The Man With the Plan and the Pocket Comb

“You could hardly even see him in all of that chrome — the man with the plan and the pocket comb. And every night it carried him home.” ~Marc Cohn

MI0001708224I stood outside the record store at ten minutes to midnight, the year was 1998, and I think some Jay-Z album was being released. I know there was a host of people waiting there with me, blasting lyrics from the man himself, so I guess I just assumed. I wasn’t there to get anything from Jay-Z. It was way past my bedtime, and I had other things in mind. Because one of my favorite singers had a new album coming out, and I promised myself I would be the first to hear it.

Fast forward 20 years, and I was once again waiting, but this time it was outside of the Palace Theatre in Syracuse, with a bunch of old white folks. Sure, 20 years had gone by, but I was still as fascinated by the man who sang “Walking in Memphis,” the man whose voice speaks to me so personally, on every level. I pinched myself, the classic technique, because I had just heard him deliver a passionate concert, an intimate retrospective of his material that didn’t miss a note. And I was about to meet him. Continue reading “The Man With the Plan and the Pocket Comb”

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Not ’95 Anymore

“Our love is like water, pinned down and abused for being strange.” ~Live

It was the summer of ’95 all over again, when Live was on everyone’s lips, when they sold out amphitheaters and arenas seconds from the tickets being available, when they had the rock world by the throat and weren’t easing off. It was taking the ferry across the river knowing that on the other side would be anthems you could sing in your sleep, and a band that truly connected with its fans in a way I hadn’t seen from many bands in live forums before.

But that was 23 years ago, the summer of ’95. That was a simpler time, before digital took over, before CDs went the way of Betamax, before concerts became passe, before rock bands took a back seat to what passes for hip-hop and rap anymore. Yet, for one night, it was easy to believe we were back there because, for one night, it was Live again, doing what they’ve always done better than most — rocking a live show. I guess they were aptly named.

Of course, during the summer of ’95 I hardly ever had good seats to shows. I saw Live about 20 times that summer, and the closest I got was section H in the Spectrum (think nosebleeds — Michael Jordan looked small from that spot). In amphitheaters like the Mann Music Center and the Camden Center for the Performing Arts I was always on the lawn, fighting my way through the crowds to the barrier that separated us from the roofed in portion of the venue. I screamed my lungs out, but we were too far away, even though we were in the same place, at the same time. Continue reading “Not ’95 Anymore”

The LP Experience

Who listens to entire music albums anymore?

The other day I was playing Katy Perry’s Prism from start to finish, and my kids asked me what those “non-radio songs” were. I told them it was the whole album and they looked at me like I had two heads.

I remember waiting all day so I could go to the record store and buy Janet’s janet. album, when I would camp out all night so I could be the first one to get the new Sheryl Crow CD. I recall the first album I listened to from start to finish like it was yesterday, and while I sometimes listen to a song here and there I’m largely still about entire albums.

There’s just something about listening to the music in the way the artist intended, and when an entire album flows from song to song, creating an entire masterpiece, it’s simply transformative. Complete albums like Michael Jackson’s Bad, Counting Crows’ August and Everything After, Babyface’s For the Cool in You, and Pearl Jam’s Vs. have been there for me in difficult times of my life. Continue reading “The LP Experience”

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“I’m on my way. Driving at ninety down those country lanes, singing to ‘Tiny Dancer.’ And I miss the way you make me feel, and it’s real. We watched the sunset over the castle on the hill.” ~Ed Sheeran

the_castle_on_the_hill_by_estruda-dalq5st

It’s no surprise that I like to sing. Check out my youTube channel I’m about to take down, and you can hear for yourself how freeform it truly is — kind of like my dancing. More often than not I’ll be singing my song of the moment, whatever song has struck my fancy that day, that week, or that month. Generally it’s a song I play a lot in my car, but sometimes it’s random enough to be maddening even to me.

Currently that song is “Castle on the Hill,” by Ed Sheeran, a soaring anthem that tugs at both the heartstrings and my legendary sense of nostalgia at the same time. I love the whole album (Divide) but something about this one song brings me back to my childhood in a way that few songs not from that era have the ability to achieve. At least for me.

Which is funny because I don’t really have a relationship to look at in the same way as he remembers one of his earliest. I was pretty much strictly friend material to girls back in middle school, even though I would pour my heart out to them in poems I never sent, in songs I never sang, and in words I never said face to face either. It was this dichotomy between the me I wanted to be — strong and determined — and the me I couldn’t help being — fragile and tentative. Like oil and water, they didn’t mix.

