Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Nine Songs On The 241

If your iPod's on shuffle and "Revolution 9," from the Beatles' so-called White Album, comes up, you're probably going to be tempted to skip to the next song. That I didn't do so this morning seemed to be a signal to see what I could learn from a southbound from Yorba Linda, Tuesday-before-Thanksgiving random playlist. My theory, you see, is that when your iPod has more than 10,000 songs (I have 10,005), it becomes sentient. Sometimes, like this morning, it picks nine perfect songs right in a row.

Choosing the Beatles' longest, most obscure cut was my iPod's challenge not to be MP-3 ADD -- not to skip over two, four, or ten songs while looking for the perfect one but instead to settle down and hear what the spirit of music was saying. So I gritted my teeth and listened carefully to the John Lennon-Yoko Ono sonic adventure that Paul McCartney and producer George Martin fought tooth and scale to keep off the album. I'm glad they failed. A pastiche of found sounds, from choirs to passionate moaning, "Revolution 9" matches the album's foreboding theme and tone.

As you might imagine, a minute-by-minute summary of the song is on-line, including a transcript of Lennon saying, about a minute in:
They found a shortage of grain in Hartfordshire, and every one of them knew that as time went by, they’d get a little bit older and a little bit slower…factory work…five percent in the, in the uh, the district, they were intended to pay for...
We'll revisit that Hartfordshire factory with Mick and the boys in a moment. The Beatles were actually quoted in my second song, Paul Simon's "Mother and Child Reunion," from his first solo album in 1972: "I know they say 'let it be', but it just don't turn out that way." Named for a dish in a Chinese restaurant and written about a deceased pet, the song, like the White Album, echoes with Vietnam-era urban elite discouragement, as do other songs on the album "Paul Simon" such as "Everything Put Together Falls Apart" and "Paranoia Blues." It was, after all, the year of the reelection of Richard Nixon, for whom no one Pauline Kael and probably Paul Simon knew in Manhattan would vote. A year later, as Watergate raged, Simon released the more elegiac "American Tune," set to music from J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion: "We can't be forever blessed."

A younger, equally skillful lyricist working from a smaller pallet, Belfast-born Christian folksinger Brian Houston wrote my third song, "Practical Reminder," a mid-tempo rocker from his 2005 album,"Thirteen Days In August," about an unnamed local Eleanor Rigby, an Enneagram 2 with a full-on martyr complex:

She's always loneliest when she's with other people
She just saves all of her tears until they leave
For if pol
iteness were a virtue, then I know she's be a saint
She could deny herself for Ireland in the next Olympic games

Living a less circumscribed life was the great, deeply troubled Janis Joplin, whose powerful last album, "Pearl," was recorded with a band called Full Tilt Boogie and released a a few months after her 1970 death from a heroin overdose. FTB were journeymen musicians whom Joplin was proud to have assembled into the rock-solid, cool-rocking band she'd always wanted. She wrote the song that blasted from my Saturn's speakers this morning, "Move Over," which is well lubricated by Ken Pearson on the Hammond B-3 organ and features a powerful guitar solo by Canadian John Till, who some years before had been hired by Ronnie Hawkins after the musicians later known as the Band abandoned him for Bob Dylan.

It always seems to come back to the Band lately. The next song the mischievous iPod dished up could've been a Band song, with its country-style acoustic guitar and, I thought I heard, the hint of a mandolin. But as promised, it's back to Hardfordshire for the Rolling Stones' "Factory Girl" from 1968's "Beggars Banquet." I always thought of this Jagger-Richards song, which even has a country fiddle on it, as an invocation of an American mountain folk tune, but as a matter of fact, all that music came from England, Ireland, and Scotland to begin with. As Keith Richards said in 2003:
To me "Factory Girl" felt something like "Molly Malone", an Irish jig; one of those ancient Celtic things that emerge from time to time, or an Appalachian song.
Ancient indeed, since that was two songs in a row that had me wallowing in memories from high school. Thankfully, Lyle Lovett came along next with something newer, a genuine American country song, "Promises," from his stunning 1996 album "The Road To Ensenada." A sad, hopeless-sounding apology, it's a song St. Paul would have loved:

Promises given
And promises broken

Words stain my lips

Just like blood on my hands

And words are like poison
That sinks down inside you

And some things you do

You just don't understand

This minor-key Lovett original took me from nostalgia to discouragement to curiosity. When did he and Julia Roberts split? The year before the album came out, I see. Evidently Lovett fans have been plumbing it for clues about their breakup for years.

My musical buddy and recent pilgrimage partner Gary Baker tells me that his fellow Van Morrison fans are similarly well informed about the Belfast-born (that's twice in nine songs) living legend's love life. (There are relatively few details at Morrison's otherwise exemplary Wikipedia page.) His "Gypsy In My Soul" turned out to be the next song in my rotation. By this time I was hurtling past Rick Warren's Saddleback Church and listening to Morrison's nasal, supple tenor:

It’s just the gypsy in my soul
Make me pack up my things and go

It may seem like I’m on a roll

But it’s just the gypsy in my soul

Morrison, who used to live near members of the Band in Woodstock, appeared at their Last Waltz concert in 1976. Bob Dylan was in Woodstock as well, and in 1967, in the house called Big Pink, the Band recorded a song he wrote, "Orange Juice Blues," that was released in the 1970s on "The Basement Tapes." The ninth and last song in in my random playlist, it was playing as I rolled into the St. John's Church parking lot. Richard Manuel's beautiful, lost falsetto rang in my ears all day:

I had a hard time waking this morning
I got a lotta things on my mind

Like those friends of yours

They keep bringing me down

Just hangin' round all the time

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