The Infinite Jukebox: Tim Rose’s ‘Come Away Melinda’

This isn’t the first time I’ve said this but sometimes you can hear a song many times over, be familiar with it throughout many a year, more than half a lifetime. You can be familiar with it, and know what it is about, at least in your head. Yes, I know, that’s what it means, it’s easy to understand. Then, one day, for no apparent reason, you will hear it again and it will split you apart.
I must have heard ‘Come Away Melinda’ sometime in the early part of the Seventies, and it would most likely have been in the melodramatic version recorded in 1967 by deep, dark-voiced singer-songwriter Tim Rose. Rose hadn’t written the song. It’s composers were Fred Hellerman and Fran Minkoff, and it was first recorded in 1963 by Harry Belafonte, yes, he who is best remembered now for ‘The Banana Boat Song’.
It’s an anti-War song, that much is self-evident from even the most cursory scan of the lyrics. It’s a two-sided song, the accumulating verses being in the voice of a little girl, excited at discovering something she had never seen before, the choruses in the voice of her father, who knows very well what it is she has found, and who is trying to get her to leave it alone, and come inside, and forget what she has seen, because it is something that he has buried, not just that she should not see it, but that he should never have to see it again, himself.
Belafonte was the first to sing this, and I can imagine how he would have done so, laidback, calm, a style that with my sudden vision of the song I can’t imagine being the least bit suitable. Many others have followed, including Heavy Metal band UFO, which I certainly don’t want to ever hear. But only a few weeks ago as I write this, on a bus travelling through the Lake District, headphones on, it came on my mp3 player in a form recorded by a band called Cats Eyes, in 1970, in an arrangement closely following Tim Rose’s version.
And for the first time I ‘heard’ the words, and it took everything I had not to begin crying, because suddenly I understood exactly what it was all about, and I understood the levels of emotion that the song comprised, the innocence and the excitement of the little girl, and the unbearable pain of the father, seeking hopelessly to protect both his daughter and himself, in what little is left to the pair of them. He knows what they have both lost, and as the little girl asks her innocent questions, wishing to understand more of her finding, he is losing more of himself in the knowledge that he cannot protect her from what she might have been better off not knowing, that will not do her any good whatsoever, and which can only re-activate his anguish at what both have lost, for him a what-was, for her a what-never-will-be.
Because there has been a War. We don’t get any details but then we can imagine all that we need from the little we are told. The War was nuclear, the Bomb was dropped. He survives with his little daughter, a girl of maybe five or six, underground, inside, behind a door he needs to keep closed, to give both of them the maximum time to live. There isn’t a future out there, not any more. Melinda will never have time to grow to understand what it is she will not have.
But today she’s got out. She’s gone a bit of a way away, and she’s found something. Melinda has found a picture book, a picture book that she knows comes from before the War. Daddy knows it too. He is the one who threw it out, buried it. It contains pictures he cannot bear to see any more. He tries to minimise the significance of what Melinda sees, but he cannot be anything but honest to her.
As the verses climb on top of one another she sees more and she wants to know more about what she sees, like children must always know. The picture book enthrals her. She wants him to come and see it, look at it with her, explain it. Why, there are four or five little Melinda-girls in this book. And her father, who will never look at those pictures again, admits to her that there were lots of little girls like her, before they had the War.
And then there’s the one that is truly unbearable, look, there’s someone in a pretty dress, and she’s ‘all grown-up like you’. Broken, in vain he pleads with her to come away, come in and close the door, seal them off from everything outside, for that woman was your mommy, you had before the War. It’s all coming back, everything he’s tried to hide from her, everything he’s tried to hide from, himself, all those thoughts and feelings and emotions that the world has no room for because the world now is Daddy and Melinda and the impossibility of giving her more than a shadow of what she should have had.
But his little Melinda-girl is asking the one question he can’t answer. Her eyes have been opened too wide. Can he explain it to her, explain it if he can, why can’t it be the way it was, before the War began?
Come away, Melinda, come in and close the door. The answer lies in yesterday, which is to say nowhere, because there isn’t a yesterday any longer, it’s all burned up and gone, before they had the War.
I listened and it took me by the heart, the unutterable loss, the feeling of failure, the man who could protect neither the woman he loved nor the daughter they birthed, to whom only the briefest shadow could ever be given, and that will not last much longer, for the memories have escaped and they will complete the job of destruction.
It’s as if the song has suddenly taken on three dimensions for me, where until now it has only had two. I lived the larger part of my life in the shadow of that War, and though it’s threat may have receded, the life we have may still be taken away from us. Perhaps not so violently, so abruptly as Melinda and her Daddy, but just as surely and just as permanently.
Come in, and close the door.

