Monday, November 23, 2015

Red Headed Stranger: An Appreciation.

This past week, I had the honor of seeing Willie Nelson receive The Gershwin Prize For Popular Song from The Library Of Congress. As is usually the case, a long parade of music stars sang his songs & praises in a display of the songwriter's breadth & influence.

Midway through the show, Paul Simon paid tribute to Nelson's vastly influential 1975 LP, Red Headed Stranger, & called out Edie Brickell to sing a duet with him on one of its most famous songs: "Remember Me." It was a lovely rendition & the vibe of the crowd definitely dug it.

There was only one problem. As the song ended, I turned to my wife & said, "Am I jerk to point out that Willie Nelson didn't actually write that song?"

Indeed, Willie Nelson has written countless country standards & was long overdue for the Gershwin Prize. But he is also the rare songwriter where for every classic song he's written--"Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "On The Road Again"--there's another classic he's associated with that he didn't actually write--"Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain," "Always On My Mind," "Georgia On My Mind"; & "Remember Me" falls into the latter category.

This distinction was probably missed by most of the crowd (especially as other non-penned Willie classics like "Pauncho & Lefty" & the aforementioned "Georgia On My Mind" were performed),  but it lies at the heart of Willie's finest music: His work is so simple & so classic, that he can take any song & make it his own in a way that is nearly unique among American singers. Others who had this ability--Frank Sinatra & Elvis Presley, as well as Nelson's close friends & frequent duet partners, Johnny Cash & Ray Charles, among others--often did so with a sense of bombast & flair, a voice that reached to the back of the crowd or was filled with dazzling accentuations.

Willie Nelson is not like that. He has a fine voice, but not what you might call an outstanding one, & even as he draws you in, it's not with the intrigue of a Billie Holiday or a Bing Crosby. He simply sings the way he feels, & you can take it or leave it.

Red Headed Stranger is his finest album & it epitomizes this trait. Out of the 11 songs on the LP, Nelson wrote only 4 of them & none of them are a complete song in a traditional sense: "Time Of The Preacher" is broken up into themes, "Blue Rock Montana" & "Denver" are little more than 1-minute sketches that set the scene for the story, & the closing "Bandera" is an instrumental. All the other songs on the album, which includes its most famous songs--"Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain," "Remember Me," & even the title track--came from the pen of others. Yet Willie Nelson makes each song his own such that learning this fact is not just an interesting aside, it's a jarring shock.

* * *

Red Headed Stranger is a very special album. Coming at a time when the concept album was self-imploding less than a decade after the course was charted by The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds & The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Red Headed Stranger beat the game by sidestepping it. The LP had all of the hallmarks of a concept album--a central story, musical themes, a consistency of quality that held for its length--but left the synthesizers, orchestras, & other histrionics for the fools. A month before Red Headed Stranger was released, progressive rock reached its nadir with Rick Wakeman's The Myths & Legends Of King Arthur & The Knights Of The Round Table, which he infamously staged as a live rock & roll ice show.

If Red Headed Stranger had any precedent in rock, it was Bob Dylan's 1967 LP, John Wesley Harding. Dylan's first release since Sgt. Pepper, he hired Gordon Lightfoot's backing band & lay down 12 stripped-down tunes that played like a set of mysterious parables with no refrains to hold onto. He would later call it the first Bible-rock album, but critic Paul Williams would be just as telling when they wrote that it was as though Dylan had gone back down South & re-imagined how rock & roll might have sounded just days before Elvis made his first record. Indeed, this is the mood that frames Nelson's record; just listen to how the opening notes of "Bandera" echo Elvis's "I'll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin')," his final exercise in that weird pre-rock sound of "Harbor Lights" & "I Love You Because."

But even more than any album that either Dylan or Elvis would ever cut, Red Headed Stranger holds together conceptually. To my ears, it easily outclasses the muddled studio version of The Who's Tommy & Pink Floyd's overrated The Dark Side Of The Moon, & has a fair shot at being the finest concept album ever conceived. Probably only Marvin Gaye's What's Going On & Frank Zappa's We're Only In It For The Money could beat it.

This is because, unlike even those two albums, Red Headed Stranger is a statement of rare focus & restraint. The band never grows to more than 4 or 5 people & all of it could be performed onstage with no tricks & little amplification. Built around a song cycle of a preacher-turned-murderer, it sounds remarkably timeless; when the opening describes the setting as "The year of '01," it could be 1901 just as easily as 1801.

