This has been a tough year for America with the drawn-out election, the leaked emails, the polarized rhetoric, the “locker room talk.” Don’t worry, I won’t digress into politics. But perhaps Cormac McCarthy wrote no truer words in No Country For Old Men: “What you got ain’t nothing new. This country is hard on people.”
For a music fanatic like me, it’s been especially difficult to see so many of my favorite artists pass on. But I’m not going to cry. I’m going to celebrate their gifts and be thankful for the truth, humanity, color, understanding, and beauty they gave the world.
I asked my older brother if I could borrow his Leon Russell CD. He said I could have it. Now he wears a Leon Russell T-shirt, so this was a rare score for the little brother cheated on numerous baseball card trades.
The first song I heard was “A Song for You,” a song any songwriter instantly wishes they had written. Its lyrics are direct, but with so much left between the lines. It can be sung as an ode to a long-time lover or to the one who got away. Leon whimpers and moans all over the beautiful melody, and the descending scales and trills on his piano are rooted in classical music, sophistication, and long hours of practice. The piano-playing reminded me of Alicia Keys, who was a new artist around that time. I felt instinctively that Axl Rose was a fan of Leon.
A week before Russell’s passing I listened to Leon Russell and the Shelter People in my car as I drove to and from work. I’d like to believe that was a goodbye, one more time to enjoy his work while he was still with us. It struck me that we look for connections like that in our lives, signs of order and meaning, connections to people, places, and things that are bigger than us. That is the beauty of music, that connection.
The first song I ever heard by Leonard Cohen was “Suzanne” from his debut album Songs from Leonard Cohen, one of the most covered songs in his catalogue. I was instantly intrigued by the way he took his time with his story. His words and music poured out “like honey,” like the way the sun shone down on Suzanne in the third verse. But it was the second verse about Jesus that really got my attention.
I was raised United Methodist, not particularly devout, but what I thought you could and could not say about Jesus Christ was deeply ingrained. So my first thought was, “Is he allowed to sing about Jesus like that?”
First Jesus “walks upon the water.” Next he’s “watching from his lonely wooden tower.” But what really shook my 20-year-old self was, “And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him he said, ‘All men will be sailors, then until the sea shall free them.'” Did he leave us to struggle so that he could and would be needed? And “then” almost sounded punitive.
Two lines later Jesus is “broken,” “almost human,” and “sinks beneath your wisdom like a stone.” Sinking beneath your wisdom sounded sacrilegious. But Leonard wraps it up with “And you think maybe you’ll trust him for he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.”
Two interesting things there. One is the “maybe,” suggesting you’re open to other ideas and paths; and the second is the “perfect body” suggesting your perfection comes from a higher source. This duality of sacred and profane was a hallmark of Cohen’s writing.
Cohen didn’t really answer questions so much as he cracked the door, presented himself squarely, and left you to do the figuring. His confusion was expressed so clearly, but I always assumed he had the answers. Great writers express themselves in such a way that the mirror is turned on you, and if you’re lucky you learn a little about yourself.
I’m including Kay Starr as a tribute to my grandmother. Her name was Marynette but we called her BeBe. She did what a grandmother does: hugs, baked apple pies, cooked Sunday dinner. And as a child of the depression, she kept a neat and modest house. She loved music, and when she heard something she liked she did a little dance from the 1930s, her palms out above her waist and her eyes looking up. She’d smile and shake her head, which seemed to say, “I had a little fun, but not too much fun.”
When I heard “Wheel of Fortune,” Kay Starr’s 1952 hit, I instantly thought of BeBe. I loved the harmonies and the wheel-spinning effect at the top of the number. I listened on repeat for days and played for anyone who would listen.
BeBe had a new Bose CD player in her kitchen, a gift from my uncle. So the next time I visited I gave her some music. When I put on “Wheel of Fortune,” she didn’t disappoint. She raised her hands, looked up to the ceiling with a smile, and my heart melted. We miss you BeBe.