The Infinite Jukebox: Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’

In my enforced detachment from pop music of nearly all kinds, my only contact with the charts was the weekly Top 10 printed in small type in the Daily Express, taken by my grandparents in Droylsden and read en masse by me once a week, mostly for the strips. I didn’t go searching for it, and didn’t miss it on weeks where it was either left out or I failed to spot it.
One week, in early 1969, I happened to notice one particular entry, either at or somewhere very close to Number 1. It was called ‘Albatross’, and was by some band called Fleetwood Mac. The title intrigued me. I actually wanted to hear it, and find out what a song called ‘Albatross’ could be about.
However, without it being requested on Ed Stewart’s Junior Choice one weekend, I didn’t know how to do that. Maybe it was requested: I do know that at some point I heard it, it was pre-announced, and I listened with eager ears for the words.
They seemed to be a long time in coming, which was because I was listening not to a song but an instrumental, though I didn’t seem able to grasp the concept of that, even though I was reasonably familiar with things like ‘Stranger on the Shore’ and ‘Telstar’.
The question became moot because I didn’t hear it played again, the band never turned up to play it on Crackerjack (Crackerjack!), and I forgot about it.
Just a little over four years later, ‘Albatross’ was re-released. Radio 1 took it up, it re-entered the Top Thirty. If I hadn’t already been familiar with the track by then, I soon got to grips with it. It was cool, it was smooth, it was relaxing. It was a walking blues, though I couldn’t have defined it as such then. I loved hearing it. It climbed the charts in the slow, regular fashion of Seventies hits. It neared Number 1 again. I was wishing it on but, in the end, it didn’t quite get there, it peaked at Number 2, behind 10cc’s ‘Rubber Bullets’ (so at least not a travesty).
Apart from being a walking blues, a reference I take to be to its slow, smooth, unhurried pace, what is ‘Albatross’? Tony Blackburn hated it, thought it boring, which was definitely a plus point in 1969, and again in 1973. Given his preference in music, about which he is greatly knowledgeable, it’s no surprise that Blackburn should not take to this track. I disagree profoundly, though I don’t hold it against him.
Even for 1969, ‘Albatross’ was an unusual number 1, an instrumental but also a blues instrumental, played by three guitarists, each offering different slow melodies as the track weaves its way unhurriedly from beginning to end.
Peter Green leads the way, rolling out slow, deep notes as the rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood providing a slow, even, basic pulse, creating the effect of ocean waves, ceaseless and unheeding of all that is life, over which Green’s imagined Albatross flies, riding air currents on great, wide wings, silent and unconcerned. Jeremy Bentham and Danny Kirwan add airier grace notes to complement Green’s sweet tones, stilling the world until all that exists is this calm sound, a bird in flight. It’s the sound of soaring, of being so far above and beyond, existing in lines of melody of differing weights, and a rhythm that keeps it from evaporating into mere sound.
For those not in tune, yes, it could be called boring. For those who, like myself, respond to the peace inherent in this sound, ‘Albatross’ could have been extended to an hour or more, drifting in contentment, alone with what passes for thoughts.
Fleetwood Mac went on to be massively successful and a long way from their roots in the blues. For a time I was one of the acolytes of the early Buckingham-Nicks era, a proud possessor of Rumours. But time and maturity directed me to the earthier, bluesier sounds with which they began, to that extraordinary run of singles between 1968 and 1971, of which ‘Albatross’ was the unexpected, and pure highlight. ‘Man of the World’, ‘Oh Well’, ‘The Green Manalishi’, even the unsuccessful post-Green track, ‘Dragonfly’ followed in its serene wake, but nothing ever captured that same sense of remoteness and unconcern.
Nor can any words, except Albatross.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’

‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ was the opening track on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, an album that, by any objective standards, must be regarded as one of the five most perfect albums ever made. In Britain, it was released as the b-side to ‘God Only Knows’ but in America, where they were stupidly conflicted over the use of the word God in a pop-song title, it was the a-side and it reached no. 8.
I heard of it before I heard it, in a piece about Pet Sounds, that spoke, as anyone who considers the album seriously must do, of its relationship to the closing track, ‘Caroline No’, as the journey from innocence to experience, from the youthful buoyancy of not knowing, to what knowing brings in terms of the end of hope.
And ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ is Innocence personified, from the moment that perfectly poised, perfectly enacted intro bubbles out of the speakers, sounding of summer and sun and sand and sea, like all Beach Boys songs were supposed to do, the California lifestyle at its most free and careless. But this isn’t going to be about surfing, or hot-rodding. This is a whole new level of Innocence. This is going to be about two people, a boy and a girl, who are in love.
What makes that any different from ninety-five percent plus of pop music? How is this naivete to be distinguished from all the other naïve lovers wrapped up in themselves, whose love is a world of its own? Because this pair of young lovers are readying themselves for what is to come, for what they imagine to be the adventure of life together, the joy of finally getting to have sex under the protective shield of marriage, for these are good and dutiful young American boys and girls who know there are boundaries and respect these instinctively.
Wouldn’t it be nice? are the first worlds to come out in Brian Wilson’s high range vocals, but unlike Roger Daltrey, the thing that would be nice is to be older. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, and we wouldn’t have to wait so long? And wouldn’t it be nice to live together in the kind of world where we belong? Because these are model citizens, you and Is, the suburban youth who joyously await the time when they know it’s going to make it that much better when they can say goodnight and stay together.
If you’ve got this far without being touched by the beauty, the purity of their confidence in themselves, you should register yourself for medical examination. Ok, they’d be eaten alive in 2022, but in 1966 this kind of innocence was both natural and perfect. They are so sure in themselves that everything must be so much better when they don’t have to be apart. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wake up in the morning when the day is new, and after having spent the day together hold each other close the whole night through? What they have gives them strength in each other and gives them delight, and all they can imagine is that the chance of being together twenty-four hours a day must be even better.
The happy times together we’ve been spending, I wish that every kiss was never-ending. Love and growing up just means more of it, all the time. Wouldn’t it be nice?
And if you’ve got this far without thinking to yourself, sadly, that it isn’t like that, that they are going to have a lot of things to learn when they do grow up, you may be just a fourteen year old boy in mid-Sixties California, But you will still want it to be like this for them for as long as possible, for lessons not to be learned until they absolutely have to be.
There they are, straining against themselves to want it to be so. Maybe if they think and wish and hope and pray, maybe if miracles do happen, it’ll all come true. Grown, adult, independent, free to do everything they could do. They could be married (and the band agree in chorus), and then we’d be happy… And your heart aches for them, thinking that marriage is the answer to all, the all-day, all-night guarantee of happiness, and the passport to that thing they’ve been thinking of but not doing or even speaking about.
And you know what they’re going to find out about marriage.
Still, they remain innocent. It only makes it worse to imagine the time when all their longings can be fulfilled, when the kisses can indeed be never-ending, the thought that makes those longings and urgings so much more present and intense that it hurts. But let’s talk about it is Wilson’s final statement. Let’s play with fire. Oh wouldn’t it be nice?
But for now, good night. Sleep tight baby, and the implication is that in their dreams they will meet when in real life it’s separate beds, separate houses, separate streets. Sleep tight, baby, and dream of when it won’t be like this any more.
The odd thing about this song is that it sprang from somewhat impure motives, being Brian Wilson’s confused attraction to his sister-in-law, his wife’s sister, who had an innocent aura that he wanted to capture in music. The song was one of only two on the album where Wilson completed the music before bringing in Tony Asher to write the lyrics, drawing on this innocence for its theme. Wherever it came from, the music was pure, and joyous, the perfect opening into an album of meditation on what it was like to just be in that world.

The Infinite Jukebox: R.E.M.’s ‘Be Mine’

