet 11-year-old, raised his hand. The boy said he saw the butterfly people that night too, Sherrod recalled.


Here's a CBS News story about the Joplin butterflies:



When I was in Joplin last month, I walked along the route taken by nearly 5000 participants in the "Walk of Unity" on May 22 (the one-year anniversary of the tornado).  I saw a number of the small wooden stars that had been handpainted by residents (including many children), nailed to stakes, and planted on the street corners last fall in the neighborhoods that had borne the brunt of the storm.  Click here to read more about the "Stars of Hope."

Here's one that was placed on the site of Joplin High School, which was destroyed by the tornado:


(In case you can't decipher what is written on that star, it reads "Laughter is a smile that explodes.)

But I also saw a number of small wooden butterflies, which had been handpainted and attached to stakes that were planted in the ground along the "Walk of Unity" route:


Here's a group of three butterflies:



Here's one more:


That tree in the background of the last picture is the "Spirit Tree," a battered tree that was painted by a group of local artists.  Here's a better picture of it:


Finally, here's a picture of a severely damaged old tree that stands near the intersection of Murphy Boulevard and 20th Street:


On my visits to Joplin last year, I saw a lot of trees that had lost most of their limbs and leaves in the tornado, but had put out a few new leaves.  The consensus was that those trees had been too badly injured to survive the winter, but it looks like this one made it.

"Elusive Butterfly" was a top-10 single written and recorded by folksinger Bob Lind, and covered by many other recording artists (including Petula Clark, Aretha Franklin, Cher, Dolly Parton, the Four tops, and Gary Lewis and the Playboys).  The string arrangement is credited to Jack Nitzsche, best known for his work with the Rolling Stones, and Leon Russell was among the session musicians who performed on the record.

Lind reportedly suffered from drug and alcohol addictions, and dropped out of the music industry for a number of years before beginning to perform again in 2004.  In the meantime, he was an Everglades airboat pilot, penned five novels and a play, and wrote for the supermarket tabloid, Weekly World News, for several years.


The Weekly World News was as over the top as The Onion, but some people took it seriously.  Lind told the Washington Post about a letter to the editor the paper received after running a story titled "Hillary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby," which (of course) featured a fake photo of a smiling Hillary holding a hideous infant:

"We got a letter," recalls Lind, "and it said: 'Do you think we're so stupid that we believe that's Hillary holding that alien baby?  Hillary's too cold to adopt an alien baby.  You put her face on somebody else's picture.'"

(There is a grain of truth to that letter writer's point of view, actually.)

Here's "Elusive Butterfly":


You can use this link to buy the song from Amazon:

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Elvis Costello -- "Mystery Dance" (1978)


She thought that I knew
And I thought that she knew
So both of us were willing 
But we didn't know how to do it

"Mystery Dance" moves right along -- it's only one minute, 38 seconds long.

I almost rendered the last two lines as sobothofuswerewillingbutwedidntknowhowtodoit to indicate the breakneck pace at which Elvis Costello sings this song, but I was afraid that doing so would confuse some of my less clever readers.  (You know who you are.)

I recently wrote about taking ballroom dancing lessons when I was in the sixth grade.  These lines from "Mystery Dance" certainly apply to me when I was in the sixth grade, except for the fact that there was no "she," so only one us was willing but didn't know how to do it.


A later verse is also apropos of moi in the sixth grade:

I was down under the covers
In the middle of the night
Tryin' to discover
My left foot from my right

(I'm not sure that Mr. Costello is really talking about feet here.)

You can see those pictures 
In any magazine
But what's the use of looking 
When you don't know what they mean?

My sixth-grade self would certainly not have said "what's the use of looking?" at those pictures, although my sixth-grade self certainly wouldn't have known what they meant. 

"Mystery Dance" came up on my iPod recently as I riding the northern end of the Baltimore & Annapolis Trail, which is a rail trail that doesn't go all the way to either Baltimore or Annapolis.  (The railroad right of way that was converted to the B&A Trail did.)

The northern terminus of the trail is in Glen Burnie, Maryland, a modest Baltimore suburb.  (Extremely modest.)

The trail goes past a local bar that has one characteristic that is very important to me as a potential customer: the beer there is very cheap:


I'm reminded of the time when my daughter Caroline showed me a short story she had entered in a student writing competition at her college.  It was set in northwestern Arkansas, when my mother's family hails from.  In the story, a young soldier who has come home after seeing action in Iraq goes out drinking with a high-school buddy.  The two friends order a pitcher of Yuengling and catch up on what's new since the soldier shipped out.

