Wednesday, October 14, 2015

That's Why I Love Mankind: Randy Newman and the Flood

It is said that "there is no early or late in the Torah" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim 6b). In other words, the sacred template of the Hebrew Bible can be reordered so that a phrase from the time of Adam and Eve explains an idea in Jeremiah or vice versa. It also means, if we extend this to the concept of commentary on sacred writ as a kind of textual time travel, that the house of study brings figures of every type and era under the same roof. As long as they have something authentic and meaningful to say about Jewish tradition, the conversation is open and the participants are contemporaneous.
Image result for randy newmanThat's how singer-songwriter Randy Newman - contemporary cultural commentator and religious cynic extraordinaire - joins us this week to help us think about Noah and the Flood, a signature tale not only of this week's Torah portion, but of all of sacred story.
The weather has gotten nasty. Forty days and forty nights of a downpour have washed out the very life for which the balance of sun, moon, rain, and sky are meant to provide. Sound familiar? It's South Carolina, Wisconsin, Utah, South Dakota, Texas, and Arizona in September. And, as told by Randy Newman, it's Louisiana, 1927.
What has happened down here is the wind have changed
Clouds roll in from the north and it started to rain
Rained real hard and rained for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline
The river rose all day, the river rose all night
Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away all right
The river have busted through cleared down to plaque mines
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline
Louisiana, Louisiana
They're tryin' to wash us away
Playing the game of "no early or late" in commentary on sacred text makes it easy to apply the voice of Newman's narrator (from one of the most devastating natural disasters of the North American 20th century) to the world's most famous flood story. And as myths and archetypes go, it's hard to imagine that Randy Newman wouldn't have been thinking of Noah, who built an ark in order to corral his family and pairs of the animals while the rest of the world got lost in the rising waters.
"They're trying to wash us away," Newman sings. Who are they? Is it President Coolidge who appears in the next verse saying, "Isn't it a shame" to one of his advisers before returning to the north? Is it a divine force, that same angry, impatient, or - maybe even worse - apathetic creator who decides that the human project just doesn't matter anymore?
Newman's tune carries a tone of despair and helplessness tinged with anger that is fully opposite the feel of the biblical tale. In the Book of Genesis, a divine voice is unequivocal that God wants to destroy the entirety of mankind because it has failed to live up to the basic standards of justice God expects from God's creatures. Noah simply bows his head, listens, and starts building without a hint of challenge to the decree.
Religious critique - providing layers of color and questioning to a variety of traditions - is one of Newman's most wonderful songwriting traits. In "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)," he sings:
Man means nothing, he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower
Or the humblest Yucca tree
He chases round this desert
'Cause he thinks that's where I'll be
That's why I love mankind
Turning a religious tenet, tale, or unconscious touchstone on its head - as with the revolutionary concept that chronology does not limit our understanding of "before and after" in the Torah - is a core practice of commentary on sacred text. Comparing the lonely voice of the drowned-out farmer from 1927, or the burned-out divine voice of "God's Song" to the story of Noah, opens up a new window - like a window in Noah's ark as he gazes into the gray waters of the flood - and makes me think not of divine punishment, but of the responsibility we humans have for washing ourselves away.
Winter and summer are swapping places more and more; drought, torrential rain, changes in the weather that fit no pattern other than what science tells us is the result of climate change driven by humanity. To borrow a phrase from Newman, who paraphrases a divine watcher watching us as Earth slowly turns away from us, and we look to blame anyone or anything but ourselves: Doesn't it make you love mankind? Here, textual time travel forces contemporary introspection.
The story of Noah concludes with a verse that might suggest a way to think about the Divine, love, and mankind with more subtlety than the undeniable violence of God turning the world upon God's creation. Noah has a direct line to the Divine and is called the "righteous man of his generation". After everything, in a reversal of the extreme decree of destruction against humanity that prompts the Flood, when the waters begin to lower and Noah and his family finally come back to the land, God blesses them to restart the human project, never to be drowned out again.
Image result for randy newman that's why i love mankind"Then God said to Noah," it is written, "'Yes, this rainbow is the sign of the covenant I am confirming with all the creatures on earth'" (Genesis 9:17). It's as if a love song after the storm appears in the sky, a statement of a kind of unconditional love between two entities -divine and human - that have taken each other to the brink. Even Randy Newman admits at the end of "God's Song" that there is a dependency between the two players in this all-stakes drama, one that is very difficult to shake. "You really need me," he sings. "That's why I love mankind."
In sacred stories so thick with meaning, the mix of voices spanning time and space challenge our settling into any single meaning. Narratives and counter-narratives are built into Jewish tradition, which invites interpretation and reinterpretation in a constant dance - with both the destroying flood and the protecting ark, as well as love and despair, flowing together through the world of imagination where Randy Newman and Noah meet.
This post originally appeared here in the Huffington Post