Love songs from R.E.M. are rarer than hen’s teeth, Michael Stipe regarding them as cheap. A lot of people were fooled by ‘The One I Love’, long years ago, a track from Document No 5, a Top Twenty UK hit on reissue, but it doesn’t take much of a listen to the lyrics, which are amongst the most clearly sung by Stipe, to recognise that exactly the opposite impression is intended, that the title is at best sarcastic. A simple prop to occupy my time does not betoken dedication and high emotion.
But in the case of ‘Be Mine’, from the band’s last album as a four-piece, New Adventures in Hi-Fi it’s the real deal, though you might be forgiven for not easily recognising it as such in the miasma of sound that the track is created out of.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi is an odd album in the circumstances of its recording. The band wrote and demoed songs in the studio, but then recorded these at soundchecks and, in one case, in their dressing room, to produce an altogether fresher and more immediate sound. Of fourteen songs on the album, only four are studio recordings and ‘Be Mine’ is one of these.
And it’s not even conventional R.E.M. in its recording, because the thick miasma of guitar sound, growling and choppy and as blurred as on ‘Let Me In’ on Monster is by bass guitarist Mike Mills, whilst the bass guitar is played by Peter Buck. Never knowingly predictable.
Like its predecessor, ‘Be Mine’ pays minimal attention to the conventions of melody. It’s a choppier sound, still blurred, but the music is more distinct. The mix is thick, the bass submerged. This one is for Mills and Stipe.
The structure is simple. Mills plays chords in a rhythmic pattern, at a measured pace, incorporating little variations on the basic melody that are sensed rather than heard. Stipe sings in three eight-line verses, interspersed with a chorus that consists simply of the simple words ‘You and Me’, three times. The word love does not appear once but in his manner, Stipe is speaking of love. He is making promises, promises that speak of devotion, a sometimes almost-awed attention to the other one, promises to create a life that cushions, that eases, that serves, to bring the best of everything to them.
He begins with almost an apology, saying that he never thought of this as funny, and that it speaks another world to him. Immediately, the devotion makes itself manifest, with Stipe telling his unseen and unheard auctor that he wants to be his Easter Bunny, and then his Christmas tree, that he will strip all the godforsaken greed out of the world, ply the tar out of his feathers, pluck the thorns from his feet. And then that simple, self-enclosing statement, You and Me, repeated with a contented breath.
Stipe continues with a second verse that grows ever more abstruse, and indeed mystical, seeking a sanctuary, drinking from sacred fountains, eating the lotus, the peyote. This is a communion beyond the mere physical. He references Maya Angelou, wanting to hear the caged birds sing, he seeks the secrets of the Temple, and the finger with the ring, perhaps a nod to marriage. And perhaps not.
The music, scratchy and deliberately limited, surrounds Stipe as he sings, underlines him and holds the listener in place. There’s a brief, abruptly terminated beginning to a guitar solo, that sounds very much like Buck before Stipe breaks across with his final verse.
And here the imagery grows dark and wild. The symbolism turns to the shadow of death. Stipe suggests that his auctor makes him his religion, in return for which he will be given all the room he needs. And Stipe will be the drawing of his breath, the cup for if he bleeds, the sky above the Ganges, the vast and stormy sea. And he will be the visions that you see, a final commitment that is so important that he sings it again, before the drums crash in, Stipe sings his You and Me in ecstasy, over and over, and that guitar solo is allowed its time to play through a long coda.
Did I call this a love song? Is it really about love? If it is, there is an underlying obsessive edge that might be thought a tad claustrophobic in that final verse.
But I stand by what I said, except that the object of this affection, this devotion, might not be an earthly love. It’s terms are mystical in the middle verse, but religious imagery is scattered throughout the song, as well as the flat-out plea to be the auctor’s religion. And there are references in the band’s early work, certain lines to songs on Murmur, that hint towards a Christian leaning. And the finger in the ring may not be signalling a token of engagement and/or marriage but rather the finger that wears the Papal ring. Christ bled on the Cross and the cup that was used to catch his bleeding is the Holy Grail. It would be altogether Stipean to signal faith in this oblique manner, subsumed within a song of apparent love for a fellow human being.
I, having divested myself of all religious elements, can love the darkness of the music, its slowburn intensity and Michael Stipe’s divestment of himself in a form of abnegation to another that I recognise from a still-not-too-distant past. But I can also accept one man’s private devotion to his beliefs that do not involve forcing others to believe them too. But it is still in its other form that I would accept someone’s plea to Be Mine, or rather Hers.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Mindbenders’ ‘Can’t Live With You, Can’t Live Without You’

