One of these days, I’m going to write a “Sing-it-out-loud” column and make a list of songs that I think demand that we crank up the volume while we’re in our cars and sing at the top of our lungs.
The idea for that column came to me several weeks ago while I was heading into work. Driving west on U.S. 160, a perfect spring day greeting me, my window rolled down while the sun warmed my face, Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita” came on the radio.
I couldn’t resist. Twisting the volume knob clockwise to the terminus, I pounded my palms on the top of my steering wheel to the rhythm of the opening bars, singing as loud as I could, “Spread out now Rosie, doctor come cut loose her mama’s reins/You know playin’ blindman’s bluff is a little baby’s game/You pick up Little Dynamite, I’m gonna pick up Little Gun/And together we’re gonna go out tonight and make that highway run...”
Classic Springsteen — the imagery of the open road (and a fast car), a love that transcends a dead-end existence and the liberating power of rock and roll. With four minutes of the song still left as I pulled into my parking space, I let the engine idle as the Boss’s voice and my own roared out my open window. Unashamed and ecstatic, I continued singing as loud as I could, not caring who saw me or what they thought.
Life is too short for me to worry what others think of me when I’m lost in a moment of utter joy, caught up in the thrill of a song that reminds me how wonderful it is to be alive and young in my heart.
As Springsteen says in the song, “Windows are for cheaters, chimneys for the poor/Closets are for hangers, winners use the door/So use it Rosie, that’s what it’s there for.”
As I said, “Sing-it-out-loud” is for another time (I’m still considering my list). However, to introduce this week’s column I’ll mention one more song makes me sing as loud as I can: “American Pie” by Don McLean.
It seems redundant to describe the song, here, as it’s pretty much canonical, an iconic standard of Rock and Roll (it doesn’t hurt that it’s one long allegory about the first two decades of Rock history).
And there’s no one with a pulse who isn’t compelled to belt out, “I started singin’, “bye-bye, Miss American Pie”/Drove my chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry/Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye/And singin’, “this’ll be the day that I die; “this’ll be the day that I die.”
(Drinkin’ several fingers of whiskey or rye doesn’t hurt, either).
It’s the soft beginning of the song that grabs us, especially the soft verse that precedes the chorus (and sets up the entire theme of the song): “I can’t remember if I cried/When I read about his widowed bride/But something touched me deep inside/The day the music died ...”
Of course, McLean is singing about Buddy Holly with the line, “The day the music died.”
Just a kid when the song came out in 1972, I was vaguely familiar with Buddy Holly (mostly through various covers of his songs, especially the Rolling Stones) but I understood entirely the sentiment and the heartbreak of “The day the music died.”
I can’t tell you the exact day when it died for me — but it had nothing to do with the plane crash that took the life of Buddy Holly (and others); at that point in my life Holly belonged to another era and (it seemed) a different genre. Although I’d eventually discover an appreciation for Holly’s music about five years later — my love of Punk Rock inevitably led me on a Rock and Roll archaeological expedition of music of the ‘50s and ‘60s — in the early ‘70s Buddy Holly appeared as a shadow from some distant decade, before my time and beneath my radar.
For me, “The day the music died” had occurred a year or so prior. Whispers in the news, suggestions and conjectures, too much for my young mind to handle.
As I said, there’s no way to pinpoint exactly when it was “The day the music died” for me but it was sometime in 1970 when it became clear to me that The Beatles were no more.
I bring this up because I’ve recently rediscovered George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.”
I have to confess that I wasn’t much impressed by the album when it first came out. Perhaps it was too different from what I’d grown accustomed to with The Beatles but I rather suspect that I was in mourning over the band’s breakup. I was bitter, feeling like a spurned lover, an abandoned child.
I remember that “All Things Must Pass” sounded strained and stentorian at the time, a labored attempt by Harrison to show that he was not a “lesser Beatle” (given that he had been consigned to just two songs on any given Beatles’ album).
For years the album sat buried within my collection, rarely listened to and never fully appreciated.