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sounding Board: I Have a New Gig IV

There are things and then there are things. One of those things happens to be a new job. It's not that new -- about five months. As CEO and President of JCC Association -- the umbrella organization of the 350 sites that comprise the Jewish Community Center Movement -- every two weeks I have been posting a short piece on a song that inspires thinking about where this band of communities and opportunities might go. Find the originals at Sounding Board or, over the next few weeks, right here. The third is entitled: What's Going On?

What’s Going On?

Marvin Gaye
Where is music when the world is spinning too fast, when the sky is crying, when we have lost our way?
Tests of communal will arose this week – all too fast and strong, and almost too big to fathom. Our eyes filled with the sight of friends in Baltimore embroiled in anger and unrest while those in Nepal tumbled as the ground shook and shivered beneath their feet.
Protest music is an expression of communal need to seek clarity and purpose. A protest song stepstoward our tests and goes out to greet them, a testament to how we step up to a challenge.
One of our colleagues shared with Sounding Board soul-warrior Marvin Gaye’s plea, now more than 40 years strong, as a reflection on what she believes JCC communities need to be asking of themselves, especially now:
Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today
Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
What’s going on
Another colleague turned to Bob Marley, a fierce and noble man. Maybe you believe in a master plan and maybe you do not – but what do you hold onto when you cannot believe what you see in a world is turned upside down?:
There’s a natural mystic
Blowing through the air
If you listen carefully now you will hear
This could be the first trumpet
Might as well be the last
Many more will have to suffer
Many more will have to die
Don’t ask me why
Things are not the way they used to be
I won’t tell no lie
One and all got to face reality now
Though I try to find the answer
To all the questions they ask
Though I know it’s impossible
To go living through the past
Don’t tell no lie
There’s a natural mystic
Blowing through the air
Can’t keep them down
If you listen carefully now you will hear
Such a natural mystic
Blowing through the air
We are not pro test. Would that we could just enjoy the quiet on a sunny day. But when tests come, as they always do, what choices remain but to face them? So we step towards these challenges together, never alone.
As you will see below, in Baltimore our colleagues seek to be of use to neighbors and friends, staying safe and joining hands and praying for peaceful and sustainable resolutions. In Nepal, friends stack hands to offer respite however and wherever they can.
And then there’s this from yet another colleague sending a song to Sounding Board – a message from those same boys who said all we need is love: Come together, right now.
How you and your JCC can help:
Our friends and colleagues at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore and the Associated are working with area churches, community centers and civic organizations to collect funds for immediate service to the neighborhoods affected most deeply by the unrest. If you are able to donate your time, contact the Jewish Volunteer Connection (JVC), which is coordinating community involvement in the cleanup effort in partnership with the No Boundaries Coalition.
We have compiled a list of some of the ways that you can help Nepal by supporting organizations in our family of Jewish and Israeli organizations.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sounding Board: I Have a New Gig III

There are things and then there are things. One of those things happens to be a new job. It's not that new -- about five months. As CEO and President of JCC Association -- the umbrella organization of the 350 sites that comprise the Jewish Community Center Movement -- every two weeks I have been posting a short piece on a song that inspires thinking about where this band of communities and opportunities might go. Find the originals at Sounding Board or, over the next few weeks, right here. The third is entitled: Out of Narrow Straits, But Now What?

Out of Narrow Straits, But Now What?