"Whoa," I said to my daughter.  "These boys wouldn't know Yuengling from a premier grand cru Bordeaux.  You should have them order Coors or Budweiser."  It's not that Yuengling is a fancy beer -- it's an old-fashioned, working-class brew -- but I didn't think it was likely to be available on tap at the bars in that part of the country.  Was I wrong?  

Drink too much of that cheap beer, however, and you might be in the market for the services of another nearby Glen Burnie business:


I like the "7 days a week" statement.  Too few businesses in this country put the customer's needs first.  This guy gets it!

But Glen Burnie's not all about cheap beer and bail bondsmen.  Here's a picture of a sheet-metal sculpture that adorns the rail trail.


Click here to see some of the other works created by the sculptor, Mary Ann Mears.

The rail trail also features something called the "Planet Walk."  (They allow pedestrians as well as bikers to use the trail, which annoys the crap out of me -- especially if its almost impossible to pass the pedestrian easily he or she is towing such a wide load that it makes you want to say, "Hey -- only one person per pair of pants!") 

The Planet Walk begins with a large sculptural representation of the sun and a bunch of boring educational stuff.


As you continue down the trail, you see small metal disks labeled with the names of each planet and how far that planet is from the sun.


The distance separating each of these disks is proportionate to the actual distance between the planets.  For example, the marker for Earth is roughly a tenth of a mile from the sun.  But you have to go about a mile before you get to Saturn.  That's because Saturn is ten times further away from the sun than the earth is.

I turned around shortly after passing Saturn -- well short of URANUS.

(Tell the truth -- you're expecting me to say something tasteless, aren't you?  Believe me, I really want to.)

There's a parking lot just south of Baltimore-Washington International airport that connects to the B&A Trail.  Every few minutes, a plane coming in for a landing flies right over the parking area.


A lot of bikers park in that lot, of course, but there are usually a few families with folding chairs and a cooler fill of cold drinks who set up shop next to the lot so they watch the planes land.  It's pretty interesting to see them get very large and very loud on their approaches to BWI, but one Southwest 737 looks pretty much like the next.  (By the way, 197 out of the 355 domestic flights that depart from BWI every day are Southwest flights.  Another 44 are flights on AirTran, which Southwest just acquired.  Southwest rules BWI!)  

Maybe those families had nothing better to do because they had lost their cable TV and internet access after the derecho storms that had roared through the DMV (the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia) the night before.

Click here if you don't know nuthin' about derechos.

Twenty-four hours after the derecho had moved on, a million customers of the area's biggest electric utilities (or 45 % of their entire customer base) were still without electricity, and the utilities were saying it would be a full week before all those people would have juice.  


That's even worse than it sounds, because the temperatures reached 104 the day the storms hit -- the highest temperature ever recorded in the Washington area in June.

We don't have cable or internet, our cell phones work only intermittently (presumably because some cell towers were blown over or are without power), and there are about a million big-ass tree limbs littering my back yard.  But we never lost our power.  I got 99 problems, but electricity ain't one.

(Note: One full week after the storm hit, there were a small number of people in the area who still didn't have electricity.  That day, the high in Washington, DC was 105 degrees.  It actually hit 106 -- which would have tied the all-time record high for Washington -- but it stayed there for only one minute.  It seems that a temperature has to persist for three full minutes before it is official.)

Here's a live performance of "Mystery Dance," which was on Elvis Costello's debut album, My Aim Is True:


Here's a link you can use to order the song from Amazon:

Friday, July 13, 2012

Average White Band -- "Work to Do" (1975)


You might as well get used to me
Coming home a little late
'Cause I got work to do

"One never notices what has been done," Marie Curie wrote in 1894.  "One can only see what remains to be done."

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and remains the only person to win Nobel Prizes in two different sciences (physics and chemistry).  As the above quote shows, she was not one to rest on her laurels, but was focused on the work that remained to be done.

Madame Curie
When I went to Joplin, Missouri last month, I was very curious to see what had been done since my visit to my hometown a year ago -- only two weeks after Joplin had been hammered by a multiple-vortex EF5 tornado on May 22, 2011 -- and what remained to be done.

While much has been done, it pales in comparison to what remains to be done.  But we've reached something of a tipping point, I think.  

The fact that so much has been done convinced me that someday -- certainly not this year, and probably not next year, but someday -- what remains to be done will be completed.  I feel confident not only that Joplin will survive, but that it will be more than what it was before the tornado struck.