* * *

At its heart, Red Headed Stranger is that all-American form of storytelling, a western, told as a badman ballad folktale. Like the American West in the time of cowboys, it is incomplete, some parts seem finished while others seem fleshed out, but there is more than enough to get the story, which is a basic one. A preacher wife's leaves him for another man ("The Time Of The Preacher"). At first he is in denial ("I Couldn't Believe It Was True"), but then resolves to go to town where he shoots them both ("Blue Rock Montana/Red Headed Stranger"). At this point the preacher becomes the Red Headed Stranger, at first reflecting on his lost love ("Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain") & then riding into a new town, where he shoots a woman who tries to steal his late wife's pony ("Red Headed Stranger"). The preacher seems to return, as an instrumental version of the hymn "Just As I Am" closes out the album's first side.

The second side opens in the bright lights of "Denver," where the plea of "Just As I Am" is answered by an outlaw's code:

& it ain't nobody's business
Where you're going or where you come from
& you're judged by the look in your eye.

It is there that the Red Headed Stranger meets a lady ("Denver") & proceeds to dance with her, first a waltz ("O'er The Waves"), followed by a country stomp ("Down Yonder"). He asks her to spend the night with him ("Can I Sleep In Your Arms"), before they part ways the next morning ("Remember Me"). Or do they? The album ends with the mysterious "Hand On The Wheel," a song of love & faith that seems to take place in the distant future, its central verse finding an old man & boy fishing together "with a lady that they both enjoy." Is the old man the Red Headed Stranger, the boy his grandson, & the lady the woman he met in Denver? Or is this just a vision the Red Headed Stranger imagines, like he did in "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain"? The album is unclear, & therein lies at least some of its power. It implies to me that one day this may play out, but it will take a few more affairs & murders before it does. In other words, Side 1 will have to repeat itself before Side 2 can come true. The story can never resolve because the album that contains it is unresolved. It is the rare pop music "song cycle" that is actually a cycle, as continual as the 12-inch vinyl circle it was released on.

Many of the album's elements reinforce this sense of unity. The tale of Red Headed Stranger is rooted in threes--over the course of the LP, the "Time Of The Preacher" theme appears 3 times, the Red Headed Stranger kills 3 people, & the 3 named characters--Red Headed Stranger, Little Lost Darling, & Yellow Haired Lady--have 3 words each. Even the Red Headed Stranger's home--Blue Rock, Montana--is always given as 3 words. Furthermore, sets of 3 fill the album. "Time Of The Preacher" begins with the love triangle of the Red Headed Stranger, the Little Lost Darling, & her lover, all of whom are brought together in the "Blue Rock Montana/Red Headed Stranger," where the Red Headed Stranger kills them both. The Red Headed Stranger travels in 3, with himself, the Raging Black Stallion, & the Dancing Bay Pony (even the horses have 3 names). & the album ends with a vision of an old man, a little boy, & a lady that they both enjoyed in "Hands On The Wheel."

Just as important as threes is the use of eyes. From the album's biggest hit--Nelson's signature "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain"--down through the subtle actions in the songs, eyes are everywhere. In "I Couldn't Believe It Was True," tears fill the Red Headed Stranger's eyes; in "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain," the tears are now in his Little Lost Lady's eyes; the title track finds the Yellow Haired Lady casting greedy eyes on the Dancing Bay Pony; in "Hands On The Wheel," the Red Headed Stranger looks into a woman's eyes & finds himself in her. & of course in "Denver," the land is celebrated for the ability to judge someone by the look in their eye.

The simplicity of the music & the straightforwardness of the lyric convincingly tell the story of the Red Headed Stranger, which in turns seems to tell a story about the album's artist, Willie Nelson, as implied by the Red Headed Singer's face on the cover. His understated style makes it feel like he is singing right to us, & much of the album is just voice & acoustic guitar. When there are flourishes, they are often appropriately thought out. Take the piano in "Red Headed Stranger," which appears immediately after the word "tavern" & continues through the part of the song that takes place in the tavern, as though it is a soundtrack to embellish the lyric; by the song's final refrain, which takes place outside of the tavern, the piano has disappeared.

This sense of unity & directness is all the more impressive when one considers that Nelson wrote only a third of the album's songs, none of which were complete or except for an instrumental. "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" was a Roy Acuff song from 1945 that Hank Williams would record in 1951. "I Couldn't Believe It Was True" was penned by Eddy Arnold, "Can I Sleep In Your Arms" was written by Hank Cochran, & "Remember Me" was written by Melba Mable Bourgeois. All of the instrumentals except for Nelson's own "Bandera" were at least 50 years old; "Just As I Am" & "Over The Waves" both dated from the 19th Century. & most astonishingly, "Red Headed Stranger was released in 1954 as a single by Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith.