I can’t tell you what led me to dig it up a few months ago. Sometimes, I just thumb through things looking for I-don’t-know-what other than something that will shake me out of my self-imposed ennui. Not one given to nostalgia or sentimentality (for the most part), I can’t express what it is exactly that will cause me to land on a particular selection and decide that I need to sit back and really listen to it, to tune out everything else and just let the music wash over me.
What struck me was how new and fresh the music sounded. Songs like “Isn’t It a Pity (Version 2),” “Apple Scruffs,” “Awaiting On You All,” or “Out of the Blue” (among others) would not sound out of place on an any album by the White Stripes, Yo La Tengo, the Smith Westerns, Fleet Foxes, etc. Indeed, I’d think that any of those songs would find themselves comfortable — and popular — on today’s college radio (or even Top 40 radio).
Even the familiar hits from “All Things Must Pass” such as “My Sweet Lord,” “What Is Life,” and (the Bob Dylan cover) “If Not For You,” all well-worn staples of Oldies and Classic Rock radio programming, show what a master of the pop form Harrison could be — no less a master than Lennon or McCartney (or Lennon AND McCartney).
Lennon and McCartney’s solo work at that time (soon after The Beatles’ dissolution) didn’t exactly excite me then. Again, I think I was smarting from the notion that The Beatles were no more and the individual solo albums were a poor substitute for the collective output of the band that had made me fall irrevocably in love with Rock and Roll.
In the following years, Lennon’s “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” (1970) was probably more influential to me than any other solo album. Exceptionally raw and seething with emotional pain, it was closest any Beatle came to punk rock.
Sure, Paul McCartney’s first solo excursion “McCartney” (1970) was also raw, it was more in an acoustic, Dylan-esque vein. More than that, it was entirely pop-inflected, lacking the compelling emotional depth that Lennon’s initial work possessed (“possessed” an appropriate, operative term for that album).
At some point, Lennon lost his emotional power while McCartney made two of his best Rock and Roll albums (“Band On the Run” and “Venus and Mars”). Unfortunately, Harrison never repeated the promise exhibited on “All Things Must Pass” (with the exception of his brief participation in “The Traveling Wilburys”).
Well over 40 years since The Beatles broke up, it’s evident that the sum of the parts is nowhere close to the sum of the whole. As good (even great) some of the solo albums are, none holds a candle to almost any single album by The Beatles.
Perhaps I’m biased as I can not overestimate the effect The Beatles have had on me throughout my life. Probably my earliest childhood memory is seeing the Fab Four on television. Throughout the ‘60s, my childhood remembrances include multiple times when a new Beatles’ single became my new “favorite song.”
The first record I bought with allowance money was the “Hey Jude” 45 RPM (b/w “Revolution”), a record that I never got to play due to me leaving it beneath the rear window of my parent’s Chevy Impala during a hot, Colorado afternoon (I was, needless to say, traumatized).
After The Beatles broke up and my heart began to mend, I moved on to the “heavy bands” of the early ‘70s: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Mott the Hoople, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, etc., etc. Yet, The Beatles were never far from my heart — or my turntable.
Even during my most hardcore Punk days, The Beatles continued to take up ample space in my heart and head (indeed, my band did a heavy, fuzzed-out, psychedelic cover of “Dear Prudence”).
And, as I’ve written in this space before, my children continue the Circle of Life, consistently clamoring for me to put some Beatles on the pod or the CD player. Middle Child says she counts The Beatles as one of her favorites (along with her tween affectations, if that makes sense).
Still (and as I recently learned), some of the solo stuff reminds us how great The Beatles were as musicians (I think some exception can be made for Ringo, alas). I regret that I had forgotten that. And while the individual efforts of Lennon and McCartney have traditionally taken up all the oxygen in the conversation, I’m glad I was reintroduced to Harrison and “All Things Must Pass.”
I don’t know if the title of the album was some wry commentary on the band but I do know that it stands with the best of any of the band’s solo efforts. And while there’s nothing on the album that compels me to crank up the volume and sing at the top of my lungs, there is plenty that causes me to pause and stare into eternity, enjoying my new-found appreciation for a truly great piece of music.