So I sang to myself, but my song wasn’t “Tiny Dancer.” It was more often than not “Broken Wings,” or “Get Outta My Dreams,” songs of lost love or unrealized love that resonated with the teenage me much more than anything by Prince or those other guys who sounded like Prince. I was a bit quirkier, preferring “Motown Song” over more sensitive fare.

But that’s always been me, my songs of the moment somehow connected to me in ways only I could ever figure out at the time, then moving on to the next song when my emotions have moved on. I do miss those songs when they fade from my spotlight, though, when they’ve gone back to their regular places on their own albums, when they’ve drifted from my mind like so much snow blowing across the boulevard.

So right now it’s “Castle on the Hill,” and I nearly cry when I hit the chorus. Every single time I hit the chorus. Because it’s SO me right now, and the sun is setting over the hill. I’m just still waiting for my castle.

Sam

That R.E.M. Song

“…and that R.E.M. song was playing in my mind. Three and a half minutes. Felt like a lifetime.” ~Better Than Ezra

remsplitI always wondered what “that R.E.M. song” was, which one from their vast catalog made such an impression on a young Kevin Griffin (lead singer of Better Than Ezra) that he immortalized it in his own song. The song is about the death of a young friend, who after graduation had a car wreck and died, the lyrics a poignant reminder of the brevity of life, and how quickly it can be taken from any of us.

With that in mind, I began to dig deep into what could possibly be the mystery R.E.M. song from the lyrics. It’s a good thing, then, that I own the entire R.E.M. catalogue, because it would take a hell of a lot of digging to arrive at the ultimate truth. For starters, here is the full list of the band’s songs that hit 3:26 – 3:34 on the scale (prior to 2001, when the Better Than Ezra song was written)…

Gardening At Night (3:30)
Disturbance At the Heron House (3:34)
Romance (3:27)
Good Advices (3:30)
Begin the Begin (3:28)
What If We Give It Away? (3:34)
I Don’t Sleep, I Dream (3:28)
Let Me In (3:28)
Moral Kiosk (3:31)
Perfect Circle (3:30)
Departure (3:30)
Low Desert (3:32)
Half a World Away (3:28)
Time After Time (3:34)

That’s an awful lot of songs, so I tried to break them down by lyrics, by which ones might be depressing. I realized as I was doing this that most of R.E.M.’s catalogue is full of depressing, sad songs. Kevin Griffin literally had his choice of songs to complement his own, just by the sheer volume of sad songs to choose from, even from this relatively small list.

For a very long time I thought the song he referenced was “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream,” from the Monster record. It fit nearly every aspect of a depressing song that would hearken back to a premature death. “I’m looking for an interruption. Do you believe? Some medicine for my headache. Hooray.” The only thing that didn’t fit was the length of the song, because while I thought my range was pretty good, the lyric of the song was “Three and a half minutes,” and if I was being literal that one would not fit.

In fact, the more I thought about it the more I thought the song I was looking for was exactly 3 minutes and 30 seconds, which left me with Departure, Perfect Circle, Good Advices, and my personal favorite, Gardening At Night. In fact, the lyrics of “Gardening At Night” are very compelling. “We fell up, not to see the sun. Gardening at night just didn’t grow. I see your money on the floor. I felt the pocket change. Though all the feelings that broke down that door just didn’t seem to be too real.” Something about the shifting reality, the yearning to do something that seems right but doesn’t have positive consequences, it clicked in me.

But that wasn’t it. Here is the full lyric of the verse from the Better Than Ezra song from earlier…

“And I know I wasn’t right, but it felt so good
And your mother didn’t mind, like I thought she would
And that R.E.M. song was playing in my mind
Three and a half minutes, felt like a lifetime.”

5b8a1cb234e9b2d7ba2ad332ab262588That part of the song has always hit me like a hammer to the gut, the idea of something feeling so good but not being right, of approval out of nowhere, not for the means to an end, but for the end itself. It’s almost like it is a eulogy, not for the person who has died, but instead for the enterprise itself, for being adventurous. That R.E.M. song felt like a lifetime because when it ends the glory of a life lived for adventure ends as well.

The song was “Perfect Circle,” by the way, the idea that life is indeed this circle. We are born to die, but in the space between the wails of birth and the silence of death we either truly live or we go through the motions. “Perfect Circle” is all about truly living, taking the moment and wringing every ounce of glory from it so we can live on the nostalgia of that moment for years to come.