So in the end, Nelson didn't so much write a song cycle as he did cobble one together from existing parts--a patchwork quilt that looked like a tapestry. Tellingly, it was his flourishes--"Time Of The Preacher," "Blue Rock Montana," & "Denver"--that held it all together, moving the story along through songs that otherwise came from very different places, styles, & perspectives. By taking old existing parts & reinventing them in his own image, Willie Nelson made an album that was not only American in sound but also in its execution.

E pluribus unum reads The Great Seal Of The United States--out of many, one. The same could be said of Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger, the album, & the singularity through which he focuses its outlaw tale.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The 100 Greatest Beatles Songs Of All-Time.

Picking a favorite Beatles song is like picking a favorite child.

No other rock band--not The Rolling Stones, not Led Zeppelin, not The Beach Boys, not The Who--come close matching The Beatles in terms of quality of output. Every song is great because every song is a classic.

Yet in my most recent rekindling of my lifelong affair with The Beatles, I began to think about which songs can be put above others--in terms of influence, in terms of quality, in terms of all-around greatness, whatever that means.

I scanned the Internet for a dozen lists, then added my own The 50 Greatest Beatles Songs, as previously published on this blog, to make a baker's dozen:

Rolling Stone: 100 Greatest Beatles Songs (2011)
Digital Dream Door: 100 Greatest Beatles Songs (2015)
Entertainment Weekly: The Beatles' 50 Best Songs (2009)
Ultimate Classic Rock: Top 50 Beatles Songs (2013)
USA Today: 20 Best Beatles Songs (2012)
Rolling Stone: The 500 Greatest Songs Of All-Time (2004)

These lists ranged from 101 entries (Mojo) to just 20 (USA Today); from formal treatises (A Passionate Fan's Guide) to 23 songs culled from a larger list (The Beatles' songs on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time). All can be found by following the links above except for the one by Dave Marsh, which can be found in his classic Rock Lists, which if you don't have, you probably should. (It was Marsh who was responsible for keeping "Hey Jude" out of the Top 3).

Overall, there were 167 songs that made the initial list. (#167, by the way, is "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," which made #101 on a single list.) By my count, there are 217 songs released by The Beatles while they were together, meaning that about 75% of their catalog were decent enough to make the reaches of somebody's list. Think about that for a second. That stat alone should prove the quality of the work we are looking at here.

Among some personal surprises that didn't make any list: "I'm Looking Through You," "All Together Now," & "Old Brown Shoe" (that said, my pick for the worst Beatles song, "Don't Pass Me By," also missed every list). Among some personal surprises that did make a list: "Revolution 9," "Flying," "Wild Honey Pie," & "Real Love." (& even more surprising: "Revolution 9" is only 5 spots away from making the Top 100.) Finally, the most "classic" song to do poorly in the Top 100: #86 "Michelle," which won Grammys & made the 1st Beatles greatest hits LP, A Collection Of Beatle Oldies, despite never being released as a single.

Only 5 songs appeared on every list; not coincidentally they comprise the Top 5 of the list: "A Day In The Life," "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Penny Lane," "Ticket To Ride," & "A Hard Day's Night."

The album with the most songs on it is "The White Album," which makes sense because it has more songs on it than any other. Of its 30 songs, 15 made the Top 100.  (Perhaps this is the half that should've been used had they made the album 1 LP instead of 2?) However, in terms of an album being represented, Revolver has 11 of its 14 songs in the Top 100, which is nearly 80% of its contents. This too makes sense because in recent years Revolver has overtaken Sgt. Pepper as their song-for-song, finest album. (That said, Sgt. Pepper has the next most songs represented, with 8 cuts--assuming we count the "Abbey Road Medley" as one song.)

What follows is the full Top 100 list, followed by Top 5 best-ofs for each Beatles album. If you need a place to start, these are the song to go with; but before long you'll find that you'll need them all.

