Archive for Music

RE-POST: Pretty Lights on the Tree, I’m Watching Them Shine

Sometimes you can hear a song a hundred times and on a random afternoon it will hit you in a new way. Whap, right upside the head. As a huge Bob Dylan fan, that happens to me frequently, where I’ll suddenly appreciate, say, Dylan’s piano technique on “Blind Willie McTell” — and need to hear that song every day for weeks.

That happened to me recently with “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector.

Specifically, these simple lines:

Pretty lights on the tree
I’m watching them shine
You should be here with me

Those lines have all the qualities of a successful haiku except for the syllable count — that attention to concrete detail, the lean clear prose (no purple or wasted words), and a darting movement from exterior, objective reality to an interior emotional state, where “outside” and “inside” become linked through juxtaposition.

I admire lines that can be as unadorned as, “Pretty lights on the tree/I’m watching them shine.” I love how that straight description conveys an inner depth (I’ve talked about that quality before, most recently here). I think it’s difficult to pull off, using simple words, yet evoking a depth of feeling that lies somewhere below language.

“You should be here with me.”

And, absolutely, it’s Darlene Love’s vocal performance that puts it over the top.

A lot of people have done this song, with mixed results: U2, Death Cab for Cutie, Mariah Carey, John Martyn, Hanson, Bruce Springsteen, etc. But nobody, but nobody, touches Darlene Love’s version, produced by Phil Spector on this 1963 LP: “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.”

On this essential disk, Spector lends his signature “Wall of Sound” treatment to a number of secular holiday tunes, enlisting the vocal talents of the Ronettes, the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, and Darlene Love. A few years back, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #142 on its list of 500 greatest albums of all time — not bad for a holiday album.

Here’s Darlene Love on a 2012 visit to “Letterman” — just a stunning version, given the full arrangement it so richly deserves. Violins and cellos, nine backup singers, a horn section, random percussionists pounding on the kitchen sink, and . . . snow!

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The snow’s coming down
I’m watching it fall
Lots of people around
Baby please come home

The church bells in town
All singing in song
Full of happy sounds
Baby please come home

They’re singing “Deck The Halls”
But it’s not like Christmas at all
‘Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year

Pretty lights on the tree
I’m watching them shine
You should be here with me
Baby please come home

They’re singing “Deck The Halls”
But it’s not like Christmas at all
‘Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year

If there was a way
I’d hold back this tear
But it’s Christmas day
Baby please come home

Here’s Bono and the gang giving it a go:

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In this recent cover by Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard eliminates the celebratory element that has crept into recent versions, to capture the sadness and longing that is at the song’s (true, I think) core.

If there was a way
I’d hold back this tear
But it’s Christmas day
Baby please come home.

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Some Photos from Our Vacation in Ireland

We just enjoyed a dream vacation in Ireland and now, Dear Faithful Reader, sit back while I show you more than 700 photographs . . .

Wait, no. Just kidding!

It really was a special trip — a place I love in a very deep way, the literature, the music, the lanscape, the people, the beer — and I was so glad for my wife, Lisa, and our children to experience it.

A few shots:

My reading is usually thematic — I go on little jags, basically — and it’s been Ire-centric of late. Some highlights . . .

As for other matters, we are still conducting further research . . .

Here Comes the Sun: Flashmob in Madrid Unemployment Office

Know this: Unemployment in Spain is at 26 percent. The country, and its people, are going through a very tough time. High taxes, plunging salaries, confusion, bitterness, anger, fear, desperation — with record numbers applying for jobless benefits.

So one recent day at the unemployment office in Madrid, a flash mob of musicians came along to brighten the day, at least for a few minutes. Watch, please.

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My thanks to Lauren Frayer, at NPR, for first bringing the video to light.

Music Video Friday: Teenage Fanclub

I don’t know how I landed on this song, except that it always makes me happy — and Teenage Fanclub from Scotland is one of my all-time favorites. Here they are doing their Byrds-influenced, harmony-dripped jangle. Have a great weekend.

“I Don’t Want Control of You,” Teenage Fanclub, from their great CD, “Songs from Northern Britain.

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Inspiration: “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone

I’ve long been awed by the song, “Feeling Good,” as sung by Nina Simone. It slays me every time I hear it. The lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse (I don’t know who to credit, exactly) are so simple, yet convey such depth of feeling.

Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good

Fish in the sea you know how I feel
River running free you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree you know how I feel

(refrain)

Dragonfly out in the sun you know what I mean, don’t you know
Butterflies all havin’ fun you know what I mean
Sleep in peace when day is done
That’s what I mean

And this old world is a new world
And a bold world
For me

Stars when you shine you know how I feel
Scent of the pine you know how I feel
Oh freedom is mine
And I know how I feel

And when the horns kick in, oh my.

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Anyway, I’ve been writing and re-writing a scene in a new book. So far, it feels like every decision I make is the wrong one. Every path, the wrong one. I try to squeeze some background information into dialogue, it sounds false. I try it with straight exposition, it drags. I’m wrestling with the problem of “set-up,” an issue I’ve faced dozens of times with Jigsaw Jones, and I’m still searching, slashing, deleting, surrendering.

But I did wake up this morning with that song in my head, and I thought about my main character, Samantha, looking up at the clouds — something I wanted her to do, an aspect of her character — and that’s the feeling in her heart. She sees a bird soaring high and she knows how it feels.

Over coffee, I scribbled on a sheet of paper:

Sam was a cloud watcher and a sky dreamer. She looked up to admire a red-tailed hawk soaring through the clouds, and sent a silent message to that bird: You know how I feel.

Will this solve my problem? No, it won’t. Will it make it through the revision and editing process? No idea. But I’m going back in again, this song in my heart, and I’m going to bring that moment with me.

FUN FACT: Newley and Bricusse also composed the original score and songs for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Which, weirdly enough, inspired aspects of the story I’m currently writing. There’s a Wonka-esque character in it. When coincidence comes together, I often think, “Somebody’s trying to tell me something.” I figure I’m on the right track. Time to grab a shovel and dig in.

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