Leonard Cohen at the Arena in Geneva, 27 October 2008
Each year the traditions of Passover ask us to talk ourselves out of a terrible bind. Mitzraim — Hebrew for Egypt — literally means “narrow straits.” The only way to get through this tight squeeze is telling the story of how we escaped long ago. And the more we embellish this story, the Haggadah says, the happier our happy ending is likely to be.
But now what? For the Israelites, understanding “what’s next?” after escaping bondage took an entire generation — 40 years wandering in the desert and their descendants are still asking where the story leads.
In March during the launch of Sounding Board at the JCCs of North America Professional Conference, a group of JCC leaders spent an afternoon thinking about how Leonard Cohen’s rethinking of ancient stories like Exodus can shape today’s communal purpose.
In 2012’s “Show Me the Place,” Cohen sings:
Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go
Show me the place I’ve forgotten, I don’t know
Show me the place, where the word became a man
Show me the place, where the suffering began
Participating in a communal calling with ancient roots demands at least an inkling of belief that our steps are not just dragging tired feet across hot sand, nor that our stories are merely words to repeat, but a journey seeking something greater than ourselves.
This year, at the age of 80 — that’s two biblical generations — Leonard Cohen offered us “Born in Chains”:
I was born in chains
But I was taken out of Egypt
I was bound to a burden
But the burden it was raised
Lord I can no longer
Keep this secret
Blessed is the Name
The Name be praised
Like Cohen, is there a story we return to time and time again to describe what matters to us most? When we reflect upon our communities, are we willing to embellish our story, reinterpret it, or even start it over when we find ourselves in narrow straits? We need to consider the ways that our JCCs can open those straits, and become an essential part of the community’s reimagining of this story.
“Show me the place,” Cohen sings
Help me roll away the stone
Show me the place
I can’t move this thing alone
The chances are that if you are looking for something new in your community, there is someone nearby with a similar urge to navigate that narrow pathway with you and to help you move away that stone.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Sounding Board: I Have a New Gig II

There are things and then there are things. One of those things happens to be a new job. It's not that new -- about five months. As CEO and President of JCC Association -- the umbrella organization of the 350 sites that comprise the Jewish Community Center Movement -- every two weeks I have been posting a short piece on a song that inspires thinking about where this band of communities and opportunities might go. Find the originals at Sounding Board or, over the next few weeks, right here. The second is entitled: What is JCC Soul?.

What is JCC Soul?

Listen to that. We’re starting to hear some music out there.
Before I try my hand at performing a little interpretive magic on the songs you have chosen to describe what the JCC Movement needs and wants to be, let’s ask a question: Why build a playlist to get to know what’s driving communities across North America? Why choose the pathways of music to tell our tale?
I asked Bruce Springsteen this question once. It was just Bruce and me, just me and him; so I asked Bruce the question. Sort of. I said, “My friend Bruce, what’s a great band all about?” He just looked at me and smiled.
“What’s music all about?” I asked him (This was in 2005 at the induction ceremony for U2 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum). And he said:
A great rock band searches for the same kind of combustible force that fueled the expansion of the universe after the Big Bang. You want the earth to shake and spit fire. You want the sky to split apart and for God to pour out…
I liked that answer very much, but I wanted to know more. So I went to Bono, and I said, “Bono, what’s music all about? I mean, what’s it really about?” Bono just stared out at all of the rock stars and hangers-on and journalists and fans at the Rock Hall as the great Bob Marley was about to be honored:
New hymns to a dancing god, redemption songs — a sexy revolution, where Jah is Jehovah on the street level — not over his people, but with his people…dressed to hustle God: ‘Let my people go,’ an ancient plea — prayers catching fire…
Now don’t get the wrong idea. These are not answers about religion even if there is a lot of Godtalk in them. But they are answers about soul. So in the spirit of the musical son who sort of knows how to ask a question, I turned to George Clinton. “What is soul?” I asked. “Soul is you, baby,” he said. And I thought, “Yes, that’s what we’re talking about. Music is going to lead us to the soul of the JCC Movement. Those songs are going to tell us all about us.”
Hold on tight. Here we go.
And add your song here.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sounding Board: I Have a New Gig I

There are things and then there are things. One of those things happens to be a new job. It's not that new -- about five months. As CEO and President of JCC Association -- the umbrella organization of the 350 sites that comprise the Jewish Community Center Movement -- every two weeks I have been posting a short piece on a song that inspires thinking about where this band of communities and opportunities might go. Find the originals at Sounding Board or, over the next few weeks, right here. The first is entitled: Let the Listening Tour Begin.