Alright, here's The Top 100:

1. A Day In The Life
2. Strawberry Fields Forever
3. Penny Lane
4. Ticket To Ride
5. A Hard Day's Night
6. Hey Jude
7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
8. I Want To Hold Your Hand
9. Let It Be
10. She Loves You
11. Eleanor Rigby
12. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
13. Come Together
14. Help!
15. I Saw Her Standing There
16. In My Life
17. Yesterday
18. Something
19. Tomorrow Never Knows
20. All You Need Is Love
21. Here Comes The Sun
22. Paperback Writer
23. Can't Buy Me Love
24. Revolution
25. Abbey Road Medley
26. I Am The Walrus
27. Please Please Me
28. We Can Work It Out
29. Rain
30. Helter Skelter
31. Get Back
32. Happiness Is A Warm Gun
33. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
34. Eight Days A Week
35. Nowhere Man
36. You've Got To Hide Your Love Away
37. Blackbird
38. I Feel Fine
39. Across The Universe
40. All My Loving
41. With A Little Help From My Friends
42. Day Tripper
43. The Long & Winding Road
44. Taxman
45. Drive My Car
46. I Want You (She's So Heavy)
47. I'm Only Sleeping
48. Dear Prudence
49. Back In The USSR
50. Here, There, & Everywhere
51. She Said She Said
52. & Your Bird Can Sing
53. Don't Let Me Down
54. If I Fell
55. Got To Get You Into My Life
56. I Should Have Known Better
57. Lady Madonna
58. I've Just Seen A Face
59. Love Me Do
60. Yellow Submarine
61. Julia
62. Hello Goodbye
63. Twist & Shout
64. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
65. The Fool On The Hill
66. For No One
67. From Me To You
68. & I Love Her
69. Girl
70. Getting Better
71. You're Going To Lose That Girl
72. I'm So Tired
73. She's Leaving Home
74. The Ballad Of John & Yoko
75. I'm Down
76. This Boy
77. Hey Bulldog
78. Sexy Sadie
79. Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except For Me & My Monkey
80. I'm A Loser
81. No Reply
82. Oh! Darling
83. It Won't Be Long
84. Yer Blues
85. Baby, You're A Rich Man
86. Michelle
87. Lovely Rita
88. Mother Nature's Son
89. You Won't See Me
90. Long, Long, Long
91. Two Of Us
92. I'll Be Back
93. Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!
94. I'll Follow The Sun
95. Because
96. All I've Got To Do
97. Glass Onion
98. It's All To Much
99. Birthday
100. Good Day Sunshine

Please Please Me Top 5:

1. I Saw Her Standing There
2. Please Please Me
3. Love Me Do
4. Twist & Shout
5. Do You Want To Know A Secret (#114)

With The Beatles Top 5:

1. All My Loving
2. It Won't Be Long
3. All I've Got To Do
4. Money (That's What I Want) (#104)
5. Hold Me Tight (#138)

A Hard Day's Night Top 5:

1. A Hard Day's Night
2. Can't Buy Me Love
3. If I Fell
4. I Should Have Known Better
5. & I Love Her

The Beatles For Sale Top 5:

1. Eight Days A Week
2. I'm A Loser
3. No Reply
4. I'll Follow The Sun
5. Rock & Roll Music (#136)

Help! Top 5:

1. Ticket To Ride
2. Help!
3. Yesterday
4. You've Got To Hide Your Love Away
5. I've Just Seen A Face

Rubber Soul Top 5:

1. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
2. In My Life
3. Nowhere Man
4. Drive My Car
5. Girl

Revolver Top 5:

1. Eleanor Rigby
2. Tomorrow Never Knows
3. Taxman
4. I'm Only Sleeping
5. Here, There, & Everywhere

Sgt. Pepper Top 5:

1. A Day In The Life
2. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
3. With A Little Help From My Friends
4. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
5. Getting Better

Magical Mystery Tour Top 5:

1. Strawberry Fields Forever
2. Penny Lane
3. All You Need Is Love
4. I Am The Walrus
5. Hello Goodbye

"The White Album" Top 5:

1. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
2. Helter Skelter
3. Happiness Is A Warm Gun
4. Blackbird
5. Dear Prudence

Yellow Submarine Top 5:

1. All You Need Is Love
2. Yellow Submarine
3. Hey Bulldog
4. It's All Too Much
5. Only A Northern Song (#148)

Abbey Road Top 5:

1. Come Together
2. Something
3. Here Comes The Un
4. The Abbey Road Medley
5. I Want You (She's So Heavy)

Let It Be Top 5:

1. Let It Be
2. Get Back
3. Across The Universe
4. The Long & Winding Road
5. Two Of Us

Past Masters, Vol. 1 Top 5:

1. I Want To Hold Your Hand
2. She Loves You
3. I Feel Fine
4. From Me To You
5. I'm Down

Past Masters, Vol. 2 Top 5:

1. Hey Jude
2. Paperback Writer
3. Revolution
4. We Can Work It Out
5. Rain

The Beatles 1 Top 5:

1. Penny Lane
2. Ticket To Ride
3. A Hard Day's Night
4. Hey Jude
5. I Want To Hold Your Hand