When it comes to the music of the Sixties, I have to admit that Manchester fares very badly in comparison with that lot at the other end of the East Lancs Road, both in quality and quantity. When two of your three major decade-long hit bands include Herman’s Hermits and Freddie and The Dreamers, you don’t have much of a leg to stand on, even before you factor in the Four Moptops.
But The Hollies weren’t the only respectable band from Manchester to have some good strong big hits in the Sixties. Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders, both together and as separate acts, scored a few big hit singles, probably the most notable being The Mindbenders’ first and only Top 10 hit, ‘Groovy Kind of Love’, which reached no 2 in 1966, sung by lead guitarist Eric Stewart, who went on to form first Hotlegs then 10cc.
With Wayne (or Glyn Ellis to give him his real name) in the act, the band had two UK no. 2s, one of which was a number 1 in America, but the split occurred during an American tour, with Fontana walking off stage, mid-concert. ‘Groovy Kind of Love’, written by Carole Bayer Sager and Toni Wine, was another American no. 1, UK no. 2 and the band recorded another Sager/Wine song as their follow-up. This was ‘Can’t Live Without You (Can’t Live With You)’. It was considerably less successful, only reaching no 28.
As far as I am aware, I didn’t hear ‘Can’t Live Without You’ until the great days of Sounds of the Sixties and Brian Matthew. It opened my ears to the possibility that there may have been more to The Mindbenders than just ‘Groovy Kind of Love’, and indeed to the possibility that other bands in the Sixties may have had more good songs than they are famous for.
‘Can’t Live Without You’ is a less-smooth song than the big hit, itself hitched to something of a jerky rhythm, and a lower key one all through. It’s of a similar tempo but is nothing like so definite in its intro, as Stewart picks out broken notes over a gentle rhythm track.
But the more withheld sound is better suited to the lyrics of the song, which is a wistful love song, sung to a girlfriend who, in modern parlance, is just not that into him. Stewart is in love, uncategorically, but it’s in no way satisfactory.
When you’re close to me, he appeals, plaintively, you just seem to be not all there. And the reverse obtains, in that when he’s far from her, he just seems to be not all there. Having set up that fundamental dichotomy, Stewart cuts to the chase. Baby I can’t live without you, he pleads, with backing from his bandmates, but equally, he can’t live with her. It’s never going to work out fine.
He loves her, but she doesn’t love him, or she doesn’t love him to the same degree as he does her, and neither of them can bend their feelings sufficiently far in the other’s direction to achieve a satisfactory compromise. It’s Catch-22.
And what can be done about this? Unfortunately, there’s only one solution. Somebody’s going to have to change their mind, or rather their heart. And how realistic is that?
Speaking for himself, Stewart doesn’t give it much chance. How he wishes he was strong enough to just walk away, but if he could – and it’s very clear from the tone of his voice that he can’t – he knows she would just watch him walk away. Walking away resolves the situation, just as much as it would be resolved by her suddenly falling for him, head over heels. Indeed, he asks her for that, knowing it’s wasted breath, but couldn’t you try, just a little bit harder, to love me?
But she can no more love him than he can not love her. He can’t live without her, and he can’t live with her. Impasse central.
And that’s all there is to the song. It’s an expression of helplessness, an unsquarable circle, a wistful wish that something beyond the pair of them could break things down to an answer each can live with. But Stewart knows. He knows it isn’t going to come from her, no matter how much he wishes for it, no matter how much gentle pleading he puts into his voice.
And it can’t come from him, without his becoming someone he’s not, who is not in love with her. And so the song slides away into silence and a future that cannot be defined in any way, in which Stewart is trying to avoid understanding that the only outcome will be heartbreak: his heartbreak.
I hear him and I feel what he feels. I’ve been there enough times before, and if I wasn’t so carefully guarded about what I let my heart get up to through long experience, I could be like that now, one more dreadfully weary time. Maybe it’s that side of it that I respond to in hearing this song and wanting to hear it over and again: maybe, just once, she’ll see me as I see her.
It’s only a minor single, but in the Infinite Jukebox nothing is minor, and this least of all.

Falling but never Fallen: Julee Cruise R.I.P.

Thre true is that, outside of her contributions to Twin Peaks, I knew nothing about Julee Cruise’s music. I’m no doubt being unfair to her legacy to say that I didn’t need to no more. One golden moment, that breathy voice, softer than you might imagine was possible in which to sing. Just one of many iconic moments in one of the most puzzling and intriguing series ever made. You always want the people who take you to the greatest heights to be immortal and they never are. But she leaves behind something both unique and an indelible part of a tapestry of innumerable bright and dark colours. Falling, but never Fallen.

The Infinite Jukebox: Mary Hopkin’s ‘Those Were The Days’