You Get What You Give. Get Up Offa That Thing. You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play.
Melodies tripped and jangled through the New York City office of JCC Association during my first two weeks on the job as CEO and President.
You Better, You Better, You Bet.
After meeting individually with more than fifty members of our team in the first stage of an intensive assessment of our work with all of our stakeholders, I asked everyone for the song that she or he wanted to share with the family of three hundred and fifty JCCs and Ys, camps, and agencies we serve.
Friends. Power of Soul. I’ve Just Seen a Face.
Considering the millions of annual visits to our sites, the countless moments of meaning and connection and the endless possibilities JCCs offer each day — it’s no wonder our team wants to get up and sing about what we do.
What’s Going On? What’s So Funny ’bout Peace, Love and Understanding? Changes.
But we also recognize that as we enter a transition in leadership — with tremendous gratitude for what’s been built before us as well as a buzz of curiosity and determination to discover what’s next — there are many questions about what we as a movement should strive to be.
People. Natural Mystic. I Will Survive.
Music is one of the world’s great connectors — a comfort, a prophecy, a secret smile. It’s a looking glass to see ourselves and a window into the world. It’s the echo of what we think we know and a whisper of dreams we have all but forgotten.
Glory. Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Dream On. Yehiyeh Tov. New Day Rising.
Our team is listening closely: What rhythms will move our communities five, ten, or twenty years from now? What voices will blend in unexpected harmony? When you tune your ears to the sounds of the Jewish community of the future, what songs do you hear?
Listen to the #jccsoundingboard playlist here.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Long Live the King: B.B. King

Long, long time ago I decided to leave school, pack a rucksack and guitar, and try to touch all forty-eight states in the continental US. My cousin agreed to join me for the first leg of the trip, a swing through the south that brought us to New Orleans where we teamed up with a more seasoned traveler who convinced us against our better judgement to continue on to Mexico where we wrecked our car and were stranded for two weeks. I made it to California eventually, started a band or two, and kept looking for a code that would shape me.

Music was my guiding star then as now, and the symbolic crossroads, the place where that whole journey out of one life and into another started was the Front Row Theater. There I saw B.B. King, Albert King and Bobby "Blue" Bland two nights in a row.

B.B. King: smooth searing guitar, weeping and wailing and sailing above the stars; a booming voice full of love and humor; a grimace, a smile, warm words he had shared thousands of times with his backing band and his audience as he sweated and shimmied and glowed.

The recordings of the live shows were always my favorites, and seeing him live for the first time was a pilgrimage to witness a liturgy of the heart enacted by a High Priest who gives life to his people. I still know many of those albums note by note, having played along best as I could for years, eyes closed, imagining myself trading licks with a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather who -- despite lifetimes of difference between him and me -- assured with the giantness and gentleness of his person and music not only that the blues were an invitation I could accept, but that accepting the blues meant accepting love, and never being alone, and that even in the lowest, saddest of times the good work could get done, hauling sorrows and joys hand over hand with the King of the Blues, the One, the Only, B.B. King.

His music goes so deep -- deep as darkest dark. Yet it also buzzes with zest and vigor like purest light. There was a threshold across which B.B. King and his friends who taught the blues -- especially the electric blues -- carried an entire culture. That basket of blues held the possibility of all things, just like the arks that the Israelites carried out of Egypt.

"What's in those arks?" the passersby would say.
"One holds the Holy Torah and one holds the bones of Joseph," they replied.
"But how can you carry the living alongside the dead?" they asked.
"If not for this one, that one never could have been," they said.

Without music, it's hard to image living, but rising up for me as he did when he did, B.B. King was the rare musician whose warm, wise, simple, booming greatness offered an embrace so perfect amidst the imperfection of the world that it's hard to imagine my life itself without him.

