Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Certain Songs Part XIV: On the Road to Find Out

And now, thankful that I do not have to emigrate, we forge ahead with my favorite 153 records of all time.

Simon & Garfunkel

As I wrote earlier, I got into S&G in a big way in sophomore year of college when Paul Simon’s Graceland came out, and for years all I had of Bookends was a scratchy used vinyl copy. Still, it and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (see earlier in this list) were the best of the five albums they did (four if you don’t count the debut Wednesday Morning 3 AM, which not many do). Production-wise, Bookends is the most elaborate of their albums, almost—but not quite—getting psychedelic in places (especially the opener “Save the Life of My Child”). “America” is a standout track among a sea of standout tracks—“Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/They’ve all come to look for America.” Side one closer “Old Friends” never fails to bring a tear, especially when it follows the audio verité “Voices of Old People” recorded in an old-age home. (Quite a daring thing to do in an age where youth culture was being revered.)

Side Two has a better suite of songs, including “Mrs. Robinson,” the single version which did not actually appear in The Graduate, “A Hazy Shade of Winter” (covered well by The Bangles in the late 1980s), and the seemingly innocent but Animal Farm-ish “At the Zoo.” The duo’s next, and final, album Bridge Over Troubled Water saw them experimenting with new musical styles, and yielded their biggest hit, but Bookends was arguably the better record, and the best of their too-short collaboration.

Cat Stevens
Tea for the Tillerman

I don’t know exactly how or why I got into Cat Stevens (né Steven Georgiou) in 1986 (around the same time as I was rediscovering Simon & Garfunkel), but I did and I really played the hell out of a recording of Tea for the Tillerman I had made from a CD I borrowed from Steven H. (I think he loaned me Cat Stevens’ Greatest Hits which was what did it.) Stevens was always searching for something (spiritual, that is), and his spiritual quest informs—but doesn’t dominate—the record. In the middle of a seemingly simple “looking for love in all the wrong places” song (“Hard Headed Woman”) is a critique of materialism:
I know many fine feathered friends
But their friendliness depends on how you do
They know many sure-fired ways
To find out the one who pays
And how you do.
“Wild World” was the big single, and rightly so. “Father and Son” is the perfect summation of every teenage boy’s relationship with his father, presenting both sides with empathy and compassion. The father counsels patience, but the son ends:
All the times that I’ve cried keeping all the things I knew inside
It’s hard, but harder still to ignore it
If they were right I’d agree
But it’s them they know not me
Now there’s a way and I know that I have to go.
“Miles from Nowhere” details more of the search, while “But I Might Die Tonight” rails against conformity and wasting your time doing what others expect you to do—because, you know, you could die tonight. The long-ish “On the Road to Find Out” details more of the search—“There’s so much left to know and I’m on the road to find out.”

But it’s the opening song, “Where Do the Children Play?" that is the highlight. Yes, we have all this technology, and it’s great, but does it get in the way of our lives? The songs and the performances on this album are just flawless, and although Stevens’ follow up Teaser and the Firecat was a bigger hit (and was almost as good and consistent), he never did an album as good as Tea for the Tillerman again before he retired, became Muslim, and changed his name to Yusuf Islam. Unfortunately, his planned return to music in the early 2000s coincided with 9/11.

Blue Öyster Cult
Blue Öyster Cult

In 1981, Fire of Unknown Origin came out and I fell in love with it (see later in this list), and thus set out to amass the BÖC discography. The first three “black-and-white” albums (so dubbed thanks to the cryptic scant-spot-color-only artwork) became my favorites of their original records (save for FoUO), largely because of the eeriness of the production, the cryptic, often surreal lyrics far removed from usual rock’n’roll fare, and just this aura of mystery about them. Producer and manager Sandy Pearlman wrote most of the lyrics, which the band then set to music. Guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser started writing his own songs early on, and debuts here with the tale of a drug deal gone bad, the atmospheric “(Then Came) The Last Days of May.” Slow and kind of bluesy, it was a perfect mid-side track (song sequencing in the days of vinyl was an art) that really highlighted Roeser’s soloing prowess. (Roeser wrote “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” a few years later.) Psychedelic noir with biker boogie overtones is the best way to describe this impressive debut. The vocals were mixed way back, so until the 2001 CD remaster included a lyric sheet, much of the album was a mystery, lyrically (which only added to its mystique).

“Transmaniacon MC” (i.e. “motorcycle club”) is about an insane, perhaps preternatural group of bikers. The wonderfully titled “I’m on the Lamb but I Ain’t No Sheep” tells of a fugitive fleeing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; it was re-recorded for their next album in a harder, faster arrangement and retitled “The Red and the Black,” and as such stayed in their live repertoire well into the 80s. Robert Meltzer, founder of rock magazine Crawdaddy, was also a contributing lyricist (usually more bizarre, surreal stuff) and here contributes the words to “Stairway to the Stars” and “She’s as Beautiful as a Foot” (“Didn’t believe it when he bit into her face/It tasted just like a fallen arch”). Bassist Joe Bouchard also jumped right into songwriting, with “Screams” being a creepy side two opener, replete with treated vocals and burbling synths grounded with an ominous guitar riff. The classic rock radio track was “Cities on Flame with Rock’n’Roll” sung by (vastly underrated) drummer Albert Bouchard, at least on record (sung by official singer Eric Bloom in most live incarnations). Blue Öyster Cult stands perhaps as one of the best rock debut albums of the 1970s. Eventually, they would do more sci-fi-oriented songs, even having science-fiction authors contribute lyrics.

Blue Öyster Cult also earns a place in my personal history as the first concert I ever went to, in September 1982 at the then-brand new Worcester Centrum. (Opening act: Aldo Nova. Ha!)

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