Josh Hornik Blog

May 24, 2006

Book Review & Josh's Songbook #3: Like A Rolling Stone

If any song deserves an entire book to be written about it, that song might be Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone". Certainly a great 3-chord rock song, it also happened to usher in an entirely new era in Pop/Rock music -- songs that actually mean something (and can make the charts, even at 6 minutes long).

Noted Dylanologist and music critic Greil Marcus' book Like a Rolling Stone: Dylan at the Crossroads examines the source material, musical content, and vast influence of this song. Unfortunately, Marcus does so with poeticism, impressionism, and even mysticism, rather than journalism. Marcus' purple prose and outright idolatry interfere with his mission.

Art criticism in general always walks a razor's edge, attempting to describe in words the effects of a visual or aural artform. But phrases like "this sound within the sound tells you the story can't end soon, and that it won't be rushed" (about an organ line - p. 115) and "The first sound is so stark and surprising, every time you hear it, that the empty split-second that follows calls up the image of a house tumbling over a cliff; it calls up a void" (p. 94-95) just leave me wondering if the critic could make up anything about any song.

And Marcus loses credibility with his over-adulation of Dylan and his oeuvre. Which is certainly saying something coming from a true fan like me. (Ask me the greatest songwriter ever, greatest lyricist ever, most important pop musician of all time, favorite concert of the last 10 years -- my answer will be Dylan.) But when the author spends pages seriously analyzing Dylan's spectacular disaster of a movie Masked and Anonymous, he is going too far. He finally loses all credibility for me when he states the only two songs since Rolling Stone to live up to it have been Dylan's musically monotonous Highlands from Time Out of Mind, and a Pet Shop Boys cover of a Village People (!!!) song (Go West).

Marcus' greatest successes come when he discusses the impact of the song, specifically offering reactions to the song by people like Jimi Hendrix and Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner. What I had hoped to read was a book that showed how Dylan made the leap from folk music to rock 'n roll, the turmoil of the actual recording process (the released version was the only decent take all day) and the impact on pop/rock music around the world. Marcus wrote about all of these, but deciphering his message through the diversions and imagery was a little too much for me.

Too bad, because without a doubt, Like A Rolling Stone is the greatest pop song of all time! Even with a 3-chord (C,F,G) structure straight out of Louie Louie or La Bamba (or a hundred others), the almost unprecedented 6-minute long song feels like 3, and leaves you wanting more.

The reason? An incredible lyric, both as music and as poetry. Musically, the lyrics flow so well, with an intricate, impossible rhyme scheme that was never even attempted again in pop music. Lines like:
Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people, they're drinking, thinking that they got it made.
You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns when they all came down and did tricks for you.
Meanwhile, the 3-syllable ending to each line creates a surprise every time, as you wait to hear how Dylan will fit it in. (It still grabs attention in concerts today -- although Dylan has taken to rushing every word out so fast the overall musicality is lost.)

Poetically, the lyrics were meaningful, if only for carrying any meaning at all. In a time of Be-Bop-a-Lu-La's, Dylan made pop music smart -- an influence that has been acknowledged by almost every pop musician at the time and since. Although the meaning of the song is debatable -- is it an angry rant at a woman too ensconced in her own "scene" or is it a warning to that woman, carrying an optimistic tone in breaking out of the scene? Either way, Dylan displays his usual gift for writing brilliant epigrams like "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose" and paints a detailed portrait of the subject.

As most of you will already know the song, maybe even own the standard radio version found on the album Highway 61 Revisited from 1965, I highly recommend checking out the live version from Dylan's tour with The Band, found on the double album Before The Flood (and also used to perfection in the highly-underrated Scorsese segment of the 1989 movie New York Stories).

Posted by JoshHornik at 12:39 PM | Comments (0)

March 03, 2006

Josh's Songbook #2: Steely Dan - My Old School

The first judgment I make on any song is the answer to a simple question: could I have written this song? Although not always true, in most cases, considering my musicianship, songs I think I probably could have written myself are generally lame. (This means you, Jack Johnson.)

Of course, just because a song has funky chord changes or an interesting arrangement doesn't necessarily make it a great song, but originality and musicality are certainly requirements.

Which brings me to Steely Dan. I cannot think of a single song by Steely Dan that I could have written. In fact, when I look at the wacked jazz chords they used, I find that I generally can't even play their stuff. Some people probably consider their music a little too 'brainy', but in fact, the best Steely Dan songs (and there are a lot of truly great ones) are incredibly accessible despite their complicated nature.

One such song is My Old School (go here and scroll down to find a video clip of Steely Dan playing it on American Bandstand), from the 1973 album Countdown To Ecstasy. Featuring just plain killer guitar solos, an incredible (and incredibly complex) horn arrangement, and some completely inscrutable harmonies, it somehow manages to put it all together into one of the most sing-along-able songs around.

Lyrically, I could never figure it out, really. It seems like some sort of autobiographical story about a past relationship, but what I like is that the tone (both lyrically and musically) is extremely upbeat but with an edge. Something bad seems to have happened, but there's definite victory in the chorus of "I'm never going back to my old school."

