Driving home today I caught about half of “The Long and Winding Road” on the radio, and experienced the wave of vague melancholy that I’m prone to when listening to the song. Part of that is the movement of the melody between tonic (E Flat major) and it’s relative minor (C). The lyrics also play a role clearly demonstrating Paul McCartney’s nostalgic reflection on the history and fate of the Beatles, as well as the then recent dissolution of his engagement to Jane Asher. The weight of the music and words would be enough to make the recording what it is to me, but there is another element. Knowing the backstory of the song, and that of the entire, miserable Let it Be album adds an extra layer of sadness for me. The Beatles were the first band I thought was cool when I was a kid and as luck would have it I got on the bus just as it was going out of service. By the time I realized that they were the guys responsible for tunes I loved they were already slugging it out in court. When I hear “The Long and Winding Road” I can’t help but think that I missed out on something. I’ve written about the impact that exposure to a song has had on me before (The First Time, Again) but that piece was about the power of the music itself. After Paul had finished singing I turned off the radio and started thinking about how many times a song had a secondary impression on me; sometimes as an enhancement of it’s more obvious tone, sometimes in an ironic if not painful counterpoint to it.
When my mind wanders in this direction my first thought is the Janis Joplin recording, “Mercedes Benz”. My first exposure to the song was as a seven year old, listening to my older sister’s brand new copy of Pearl, Joplin’s last record. Released posthumously the album was a little more polished than her previous efforts but still emblematic of her raw, vocal power. As a second grader I just thought she sounded like everything she did really mattered to her. More than anything else that giggle at the end of the a cappella rendering made me laugh too. And for a long time that was it. Someone having fun. By the time I was a college student I had learned enough to hear it in a different way. Joplin’s life has been chronicled pretty extensively, but if you don’t know much about her it’s a painful tale. Born in Texas in 1943, a tough adolescence left her overweight and suffering from bad enough acne that the resulting skin damage eventually required dermabrasion. Tending naturally towards outlier status she befriended other kids like herself and through them developed a love for blues and folk music. Ostracized in school for who she was and what she looked like, she drifted in and out of drug addiction (in particular heroin) and was never able to find the lasting love and acceptance that she craved. All of that is reflected in that extraordinary voice and the soul baring honesty it radiated. What gives “Mercedes Benz” a heaviness is that it was the last thing she ever recorded. On October 1, 1970 Joplin laid down the vocals and went home. On the third she dropped by the studio (Sunset Sound Recorders) to listen to the instrumental track for “Buried Alive in the Blues”, another cut on the album. She told producer Paul Rothchild she’d be back the next day to tape the vocals. When she failed to show up road manager John Cooke drove to her temporary residence at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood to see if she was okay. He found her on the floor, next to her bed, overdosed at twenty-seven. With all that in mind, whenever I hear the end of that song I can’t help but think I’m listening to the last happy moment in a human being’s life. She laughs, and it’s all I can do not to cry.
For a happier story that still ends in tears I can only think of “Save the Last Dance For Me”. Released in 1961 by the Drifters (featuring Ben E. King) the record spent three non-consecutive weeks at number one on the billboard charts. It’s been recorded by dozens of artists over the last half century and although I haven’t listened to every version I have never sat through a rendition that didn’t make me smile. Written by the team of Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus it always struck me as an up-tempo, light hearted vehicle for the kind of four part harmony vocal groups that were prominent in pop music in the late fifties and early sixties. It is only in the last few years that I discovered enough about the piece and Pomus to reflect on it in a bittersweet way. Born Jerome Felder to Jewish parents in Brooklyn, 1925, Pomus had been a songwriter since the early 1950’s. Before that he’d been a blues singer, which had precipitated his name change. Jerry Felder just didn’t feel right as he worked his way through Manhattan’s club scene. Frequently the only white person in the room, he never cared, claiming a shared underdog status with the audience. Aside from also being an ethnic minority he took the stage on crutches. As a child he had contracted polio and it had left him without the normal use of his legs. He felt that having to overcome his handicap helped establish a certain level of simpatico with an audience that spent so much of their lives having to push past other people’s prejudice. Which is what I dwell on whenever I hear the song. Pomus wrote it on his wedding day. By itself that would be enough to stir an emotional response. But there’s a little more here. He married Willi Burke, a Broadway actress. And dancer. To have written that song for her as he watched her dancing with their guests, when he himself could not, must have required a generosity of spirit that I can only aspire to.
A tragic loss. A remarkable love. This last piece resonates for me as a deceptively simple reminder of the work that makes up a life well lived. Born February 26th, 1932, Johnny Cash lived what I think of as an authentic American life. The fourth of seven children, he grew up poor and was working in his family’s cotton fields by age five. The depression era existence of a New Deal farmer’s son left him with a life long empathy for those whose day to day grind was an endless struggle. Whether it was free concerts at a prison or raising awareness of the plight of the indigenous population he had a place in his heart for those who had suffered in some way. Fighting his own demons (multiple stints in various rehab facilities)he never-the-less was a devout Christian who saw himself as “the biggest sinner of all.” Complicated, contradictory, with a resume that included musician, author, serviceman (Air Force) and biblical scholar, his was a story that was almost fictional in its richness and variety. He had an extraordinary curriculum vitae as a singer/songwriter, primarily in, but not restricted to the country-western genre. In 1994, his popularity on the wane, he connected with Rick Rubin and began the American Recording series giving us a chance to watch a closing act on a legendary career that was in equal turns vibrant and pensive. For those of you who’ve never listened to anything from the collection I can only say you’re missing something special. If you’re not a C&W fan don’t let it stop you. I’m not much of a “country” guy myself and I’ve never regretted a minute I’ve spent, captivated by Cash’s performance on those CDs. Ranging from gospel standards to intimate interpretations of hard rock, that music has sustained me through some rough drives at some very lonely hours of the day. I don’t know that I could pick one piece that I thought of as a favorite but there is one song he did that connected with a part of my own childhood. “The Streets of Laredo” is a traditional folk song of the old west. Having heard it over and over as a small child (my dad loved Burl Ives) it was the first song I can remember making a conscious effort to commit to memory. And there it is on American IV: The Man Comes Around. The album was recorded when Cash was already quite sick and was released in November of 2002, less than a year before his passing. The nearness of that end is apparent in every note he sings but there is no retreat in his voice. When I listen to it now I still am chastened by the sound of a man who knows better than to waste his finite time in this world doing anything but what he believed was his reason for being alive.