Sometimes you can hear a song a million times, or so it seems, before you finally understand what it’s really telling you. I was listening to Mary Hopkin on an old Tom Jones Show, singing her massive debut hit, the Paul McCartney-produced ‘Those were the Days’, that never fails to amuse me at how it so unshamedly steals a Ukrainian folksong called ‘Davny Chasny’ (not that I knew that until thirty years later). It was so big a success that even I heard it at least a dozen times, whereas a year later The Archies would spend eight weeks at number 1 and me completely oblivious to it.
It’s taken me decades to appreciate just how good a singer Mary Hopkin was, such a sweet, clear voice, and for a young girl how wide her interpretative range. ‘Those were the Days’ is a song that drips with melancholy, that absorbs disappointment, failure and nostalgia, all of which Hopkin’s voice holds within a surface that seems to be light and airy, and she eighteen years old and how can a girl of that age understand nostalgia of that kind? But she does.
It’s a very simple song, just four four line verses, each separated by that eager chorus that harks back to when things were better, when hopes and dreams were higher, that no longer exists. Even in the opening verse, when the magic of those days is at its most solid we are living in the past. Once upon a time, but not a fairy-tale time, a piece of our youth, somewhere real and grounded that might as well be mythical now.
There was a tavern where we used to raise a glass or two. It’s a place of memory, and already Mary is urging us to remember, how we used to while away the hours, and how we would imagine all the great things we would do. Oh yes, this tavern is more than bricks and mortar, bottles and glasses, this tavern was this place because of the people who came there. Buildings can and do survive, though not always, but the people and the times are always ephemeral.
And they’re gone now. Those were the days, days we thought would never end, in which we so casually sang and danced, believing in eternity then, and the lives of our own choosing, not lives pressed upon us by fate and circumstances, days where we would win out, our battles foregone conclusions because, well, just because they were. Because we were young and sure to have our way.
The chorus has told us that this idyll, this hope didn’t last. Now Hopkin alludes to what has happened. How the busy years went rushing by us, how we lost our starry notions on the way. If by chance she were to see him in the tavern, for make no mistake Mary is singing to a particular someone, all they’d do would be to smile at one another and repeat what is becoming her mantra. Those were the Days. The past is gone, walled up, no longer relevant to the now, and we will neither of us hurt ourselves by pretending otherwise.
Time passes, an unjudgeable period, years of disillusion, getting on with a life out of which all belief has gone, endurance and existence rather living. This unknown period takes us to last night. Mary has stood before that tavern again. What has led her there, how long it has been, what has been that lost time between then and now is as much a mystery as what brought the past down. Is it just chance? Or is something deeper drawing her, driving her?
It might, whatever her motive, be a mistake. Nothing seemed the way it used to be. You can never go home, always a stranger goes in your place. The reflection in the glass is strange: it is Mary, but is it really her? Is that lonely woman really me? The great question. Those were the days…
The third chorus gives us time to pause and reflect, not just on this tavern that was once such a place of warmth, but upon all of our lives and how we lose things and people as we go along. So few things really are forever and a day, and you cannot go home again.
Or is there still hope? The music lifts, gathers strength, energy, brightness. We don’t need the words to tell us what Mary has decided, it’s in the sudden exultance of the music, the decision not to give up. Through the door, she sings, I heard familiar laughter, and how would she have heard that without she took the chance and opened the door inside, opened the door into the past. And, o glorious, I saw your face and heard you call my name. And it is not about distance, indifference and the damage of a parted path, for o, my friend we’re older but no wiser, and in our hearts the dreams are still the same…
I listen and I dream as well, and I hear the siren call of what used to be and which always feels better than what is and I try to imagine the gift in an eighteen year old girl who isn’t old enough to have a past to go back to in wonderment yet shows in her voice that she understands all of it already, and that in itself makes this song something of great importance and seriousness. And then I see clearly what this song is really about.
Some songs smell the wind, they see the way the tide is rising, they are pointers towards a future that we can’t yet know. I don’t know if Paul McCartney meant this metaphor or if it came from his unconsciousness when he chose this song for the young Welsh chanteuse, but this is no mere tavern this song is written about. Paul McCartney is seeing the Sixties coming to an end. He is seeing the collapse of optimism, of the dream that things would go on getting better, that we would continue to change the world in the image of peace and love.
He is telling us that we will be lost, will lose, that maybe for some of us in small and isolated pockets a world will still exist where our dreams will remain alive and tenable. But ‘Those were the Days’ is nostalgia for an age we were even then still living, warning us to brace ourselves, because before we knew it they would be the days we could only look back on and never regain.
La da da da, di di…

The Best Albums of 2022 so far

Proving that it has difficulty in reading the calendar, The Guardian has started a series of ‘Best of So-Far’ articles selecting the best in each category for the first half of the year, a first half that has three and a half unused weeks to it. Yesterday, it was TV Shows, today it’s albums.

I decided to read the list out of curiosity, nothing more, and a very small sliver of wondering what I might be missing. It made for interesting reading, in one way. Out of a list of thirty albums, I have heard of only six artists and out of those six I have only heard two, and one of them over fifty years ago. Unsurprisingly, he – reggae star Horace Andy, singer of ‘Black Pearl’ in 1970 – is the only one I’m interested in hearing more from.

The other act I’ve hear is Wet Leg, whose music does nothing to excite me, although hester Chambers is a very nice looking woman.

From my perspective as a 66 year old, it would be very easy and extremely predictable to turn this into a rant about music being better in my day. I mean, generally I do think it was: most of us think that about what we heard when we were young, enthusiastic and impressionable. It connects us to our memories of when we were every bit of that. Modern music will never be able to do that and even the rare ones that set the fires blazing have too many years to overcome.

But I can’t and won’t do that. How can I say that this is crap, shit, unlistenable or any of the words my generation learned from our parents when it came to what we liked, when I’ve just admitted never having heard fourteen fifteens of the list? I could easily remedy that by clicking on the Spotify playlist provided, which includes all thirty, and more, that is if I ever listened to Spotify. Which I don’t and never have and aren’t interested in doing so.

The point of all of this is to illustrate two things. The first is that I am more completely out of touch with modern music than even when my only radio listening was Junior Choice for the comedy records. And the second is that I’m not in the least bothered by my ignorance and sam prepared to confess this to anyone who hasn’t run away fast enough.