(By an odd coincidence, the night I sat down to start writing this post, the Washington, DC, area was slammed with severe thunderstorms and 75-mph winds.  We had some damage to our patio furniture and gutters and fences from some big-ass broken limbs, and lost internet and cable service, but we didn't lose electricity -- unlike a million others in the area, some of whom had to live without air conditioning for a full week when the high temperature approached or exceeded a hundred degrees every day.  Of course, all that was nothing compared to what happened to Joplin last year.) 

While I was in Joplin, I walked from 26th and Maiden Lane (where the hulk of the destroyed St. John's Hospital is slowly being deconstructed) to 20th and Rangeline (where several big-box stores and a number of restaurants and other businesses were flattened).  That route was the path taken by the tornado, so I was able to see how the areas where most of the serious damage took place were coming along.  

As I've noted before, my parents' house stands on the northeast corner of 24th and Alabama.  Go just two blocks north -- to 22nd and Alabama -- and you are in the zone of total destruction.

There used to be 22 houses in the two blocks of Alabama between 22nd and 20th, including one at 2111 Alabama:


Exactly one of those 22 houses survived, although it needed a new roof and other major repairs.  That lone survivor is the house on the right in this picture.  The other house is a new one:


Today, there are a handful of houses being built on that stretch of Alabama.  They are generally a bit bigger than the houses they are replacing, and probably are filled with modern features that make them greatly superior to the fifties-vintage houses that were destroyed.


The effect is similar to what you would get if you laid a three-foot-wide strip of beautiful, healthy, deep- green sod down the middle of a lawn that was well cared for, but had a few weeds and bare patches here and there.  The new grass would be very noticeable, and its perfection would make you notice the imperfections in the existing lawn.  And the new houses in Joplin might draw attention to the aging of the older ones.

One good piece of news is the return of Dude's Daylight Donuts, a long-established and somewhat eccentric business that probably got more attention after it was destroyed (including a mention in the New York Times) than in all the years of its previous existence.

I hadn't had a Dude's maple bar for many years.  They are utter perfection.


Cunningham Park, where I went swimming as a kid and played tennis with my friends and sister during my college and law school summers, was wiped out by the tornado.  The new tennis and basketball courts are first-rate, and the old and very plain pool has been replaced by one that is start-of-the-art.


A few blocks from Cunningham Park stand seven new houses whose construction was chronicled on the ABC television show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.  The houses are so distinctive that seeing them is a bit unsettling at first -- walking down the street has the feel of walking down a street in a theme park, or stumbling upon a movie set.  But the overall effect is very pleasant, and the people for whom they were built must feel like they are living in a dream.

Here they are, starting at the southernmost house and moving north:














Click here for short tour videos for each of the seven houses.  The childrens' bedrooms in these houses are especially noteworthy -- most parents would never consider doing anything so over the top as these bedrooms are, but you can bet the ranch that they kids who live here were absolutely delighted by their new rooms.  Can you imagine what a kick it would be if you were 12 years old and could invite a friend over to spend the night in of these bedrooms?

As we were walking back toward where we had parked, my sister and I across a large open space with only a few wide stone steps leading from the sidewalk.  It took us a minute to get oriented, but then we realized that this was the site where South Junior High (where we attended 7th, 8th, and 9th grades) used to stand.  South had survived the tornado, but it had not been in use for several years, and did sustain some damage.  So it was torn down.


That means that none of the schools I attended in Joplin -- Irving Elementary, South Junior High, and Joplin High School (then called Parkwood) -- is still standing.  They were all within a mile of my boyhood home and my grandparents' home (where I spent many nights when I was a kid), and I'm sure that I will never get used to not seeing them when I visit Joplin in the future.

Here's a view of the site of the past and future Joplin High School.  We'll explain the significant of the painted wooden butterflies in a future 2 or 3 lines.


Here's "Work to Do" -- a song that is very appropriate for a post about Joplin.  It's  from the Average White Band's enormously successful (and almost eponymous) second studio album, AWB.  Average White Band was a Scottish funk band whose original members included guys with names like Malcolm Duncan, Alan Gorrie, Owen McIntyre, and Robbie McIntosh -- all of which sound more like characters in Braveheart than guys who play that funky music.



Just before the band hit it big with its huge hit single, "Pick Up the Pieces," band members McIntosh and Gorrie mistook heroin for cocaine at a party in Los Angeles, and helped themselves.  McIntosh died, while Gorrie was kept conscious by fellow party-goer Cher and survived the overdose.

Click here to order the song from Amazon: