Monday, March 28, 2011

Some Iconic Music History

I'm shooting for an iconic blog posting for an iconic topic....

Have you ever had an iconic song that affected you, that you have known most your life, and wondered what it meant, who was it about, why was it written, all because it affected you so much? You might think by some of the songs I'm about to mention, that I'm showing either my age or my orientation by way of music genres.

But if I kept talking about music on this topic, you would see me delving into blues back to the turn of the century; swing and I don't mean the light type; classical; experimental; industrial; various kinds of metal (obvious from this blog posting); electronic (again, various types going all the way back to the beginnings); classical guitar; calypso; ska; reggae; world music; on and on. But just for this blog I'm pulling out some obvious ones and some well known ones.

There was a Carley Simon song like that, "You're So Vain" that caused conjecture for many years, even decades after it came out. Simon has never publicly acknowledged in full the subject of "You're So Vain". Before the song became a hit single, she told an interviewer that the song was about "men," not a specific "man." Since its release, many have speculated about the identity of its subject (or subjects). In a 1989 interview, Simon acknowledged that the song is a little bit about Warren Beatty but said the subject of the song is a composite of three men from her L.A. days. In a 2007 interview, Beatty said, "Let's be honest. That song was about me." Simon has said that Beatty had called and thanked her for the song. Mick Jagger was also alleged to be the subject and who contributed uncredited backing vocals to the song. (from Wikipedia)

First, its hard to find originals on some of these songs, so I've substituted with later renditions by the artists in question, where necessary.

I have one like that, it was Roberta Flack's 1973, "Killing Me Softly With His Song". This video on youtube sounded pretty good, but it would appear the person who posted it was incorrect in it being about Elvis. According to Wikipedia, it was about another favorite singer of mine from back then, Don McClean, of "American Pie" song fame.

From Wikipedia:

"Norman Gimbel explains the genesis of the writing of the song "Killing Me Softly With His Song" as follows:
I came to California in the mid-sixties. I was introduced to the Argentinean born composer named Lalo Shifrin (then of Mission Impossible fame). I ended up writing songs to a number of his motion pictures. I suggested we write a Broadway Musical together. He gave me an Argentinean novel translated into English from the Spanish to read as a possible idea. Suffice it to say, we never made a musical from the book -- but in one of the chapters, the principal character describes himself as sitting alone in a bar drinking and listening to an American pianist "Killing me softly with his blues". I put it in my "idea" book for use at a future time with a parenthesis around the word "blues" and substituted the word "song" instead. Many years later, Lori Lieberman saw Don McLean in concert. I then wrote the lyric and gave it to Charles Fox to set to music."
"According to Lori Lieberman, the artist who performed the original recording, the song was born of a poem she wrote after experiencing a strong reaction to a Don McLean concert. She related this to Gimbel, who took her feelings and put them into words. Then, Gimbel passed the words on to Fox, who set them to music."

It would also seem that the Fugees came out with their own version that hit pretty well when it came out too. It's good, but pales in comparison to Roberta's if you ask me. Others have tried it but no others really made it as big.

Don McClean's 1971 "American Pie" song (on the album of the same name) about "the day the music died", is another great example of a song that we didn't understand right away, what it meant. This video explains it pretty well although when asked what the song meant, McClean said, "It means I never have to work again." Then stating he believed a singer/songwriter should make their statement and move on. It's generally understood to mean the day a plane crashed in a field back in 1959, ending the career of several famous musicians who were on tour. I heard recently on a documentary of rock stars, a British musician said he remembered when it happened, that day in 1959 and he felt that it was a day that music died, too. It was great fun eventually learning what such an iconic song meant.

But I thought there were other great songs on that album, as I did with Roberta's album. On Don's album there was the flip sides Babylon round robin with his own overdub. There was the other iconic song that also has lasted down through the years, "Vincent" about Vincent Van Gogh (one of my favorite painters) which affected me strongly for year after year and had lyrics that spoke to me deeply all those years ago, and still does to this very day.

There are many great "B" side songs on the albums of hits. Nazareth, famous for their Love Hurts hit, I liked much more their great Hair of the Dog song, equally, Whiskey Drinking Woman on the flip side, but mostly, Please Don't Judas Me, which I've always thought was quite excellent.

Roberta's album was one of covering other writer/singer's works. Jesse by Janis Ian (Janis was more famous for At Seventeen, I had her great "Between the Lines" album with these songs on it, that was great on rainy days with coffee or teas while writing; and the infamous Leonard Cohen's Suzanne, which had already made one career for "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E." (a spin off from the famous "Man From U.N.C.L.E.") TV show's Noel Harrison (son of famous British actor, Rex Harrison).
There are many of these kinds of song in the great song book of history. It's amazing how they are so tied to so many other things. So, if you have a song you have always wondered about and never knew the history of, and if you don't mind, finding out what it's really about, I suggest you go look it up. Check Wikipedia. Do a search on the song and artist. Many times, you will find that the information is not only freely available, you can hook up with the artist's newer music and find that, yes indeed, they are still out there alive and kicking.

Al Stewart is one of those. I always thought of him as some artist in the past. He was perhaps most famous for his "Year of the Cat" and "Past, Present and Future" albums (the latter with the popular "Nostradamus" song on it), but I then got to know him from his "Bedsitter Images" album and others. Then my (now ex) Vietnamese girlfriend, asked if I'd like to go see a guy that currently plays bass for him, and lives locally. I couldn't believe she meant, THE Al Stewart. Well, she did and he is indeed, still alive and kicking out the concerts.

Go on, look into your icons from the past, whomever they are. Because regardless of what people may tell you, or think of them, if they are an icon to you, they are important and just may deserve another look. Let's support our old artists after all, who enriched our younger selves and gave us a way to look at life, a way to make it through another day, and in some cases, may have saved your life.

At one point in my life, I don't know what I would have done if it weren't for Donovan (Leitch), "Sunshine Superman", "Mellow Yellow", "To Susan on the West Coast Waiting" (an anti Vietnam song)), "Atlantis", 'Wear Your Love Like Heaven" (which was the theme song for a very popular women's fragrance that was nearly iconic for the 70s, that being Eau De Love (by Menley and James) and the associated fragrance commercials that featured Ali MacGraw.), and many others.  He's music kept me calm and focused. In 1965 he played on "Ready, Steady, Go!" and became known as "Britain's answer to Bob Dylan". He was for me, a more understandable answer.

Official web site. More recent interview with Donovan on BBC.

I was very happy to find a documentary, "A boy called Donovan", made on Donovan before he became famous and found on a Russian youtube site of all places; showing him busking, eating on the beach, living with friends, doing their "thing", smoking pot which lead to the police watching him and finally raiding his home in London, which he told us about at a concert at the Paramount. It was great fun, after forty years or more since I first heard Donovan tunes, to see who Gypsy Dave was, and others, who he sang about. I always wondered if he was real, or someone Donovan made up. He's real.

I saw Donovan, alone on a pillow on stage with his acoustic guitar at Seattle's Paramount Theater in the 70s. Incredible night where it was Sunday, all the music stores were closed and he broke a first string, with no available replacement, leaving him a bit peeved at his roadie, but a second string saved the evening (after one also broke, but the second attempt worked through the rest of the evening). Without his music, I would never have made it out of tech school in the Air Force by his music keeping me from going crazy, maintaining and even strain and being able to sleep at night.

A lot of people thought Donovan was lame. But consider this:

"Donovan developed a strong interest in eastern mysticism and claims to have played a significant role in awakening the interest of The Beatles in transcendental meditation. In early 1968 he was part of the group that traveled to India to spend several weeks at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh. The visit gained worldwide attention thanks to the presence of (for a time) all four Beatles as well as Beach Boys lead singer Mike Love and actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence (who inspired John Lennon to write "Dear Prudence"). See also: The Beatles at Rishikesh.

"According to a 1968 Paul McCartney interview with Radio Luxembourg, it was during this time that Donovan taught Lennon and McCartney various finger-picking guitar styles including the clawhammer style, which he had learned from his St Albans friend, Mac MacLeod. Lennon went on to use the technique on songs including "Dear Prudence" and "Julia" and McCartney with "Blackbird" and "Mother Nature's Son". - Wikipedia.

 The unsurpassable Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East

I should mention, it was about that time that my new friends in the service who were from the south east (Atlanta, Georgia, mostly), introduced me to Southern Rock (Lynyrd Skinnard, Charlie Daniel's Band, The Marshall Tucker Band, .38 Special, Little Feat, the most awesome Allman Brother's Band, and on and on).
Roxy Music - 1974 Country Life album cover

I should also mention that as a side note, there were many icon album covers. The above album art notable since their were various versions, one with only the foliage and no girls on it (more in the supplied link). So many more that could be mentioned, but perhaps that for another article, another time.

There was a show on VH1 a while back called "Bands Reunited" from 2004-2006, bringing previously broken up bands back together to please their fans, if they were willing. I didn't like that tactics they used to get to these people sometimes. Someone called it, guerrilla tactics, I wanted to feel we weren't invading these people, because to be sure, we were just in format for what was being done. Anyway, some were interested, some weren't, but it was a blast seeing, learning about what happened to them. I'm sorry it didn't last longer. Because there were bands who meant, at one time, a lot to many people, who turned out what were, iconic songs or music to a lot of people. And it was interesting, filling voids in my mind that felt great to be filled with missing information that lasted years; and therein lay an industry unto itself.

My point being, several times in my life, music, saved my life, or so it seemed back then. Music does that sometimes.

So, perhaps take the time to explore some of your old favorites and fill in the gaps from back then, see what these artists are doing now if you've not heard from them for some time. You might be glad you did.

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