That's a King for you, and this is his kingdom -- and feeling this way about these things is something grand and pure that cannot be explained. The King is dead. Long live the King.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

MusiCares, Who Really Cares? The Full Transcript of Bob Dylan's Speech

Below appears the full transcript, via the L.A. Times, of Bob Dylan's epic speech at the MusiCares Gala at the 2015 Grammy's. 
As usual, it's not clear who is zooming who in Dylan's presentation of music, self and the universe - but it's all in there. Thoughts on the speech from this corner in a few days. In the meantime, enjoy:
I’m glad for my songs to be honored like this. But you know, they didn’t get here by themselves. It’s been a long road and it’s taken a lot of doing. These songs of mine, they’re like mystery stories, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now. And they sound like they’ve been on the hard ground.
I should mention a few people along the way who brought this about. I know I should mention John Hammond, great talent scout for Columbia Records. He signed me to that label when I was nobody. It took a lot of faith to do that, and he took a lot of ridicule, but he was his own man and he was courageous. And for that, I’m eternally grateful. The last person he discovered before me was Aretha Franklin, and before that Count Basie, Billie Holiday and a whole lot of other artists. All noncommercial artists.

Trends did not interest John, and I was very noncommercial but he stayed with me. He believed in my talent and that’s all that mattered. I can’t thank him enough for that. Lou Levy runs Leeds Music, and they published my earliest songs, but I didn’t stay there too long.
Levy himself, he went back a long ways. He signed me to that company and recorded my songs and I sang them into a tape recorder. He told me outright, there was no precedent for what I was doing, that I was either before my time or behind it. And if I brought him a song like “Stardust,” he’d turn it down because it would be too late.
He told me that if I was before my time — and he didn’t really know that for sure — but if it was happening and if it was true, the public would usually take three to five years to catch up — so be prepared. And that did happen. The trouble was, when the public did catch up I was already three to five years beyond that, so it kind of complicated it. But he was encouraging, and he didn’t judge me, and I’ll always remember him for that.
Artie Mogull at Witmark Music signed me next to his company, and he told me to just keep writing songs no matter what, that I might be on to something. Well, he too stood behind me, and he could never wait to see what I’d give him next. I didn’t even think of myself as a songwriter before then. I’ll always be grateful for him also for that attitude.
I also have to mention some of the early artists who recorded my songs very, very early, without having to be asked. Just something they felt about them that was right for them. I’ve got to say thank you to Peter, Paul and Mary, who I knew all separately before they ever became a group. I didn’t even think of myself as writing songs for others to sing but it was starting to happen and it couldn’t have happened to, or with, a better group.
They took a song of mine that had been recorded before that was buried on one of my records and turned it into a hit song. Not the way I would have done it — they straightened it out. But since then hundreds of people have recorded it and I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t for them. They definitely started something for me.
The Byrds, the Turtles, Sonny & Cher — they made some of my songs Top 10 hits but I wasn’t a pop songwriter and I really didn’t want to be that, but it was good that it happened. Their versions of songs were like commercials, but I didn’t really mind that because 50 years later my songs were being used in the commercials. So that was good too. I was glad it happened, and I was glad they’d done it.
Purvis Staples and the Staple Singers — long before they were on Stax they were on Epic and they were one of my favorite groups of all time. I met them all in ’62 or ’63. They heard my songs live and Purvis wanted to record three or four of them and he did with the Staples Singers. They were the type of artists that I wanted recording my songs.
Nina Simone. I used to cross paths with her in New York City in the Village Gate nightclub. These were the artists I looked up to. She recorded some of my songs that she [inaudible] to me. She was an overwhelming artist, piano player and singer. Very strong woman, very outspoken. That she was recording my songs validated everything that I was about.
Oh, and can’t forget Jimi Hendrix. I actually saw Jimi Hendrix perform when he was in a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames — something like that. And Jimi didn’t even sing. He was just the guitar player. He took some small songs of mine that nobody paid any attention to and pumped them up into the outer limits of the stratosphere and turned them all into classics. I have to thank Jimi, too. I wish he was here.
Johnny Cash recorded some of my songs early on, too, up in about ’63, when he was all skin and bones. He traveled long, he traveled hard, but he was a hero of mine. I heard many of his songs growing up. I knew them better than I knew my own. “Big River,” “I Walk the Line.”
“How high’s the water, Mama?” I wrote “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” with that song reverberating inside my head. I still ask, “How high is the water, mama?” Johnny was an intense character. And he saw that people were putting me down playing electric music, and he posted letters to magazines scolding people, telling them to shut up and let him sing.