I’m a big fan of Merle Haggard, but I have to admit I avoided him for a long time. I held a prejudice because of “Okie From Muskogee,” a song I took at face value and judged as a narrow-minded celebration of ignorance and fear. The truth about my perception of “Okie” was that I was too serious and narrow-minded to see the sly humor in the song. It recently occurred to me that “Okie” is the best song that Randy Newman never wrote, and had he written it everyone would’ve gotten the joke.
Years later a friend shared Merle’s 1977 album Ramblin’ Fever with me and slowly and surely his sense of humor, ability to tell a story, inhabit a character, and the musicality of the songs wormed their way into my head. I was humming these songs all over New York City.
I realize I put labels on music, and I realize that’s not always fair — but after listening to Merle’s music obsessively for about a year, I realized and still contend he was the Beatles of country music. He successfully used the studio as an instrument, he extracted the most out of his material without overdoing it, and the sound he and his friends put down on tape was and is joyous.
A few months ago I convinced my wife to frame a rather large David Bowie poster for the stairway of our home. My mom doesn’t approve, and nine out of 10 people will politely say “Oh … cool.” But the framing works well with the image, and there are worse things to hang on your wall. And I get the added bonus of hearing my son say “Good morning David Bowie” on the way to breakfast.
This particular image is from the same shoot that produced a promo video for “Heroes,” Bowie’s 1977 single. He’s wearing a red sports coat, crucifix, jeans, and calf-high hiking boots with leg warmers up to his knees. He looks like a jive-ass hipster about to hike through the Swiss Alps. But he looks cool.
By 1975 Bowie was doing so much cocaine he was convinced witches in Los Angeles were trying to steal his essence to spawn some grotesque offspring who might grow to be exactly as horrid and empty as he felt. But being Bowie, he changed direction, moved to Berlin, and made some of his most enduring music.
One of the reasons that image means enough to me to hang in my home is that he looks triumphant. Yes, he’s jiving you a bit. But perhaps he was or he was becoming the thing he pretended to be. Great artists are always becoming while being exactly what they are at the same time.
The first time I heard Sharon Jones I assumed she was from the ’60s. But she did more than just recreate soul sounds. Her first three albums would usher in a classic-soul revisionism brought to the masses by Amy Winehouse a few years later. Sharon helped make songs cool again.
Jones finally broke through with 2010’s I Learned the Hard Way. If you ever saw her perform you could see she lived and breathed music, and she wanted you to have a good time. She worked hard on stage. She worked hard to get where she got. And she deserved the success that came her way.
The Eagles get a hard time now, and a lot of that started when the Coen Brothers wrote that famous scene from The Big Lebowski. It’s not always easy being good; someone somewhere will try to knock you down. Glenn Frey and Don Henley were good. They knew how to write songs, how to sing and play, and they made very good records.
I’m partial to “Tequila Sunrise,” a song Frey sung. To me he sounded as fatal and lonesome as Hank Williams. The guitar solo offers slight relief, but the line “when it comes down to dealin’ friends” is just deeply sad. It suggests someone who feels nothing and gets no joy from love, loving, other people, or themselves. Man, that’s about as dark as it gets.
When I gave Prince a critical listen, his moniker was just a symbol, expecting the public to refer to him by grabbing a pencil and paper.
It took time, but I started understanding what Prince was all about, his influences from the Beatles to Bowie, from James Brown to Joni Mitchell. There were great songs but also that intangible quality that other-dimension, great artists possess. Prince had that in spades and he wanted you to know it, because he wanted you to find a little bit of that in yourself.
We won’t see the likes of Prince again, and for the life of me I can’t think of another musical artist synonymous with a color. Can you?
Matt Williams hosts a weekly music show on WOHM Charleston, 96.3 FM called Dancing in the Dark on Saturdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. He plays in two local bands, Solid Country Gold and Honky Cat, and works in conservation for The ICCF Group. He lives in Charleston with his wife and two kids, and can be contacted at email@example.com.