“Pull your dress on and stay real close. Who might leave you where I left off? A perfect circle of acquaintances and friends…”

Three and a half minutes. Felt like a lifetime.

Sam

Where the Story Ends

“It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year which makes my eyes feel sore. Oh, I never should have said the books that you read were all I loved you for.” ~The Sundays

audio_mix_tape_wall_decal_singleI don’t remember exactly when I first heard it, but I do remember how it made me feel. Something about it was ethereal, airy in a way that few songs to that point had ever been for me. It had a whimsical side to it that was both lilting and fragile at the same time. It drew me in and I wanted to hear that voice again. The only problem was that I had absolutely no idea who was singing it, and it drove me absolutely insane.

It was on this mixed tape that a girl sent me. Don’t ask me to remember the name of the girl because they all blur together from back then. Needless to say, it was a girl whose musical opinion mattered to me. We didn’t know each other in real life, but in the early days of my Internet obsession it was surprisingly easy to talk to people outside of the cluster of real life acquaintances I had at the time. After we had been conversing for a few weeks, I suggested we exchange mixed tapes. So we did.

I have to back it up a step, though, because back then I exchanged mixed tapes with a LOT of people. In fact, I would go into Tower Records and purchase a package of 20 blank tapes for expressly that purpose, and use them up almost as quickly as I bought them. I had one rule, though, when exchanging mixed tapes. I wanted to come into the experience completely oblivious to what I would be hearing as I listened, so I told each person who was going to send me a tape not to label it in any way.

Hence, my dilemma. Most songs on most mixed tapes I got at that time were easy for me to figure out as they were mostly songs I had in my collection already, or were songs I had heard on the radio. I must have listened to about 50 mixed tapes through those years of swapping, from all kinds of people all around the globe, but there were very few songs on those tapes that I didn’t know. Arguably the song I liked the most from one of those mixed tapes was one I didn’t know, and thus began the journey.

“It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year which makes me wonder why. And it’s the memories of the shed that make me turn red. Surprise. Surprise. Surprise.”

Remember I said this was in my Internet infancy? That would play a huge role in my growing frustration over the next few years. You’re probably wondering why I didn’t just email the girl who sent me the tape and ask what the song was, and that would be a good question to ask. However, it took me ages to actually listen to that particular tape for the first time, and in the intervening time I had a falling out with the tape’s sender. For all the beautiful songs she put on that tape for me, it was surprisingly easy for her to completely cut me out of her life. So I was back at square one.

So yes, my Internet infancy… it wasn’t just mine, because the network of sites and resources that we take for granted now wasn’t even remotely in place back in the ’90s. Lycos, or AltaVista, or whatever, didn’t quite have a lyrics engine, so my typing in random parts of the song into the search engine yielded absolutely no results. There was no social media so I couldn’t exactly ask my FB friends if anyone recognized the song. There was no Shazam, so I couldn’t hold up my nonexistent cell phone and capture the song in its clutches. I was stuck.

Years went by, and I wore that tape out from constant listening. It wasn’t the only song on there that I loved to pieces; it was just the only song on there that I didn’t already know. And as the years passed I guess I just forgot about trying to figure out who sang it anymore. I just let it wash over me when I listened to the tape, enjoying it for what it was, and just happy that I had a version of it at all. I even copied it from its location onto other mixed tapes that I sent to others.

Eventually I’m sure the Internet progressed, but I stopped typing lyrics into Lycos, AltaVista, or wherever, anymore. I’m certain at some point along the way if I had kept it up the World Wide Web would have caught up and spit back a name for me. It’s funny how some things happen, though, when we least expect them. By the time I had finally given up on finding out who sang the song it fell from the heavens into my lap. And in the most coincidental of ways too. It was on another mixed tape.

You see, after several years of swapping mixed tapes with others, I relaxed the rule of no labels, and the tapes kept pouring in. So many people were pretty creative with their labels, too, mixing in some artwork around the song titles. I still have so many of those tapes, and I have to say they put playlists to shame. But this post isn’t about that, even though it’s still fascinating to me.

On one of those mixed tapes I heard a voice I had listened to so many times before that I had memorized it for all time. My mouth dropped wide open as I flipped over the tape case and scanned the song titles for the one I wanted. And there it was, at long last, the name of the band that sang the song that had haunted me for what had seemed like forever. Oh, it was the Sundays, by the way. The song was “Here’s Where the Story Ends,” and before too long I had all three of their albums and I was in heaven.

Well worth the wait. Shortly after that, the mixed tape broke.

Sam

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