Musically, this song is one of the greatest all-time sing-along songs, because of all the different parts coming together. Listen one time and you might sing along with Donald Fagen on vocals, but the next time you find yourself singing the horn part, and with a few more listens, you might even get the blazing Jeff Baxter guitar solo down. All with a driving beat that never stops, even propelled during instrumental breaks by, yes, the cowbell. The harmonies are so complex (I have yet to sing the right note on "school", but I try every time) but they are seamless. On the last two verses, Donald Fagen duets with himself to amazing effect.

As I said, I never tried too hard to figure out what the lyrics meant, but I still consider these lyrics some of the best in pop music. That's because, musically, they are such a perfect fit. There is not a syllable out of place, and there are so many multi-syllable words and phrases that sound great and are fun to sing. For example, the opening to the last verse, when the harmony hits the high notes on "California crumbles into the sea". And, most perfectly, the lead-in to the chorus with "Oh, no, William & Mary won't do" and then, even better, "Oh, no, Guadalajara won't do".

Steely Dan was really a unique band in pop music history. Some of their songs were great for the harmonies (Reelin' in the Years), some for the guitar solos (Do It Again), some for the tight studio musicianship (Bodhisattva). And when they put it all together like on My Old School (or Black Friday, Kid Charlemagne, Show Biz Kids, etc.), it doesn't get any better.

Posted by JoshHornik at 12:37 PM | Comments (1)

February 26, 2006

Josh's Songbook #1: The Jackson 5 - Who's Lovin' You?

I've been reading the Nick Hornby book Songbook. It's a book of short essays on some of Hornby's favorite songs. Hornby, of course, is a well-known music nut, having written the book High Fidelity, basis for the John Cusack movie, and writing frequent music reviews in between novels. (Incidentally, I usually read books based on reviews or recommendations, but High Fidelity is one of the few I have bought entirely based on browsing a bookstore and finding the write-up interesting. Hmm, why would a story about a guy who enjoyed re-arranging his record collection and making top 10 lists of songs have appealed to me...?)

Anyway, it's an interesting (and easy) read, since Hornby's a good writer, but it is a little disappointing that he seems to prefer to discuss his philoshophies of pop songs in generalities to the specific elements of the songs he chose that make them his favorites. Each essay contains 1 or 2 sentences about a line of lyrics or a solo phrase in the song, but that's it.

But of course it's inspired me to write about my favorite songs, and specifically what it is about those songs that makes them so great. Whether it's the guitar solo in Pink Floyd's Time, the drum break in Aretha's Rock Steady, or the 2-bar silence in Devin Davis' Deserted Eyeland, the best songs all have something - often lots of things - that make them the best.

And so, here's song #1 in the Josh Hornik Songbook:

The Jackson 5 - Who's Lovin' You? from Diana Ross presents The Jackson 5
(sound clip here)
Anyone who knows the song will know right away what 'the thing' is in this song. Michael Jackson, at age 10, recorded one of the greatest vocals ever in pop music. Clear proof that musicality (or, in this case, soul) is something you are born with and not taught. Basically, I have gone hoarse singing along to this song more than any other song in my collection (though all of Judas' songs from Jesus Christ Superstar are close). I have tried to learn every nuance of Michael's performance and match it note-for-note and vibrato-for-vibrato. Once in my college dorm, I finished a spirited version of the song only to open my eyes and find my friends outside my door, having witnessed the whole thing (and laughing mercilessly).

The song was written by Smokey Robinson and recorded first by The Miracles on their first album, but I think Smokey's version is a little tinnier and shallower than the J5 version. For the Jackson 5, the Motown producers smoothed out the background music with strings and classic Jackson 5 background vocals, which help bring depth. But mostly, the Jackson 5 version gains, amazingly, from a grittier, more desperate vocal by 10-yr. old Michael.

The opening is all anticipation. First, a tremendous blues organ riff leading to Michael's entrance, an elongated "wheeeeen" that finally leads into the opening of the song and the addition of drums, strings, a great funky bass and backing vocals. Michael wastes no time hitting the heights -- "When I had you, I treated you..." and on "bad" he hits a high note above everything, then brings it back down to the rest of the song. But you know there's no stopping him from then on.

I have to wonder if Michael Jackson was really that good, or if he just got lucky. He hits blue notes (slightly flat for effect) with perfection, and he seems to improvise the rhythms as well, coming in on the beat for one chorus while holding off for a beat on the next. Logic says that it must have been the producers telling him how to do it -- that no 10-year old kid could have just known to put that grunt, "huh", between "life without love" and "is oh so lonely" halfway through the song. But, cleary, this kid was something special.

The song climaxes with a vocal cadenza, almost unnecessary after 3 minutes of incredible vocals, but still great. But the great thing is that as the song fades out, Michael's still going, still improvising and hitting high notes and putting his soul into it.

Watch any episode of American Idol, then listen to this song, and you will hear the difference between vocal gymnastics for the sake of showing off, and soulful vocals for the benefit of an emotional song.

(PS - Besides this song, the first Jacksons album had a bunch of other great ones including the #1 hit I Want You Back and Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, with another unbelievable MJ vocal and more. Highly recommended.)

Posted by JoshHornik at 11:15 AM | Comments (0)