It’s inevitable. It is now closing in on forty years since I made a conscious decision over two albums and went for the one representing the past I’d flown past, instead of the one that meant still being obsessed with what was new. I didn’t turn my back on new music, not by a long way, not for a very long time yet. But I changed my focus to exploring what I had missed. For the last twenty years, near enough, my principal fascination has been the obscurities of the back half of the Sixties, and the still-not-ended flow of gems from that time that I have yet to hear.

If I were to listen to these Best Albums So Far, I might be surprised by what I find, might find riches I’m deliberately choosing not to discover. There’s a very sad aspect to that but in all honesty, I would be surprised to find one that did it for me in any way, apart from Horace Andy that is, who’s older than I am, so that would be like cheating. And I don’t mind. In fact, if I were to discover that as many as ten of these people were making music as great as the reviewers say, I would start to seriously worry about music in 2022. Because this music is not beding made for me, and it damned well shouldn’t be. Music is a wavefront that should continually be moving forward, beaching generation after generation in order to accomodate present and future generations. It’s great that, out of nowhere, people are suddenly latching on to Kate Bush again, and more power to them, but the gorgeous Ms Bush has always transcended eras and, well, just about everything. If it started to multiply, I’d enjoy it, seeing other stars, like Bowie perhaps flash back across the heavens. As long as they started inspiring the youth of today to develop new sounds from them, and not just recycle what they hear.

Otherwise, long live lists like this that are strange and impenetrable, and shut your mouth about how shit/awful/noisy/stupid/horrible music is today. They’re making it for themselves, not you, just as we did when it was our time. Let them do so.

Or else fold your arms, scowl at them and rant about how this is far better than that trash they call music… You might be right, but when they tell you to piss off, they’ll be even righter.

The Infinite Jukebox: Aimee Mann’s ‘Save Me’

Some artists, for all that they have a clear pop sensibility, a superb voice and an ear for melodies that slip past your defences, just can’t catch a break. Bassist and vocalist and songwriter Aimee Mann has had more than her share of bad breaks, from promising bands breaking up around her and more record companies going bust just when she’s released strong albums than you could ever believe plausible. No wonder, despite her songs being chosen to soundtrack a major Hollywood movie, that she eventually decided to take complete control of her career, and work in her own way, at her own pace, choosing to become a cult musician: high on respect from those who knew music, low on mass sales and popularity.
The one exception to this was ‘Save Me’. It wasn’t a hit anywhere, not least in America, unless you want to call a placing at no 88 in the UK charts as a ‘hit’, but it was nominated for a Grammy Award and an Oscar, drawing attention to it as Mann’s most famous song, and it only lost the Oscar to Phil Collins’ love song to a monkey in Tarzan. The mind boggles.
The song proceeds at a funereal pace, with a minimal melody, most of which is carried by Mann’s voice. The lyrics come out very slowly, and if you are not familiar with her lyrical style, you may be considerably surprised by the opening couplet, as Mann sings to someone who looks like the perfect fit, in this instance for a girl in need of… a tourniquet.
Now that is unexpected. Tourniquets are used to stop excessive bleeding, usually when someone has opened a vein or, god forbid, an artery. What place have they in a love song?
But Mann is quick to make her point. This person, this we assume man, is being regarded as a lifesaver, which suits the title of the song. But what, exactly, is he supposed to be saving? Can you save me, Mann enquires, with little or no emotion in her voice, because this is far too important, far too fundamental to get emotional about, can you save me, and she becomes explicit in terms of utter horror and despair, from the ranks of the freaks who suspect they can never love anyone.
It’s a coldness that is rarely expressed in song, a bleakness that appears so rarely, and for that we are thankful. Who can live with such emptiness?
It’s done so calmly, so evenly. Cause I can tell, she continues, you know what it’s like, the long farewell of the hunger strike. Is it that she recognises someone like herself, someone so lost and abandoned, full of the hunger for touch and warmth and life?
But there’s more to the song and the singing than this. In her flat, almost emotionless voice, Mann is desperate. Desperate for love and warmth and the fulfilment of meaning something to someone. She’s scared but she hides it as hard as she can, pretending to coolness, her shields erected until they surround her on all sides, and above and below. But she’s seen someone who could bring her out, a Peter Pan or a Superman, the very parfit gentil knight who will free her from her self-imprisonment, the imprisonment that leads her to describe herself as a freak in the first place. He’s there. He can save her. Come on and save me, she pleads, moving from query to demand, from can you to you can and you must, all the while denying in her voice that it matters a lot anyway. Only in the words…
The song retains its slow, deliberate, near static motion throughout. The only real sign of the passion that underpins it comes in the guitar solo that underlies the brief middle eight, severe and savage.
Is there to be a happy ending? Endings of that kind don’t appear in Aimee Mann songs. By the end she’s falling away, the song’s lines morphing from the freaks who suspect they can never love anyone to the freaks who could never love anyone. The fear is overwhelming, the fade is swift, the finality is darkness. We just don’t know. This isn’t a world in which White Knights flourish.
But maybe… Maybe in that darkness behind the closed eyes he came to her, he rescued her. How we feel about that determines how we respond to this song. It came out at a time when I had given up, only to find that there was, unbelievably, someone who saved me. So, leaving aside my liking for Aimee Mann in general, and this song in particular, I have the personal understanding to know that sometimes what you wish for does come true. And I believe that someone did save her. For which I am glad.