In Johnny Cash’s world — hardcore Southern drama — that kind of thing didn’t exist. Nobody told anybody what to sing or what not to sing. They just didn’t do that kind of thing. I’m always going to thank him for that. Johnny Cash was a giant of a man, the man in black. And I’ll always cherish the friendship we had until the day there is no more days.
Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Joan Baez. She was the queen of folk music then and now. She took a liking to my songs and brought me with her to play concerts, where she had crowds of thousands of people enthralled with her beauty and voice.
People would say, “What are you doing with that ragtag scrubby little waif?” And she’d tell everybody in no uncertain terms, “Now you better be quiet and listen to the songs.” We even played a few of them together. Joan Baez is as tough-minded as they come. Love. And she’s a free, independent spirit. Nobody can tell her what to do if she doesn’t want to do it. I learned a lot of things from her. A woman with devastating honesty. And for her kind of love and devotion, I could never pay that back.
These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.
I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.
For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.
If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”
If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.
Big Bill Broonzy had a song called “Key to the Highway.” “I’ve got a key to the highway / I’m booked and I’m bound to go / Gonna leave here runnin’ because walking is most too slow.” I sang that a lot. If you sing that a lot, you just might write,
Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes He asked poor Howard where can I go Howard said there’s only one place I know Sam said tell me quick man I got to run Howard just pointed with his gun And said that way down on Highway 61
You’d have written that too if you’d sang “Key to the Highway” as much as me.
“Ain’t no use sit ‘n cry / You’ll be an angel by and by / Sail away, ladies, sail away.” “I’m sailing away my own true love.” “Boots of Spanish Leather” — Sheryl Crow just sung that.
“Roll the cotton down, aw, yeah, roll the cotton down / Ten dollars a day is a white man’s pay / A dollar a day is the black man’s pay / Roll the cotton down.” If you sang that song as many times as me, you’d be writing “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” too.
I sang a lot of “come all you” songs. There’s plenty of them. There’s way too many to be counted. “Come along boys and listen to my tale / Tell you of my trouble on the old Chisholm Trail.” Or, “Come all ye good people, listen while I tell / the fate of Floyd Collins a lad we all know well / The fate of Floyd Collins, a lad we all know well.”
“Come all ye fair and tender ladies / Take warning how you court your men / They’re like a star on a summer morning / They first appear and then they’re gone again.” “If you’ll gather ’round, people / A story I will tell / ‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an outlaw / Oklahoma knew him well.”
If you sung all these “come all ye” songs all the time, you’d be writing, “Come gather ’round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing.”
You’d have written them too. There’s nothing secret about it. You just do it subliminally and unconsciously, because that’s all enough, and that’s all I sang. That was all that was dear to me. They were the only kinds of songs that made sense.
“When you go down to Deep Ellum keep your money in your socks / Women in Deep Ellum put you on the rocks.” Sing that song for a while and you just might come up with, “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time too / And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through / Don’t put on any airs / When you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue / They got some hungry women there / And they really make a mess outta you.”
All these songs are connected. Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. It’s just different, saying the same thing. I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary.
Well you know, I just thought I was doing something natural, but right from the start, my songs were divisive for some reason. They divided people. I never knew why. Some got angered, others loved them. Didn’t know why my songs had detractors and supporters. A strange environment to have to throw your songs into, but I did it anyway.
Last thing I thought of was who cared about what song I was writing. I was just writing them. I didn’t think I was doing anything different. I thought I was just extending the line. Maybe a little bit unruly, but I was just elaborating on situations. Maybe hard to pin down, but so what? A lot of people are hard to pin down. You’ve just got to bear it. I didn’t really care what Lieber and Stoller thought of my songs.
They didn’t like ‘em, but Doc Pomus did. That was all right that they didn’t like ‘em, because I never liked their songs either. “Yakety yak, don’t talk back.” “Charlie Brown is a clown,” “Baby I’m a hog for you.” Novelty songs. They weren’t saying anything serious. Doc’s songs, they were better. “This Magic Moment.” “Lonely Avenue.” Save the Last Dance for Me.
Those songs broke my heart. I figured I’d rather have his blessings any day than theirs.
Ahmet Ertegun didn’t think much of my songs, but Sam Phillips did. Ahmet founded Atlantic Records. He produced some great records: Ray Charles, Ray Brown, just to name a few.
