Saturday, January 14, 2017


Well it is, isn't it? And it would have, anyway, because everything changes, that's a fact, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen. Which is about as philosophical as I am going to get. So I am not going to trump on about politics, probably a relief, because everyone everywhere else will be. But I am going to celebrate this wondrous song, particularly as it later became quite an anthem for civil rights, something we could maybe start storing up in reserve. (Sorry, I said I wouldn't.....)

The b-side to a latter-day single in his career, Cooke was moved to write and record it, late 1963 into 1964, after an incident where he had been turned away from a whites only motel in Shreveport, Louisiana. A Holiday Inn. Despite being, arguably, a previously light-weight lyricist, perfect for the pop-soul that endeared him to a largely white audience, he had also been stung by Bob Dylan's emergence, social conscience a'blazing, so he seized the moment. ("Blowin' in the Wind" was a staple in Cooke's live set.) His producers, inevitably warned against the risks of alienating his fans, hence it's appearance on the flip of "Shake." No, me neither. Both "Shake" and the album both the songs appeared on, "Ain't That Good News", actually his last, sold modestly by Cooke's standards. But that has been dwarfed by the legacy and life of the song, voted number 12 in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, as well as being selected for posterity within the Library of Congress, as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically important." All three, say I. But I am ahead of myself. Cooke actually only once played the song live, on TV, the Johnny Carson Tonight show. (I couldn't find any recording thereof to link, sadly.) It was then a full 10 months before the single was ready for release, which eventually took place, over a year after recording, in late December 1964. That release date was already planned, when Cooke was shot dead at another motel, this time in Los Angeles. Colour code uncertain.

There are myriad covers. Although maybe more the metier of the estimable Cover Me Songs, here are my favourite five.

For me, the song that makes The Band's 1973 album, "Moondog Matinee," an essential, the combination of Richard Manuel's keening vocal and the arrangement transformed from the orchestral splendour of the original to simple affecting sublimity.

Another radical revision of the arrangement, Herbie Hancock playing his jazz piano around, behind, on top of a conventional soul vocal version, englishman, James Morrison, the two morphing together just right. But only just.

An astonishing and the possibly OTT extravaganza that was Baby Huey. Just euphoric. Makes me, a middle aged white man, channel James Brown. Convincingly. (Maybe.)

Uncertain still whether this works, cello and the never-less-soul man Ben Sollee. On balance, it does.

Finally, an instrumental mix of all the styles shown above. And more. Bill Frisell, an alchemist of electric guitar, able to run with any genre and leave it resolutely unclassifiable beyond exquisite.

What a song, what a tune. Let it give confidence for the changes that will come. After all, it is all in the ear of the beholder.

Anyhow, don't get upset about the what if of politics, go here, cheer yourself up with some Sam.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Change-The World Has Changed

The Fleshtones: The World Has Changed

Things are going to change on January 20. In the abstract, as an American citizen, I’m pleased that our country has a long tradition of peaceful transfers of power between incoming and outgoing presidential administration. But in the real world, I really wish that there was some way to prevent the president elect from taking office. As I wrote elsewhere a few days after Election Day:

It made me wonder how this great country could elect someone whose apparent view of appropriate behavior is the exact opposite of how I was raised and how I raised my children. I know that he is a liar, a bully, a sexual predator and a man who had no compunctions mocking a person with a disability, the parents of an American serviceman who died in action, and women who fail to meet his personal standards of beauty, but whether or not the candidate himself is actually a racist, homophobic, antisemitic, misogynistic, white supremacist, that’s the rhetoric that he used to fire up his supporters. 

So, yeah, I’m not a fan.

I mean, whether or not the latest Russia blackmail material story is true or not, what amazes me is that it actually seems plausible that someone who bragged about grabbing women's genitals without consent or joked (?) about dating his own daughter would hire Russian hookers to provide a golden shower.  Plus, we know how much he loves gold.  

It is hard to tell what the lyrics are to The Fleshtones’ “The World Has Changed,” because singer Peter Zaremba has a bit of a mushmouth, and they don’t seem to be available anywhere on the Internet, so I can’t really tell whether the whole song works for my premise, but the chorus, “Don’t you understand the world has changed?” is good enough. The Fleshtones, by the way, formed in Queens, NY, my native borough, in the mid-1970s and their brand of fun, sloppy, supercharged garage rock meshed well with the punk and new wave scene in New York during that period. I remember playing them on the radio, and this song comes from their first full album, Roman Gods, on I.R.S. Records. The Fleshtones, despite a fairly strong cult following, never really hit it big, like their label mates The Go-Go’s or R.E.M., but have continued to record and perform to the present (unlike The Go-Go’s or R.E.M.).

Back to politics. In 2008, Barack Obama ran on a platform that emphasized hope and, yes, change. Hope for a better future, and change from the failed presidency of Dubya. And while President Obama’s eight years weren’t perfect, they were pretty damned good. He brought a thoughtfulness and decency to the office, gave African Americans and other minority group members hope that they could aspire to the Presidency (and by implication, to anything), and extended health care to millions. He helped bring the country out of the massive recession and financial crisis that confronted him when he took office, gave the order to kill Bin Laden, and was a shining example of how to be a husband and father. Among many other things.

Two nights ago, he gave a stirring, inspirational and personal farewell speech that, fittingly, returned to the themes of hope and change that were crucial to his election. Because he, and his speechwriters, are better writers than me, let me quote a bit from that speech, on the issue of change:

This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it. 

After eight years as your President, I still believe that. And it's not just my belief. It's the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government. It's the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It's the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union. 

What a radical idea. A great gift that our Founders gave to us: The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat and toil and imagination, and the imperative to strive together, as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good. 

For 240 years, our nation's call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It's what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom. It's what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande. (Applause.) It's what pushed women to reach for the ballot. It's what powered workers to organize. It's why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima, Iraq and Afghanistan. And why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs, as well. (Applause.) 

So that's what we mean when we say America is exceptional — not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow. Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It's always been contentious. Sometimes it's been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some. 

The President used the word “change” 19 times in his address, which I don't think is a coincidence.  If you want to read a really good speech, check it out here (you can watch it, too).

We don’t know exactly how things are going to change starting on the 20th, but there are bad indications, in what the new guy is saying (or what may be in his heart), what he is doing, and what his nominated appointees have said and are saying. Let’s hope that this is one of President Obama’s “one step[s] back” after his two strides forward. Because otherwise, we’ve got a problem.