The Infinite Jukebox: R.E.M.’s ‘Cuyahoga’

Let’s put our heads together and start a new country up: as majestic and toweringly ambitious opening lines go, it’s very hard to think of something that beats that.
I was in London when the fourth REM album came out, or actually that an import copy arrived in the Virgin Megastore. I’d been filling in at London office for a month, covering the gap between one guy leaving and his replacement arriving. It was an interesting month in many ways, and I took a lot of pleasure from being able to leave work at 5.30pm, arrive at the flat I was occupying at 5.35pm, laze around and then wander down to Oxford Street for about 8.00pm and the shops still be open. It was the Thursday of the last week, I was catching the train back to Manchester the next afternoon, and this was my last chance to have a wander. What possessed me to look in the R section in case a new REM album had magically appeared, I have no idea but I did and one had.
So I bought it and brought it back to Manchester where I could play it for the first time in twenty-four hours. Those old enough to remember the days of vinyl will remember what a chance I was taking: every new album carried with it the possibility of slips, sticks, scratches and other damage to those exposed grooves, and you only knew if you’d got a playable copy once your disc was on a deck: mine was fine.
Lifes Rich Pageant is one of my favourite REM albums, despite it having been assembled out of scraps, it’s track-listing completed by old songs rejected from previous albums and a Peter Buck promoted cover version, ‘Superman’, which ended up being the album’s second single.
First single was the immediate highlight of Side One, ‘Fall on Me’, track three, but my attention was caught by its immediate successor, ‘Cuyahoga’. Let’s put our heads together and start a new country up: oh, wow!
The track unrolls with a sonorous bass introduction from Mike Mills, setting up a stately pace, before the rest of the band come in together, Stipe with that magnificent line, Berry with a rattle of drums and Buck with the first of some decorative guitar licks that glide along that magnificent bassline which is the song’s signature sound.
Our fathers’ fathers’ fathers tried, Stipe sings, taking us back at least three generations: depending on how you define a generation, are we harking back to the founding of America? When else would you say that a new country has been started up? And the next line, about how they erased the parts they didn’t like, is all too clear a reference to the removal of the Native Americans from this picture. Let’s try to fill it in, he demands.
This isn’t just a song, not even a political one, this is aiming for the epic, more than that, the mythic.
Apart from its ambition, to draw up a new country, a new covenant on which to base an association, it’s trying to gather everyone back in. To include all, this time.
The Cuyahoga is a river in Ohio, bisecting the city of Cleveland as it flows into Lake Erie, and was notorious as the most polluted river in America, having caught fire on no less than thirteen occasions since 1868, though after prolonged environmental cleansing, it has been restored. On the face of it, what relevance is this to Stipe’s vaulting imagination?
Perhaps this lies in the band’s appeal to what is, the tangible country of the river. This land is the land of ours, they sing, though my ears persist in hearing it as the land of Owls. This river runs red over it, the polluted river, the symbol of what the white man did to the native, the river polluted with the redness of skin, the redness of their blood, the clean, wide open country that turned to filth.
The connection is made more explicit, further on. This is where they walked and swam, hunted, danced and sang: take a picture here, take a souvenir, but do more than goggle at the past that we wished upon them, put our hands together, put our backs into it, put our efforts into it, into that new country, that new America in which everyone belongs, from which no-one is excluded. We are not your allies, we cannot defend.
But maybe we can redeem.
When the album was out, I was regularly able to get bootleg tapes of R.E.M.’s concerts. It was clear from these that this was not a song they favoured playing live: I came across only one tape on which they’d tried it and even them only as an instrumental. But in the band’s last decade, they seemed to have mastered the song and it was a regular in live performances. It’s one of Mike Mills’ favourite songs, as it is mine, his bass driving it forward. It is one of the largest songs I know, and yet, except among REM fans, it’s almost a secret.
Maybe one day that new country will be founded. It has an anthem ready-made and waiting for it.