There were some great records in there, no question about it. But Sam Phillips, he recorded Elvis and Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Radical eyes that shook the very essence of humanity. Revolution in style and scope. Heavy shape and color. Radical to the bone. Songs that cut you to the bone. Renegades in all degrees, doing songs that would never decay, and still resound to this day. Oh, yeah, I’d rather have Sam Phillips’ blessing any day.
Merle Haggard didn’t even think much of my songs. I know he didn’t. He didn’t say that to me, but I know [inaudible]. Buck Owens did, and he recorded some of my early songs. Merle Haggard — “Mama Tried,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” I can’t imagine Waylon Jennings singing “The Bottle Let Me Down.”
“Together Again”? That’s Buck Owens, and that trumps anything coming out of Bakersfield. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard? If you have to have somebody’s blessing — you figure it out.
Oh, yeah. Critics have been giving me a hard time since Day One. Critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don’t critics say that same thing about Tom Waits? Critics say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. What don’t they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I get special treatment? Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really? I’ve never heard that said about Lou Reed. Why does he get to go scot-free?
What have I done to deserve this special attention? No vocal range? When’s the last time you heard Dr. John? Why don’t you say that about him? Slur my words, got no diction. Have you people ever listened to Charley Patton or Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters. Talk about slurred words and no diction. [Inaudible] doesn’t even matter.
“Why me, Lord?” I would say that to myself.
Critics say I mangle my melodies, render my songs unrecognizable. Oh, really? Let me tell you something. I was at a boxing match a few years ago seeing Floyd Mayweather fight a Puerto Rican guy. And the Puerto Rican national anthem, somebody sang it and it was beautiful. It was heartfelt and it was moving.
After that it was time for our national anthem. And a very popular soul-singing sister was chosen to sing. She sang every note — that exists, and some that don’t exist. Talk about mangling a melody. You take a one-syllable word and make it last for 15 minutes? She was doing vocal gymnastics like she was on a trapeze act. But to me it was not funny.
Where were the critics? Mangling lyrics? Mangling a melody? Mangling a treasured song? No, I get the blame. But I don’t really think I do that. I just think critics say I do.
Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, “Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Think about that the next time you [inaudible].
Times always change. They really do. And you have to always be ready for something that’s coming along and you never expected it. Way back when, I was in Nashville making some records and I read this article, a Tom T. Hall interview. Tom T. Hall, he was bitching about some kind of new song, and he couldn’t understand what these new kinds of songs that were coming in were about.
Now Tom, he was one of the most preeminent songwriters of the time in Nashville. A lot of people were recording his songs and he himself even did it. But he was all in a fuss about James Taylor, a song James had called “Country Road.” Tom was going off in this interview — “But James don’t say nothing about a country road. He’s just says how you can feel it on the country road. I don’t understand that.”
Now some might say Tom is a great songwriter. I’m not going to doubt that. At the time he was doing this interview I was actually listening to a song of his on the radio.
It was called “I Love.” I was listening to it in a recording studio, and he was talking about all the things he loves, an everyman kind of song, trying to connect with people. Trying to make you think that he’s just like you and you’re just like him. We all love the same things, and we’re all in this together. Tom loves little baby ducks, slow- moving trains and rain. He loves old pickup trucks and little country streams. Sleeping without dreams. Bourbon in a glass. Coffee in a cup. Tomatoes on the vine, and onions.
Now listen, I’m not ever going to disparage another songwriter. I’m not going to do that. I’m not saying it’s a bad song. I’m just saying it might be a little overcooked. But, you know, it was in the top 10 anyway. Tom and a few other writers had the whole Nashville scene sewed up in a box. If you wanted to record a song and get it in the top 10 you had to go to them, and Tom was one of the top guys. They were all very comfortable, doing their thing.
This was about the time that Willie Nelson picked up and moved to Texas. About the same time. He’s still in Texas. Everything was very copacetic. Everything was all right until — until — Kristofferson came to town. Oh, they ain’t seen anybody like him. He came into town like a wildcat, flew his helicopter into Johnny Cash’s backyard like a typical songwriter. And he went for the throat. “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
Well, I woke up Sunday morning With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt. And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad So I had one more for dessert Then I fumbled through my closet Found my cleanest dirty shirt Then I washed my face and combed my hair And stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.
You can look at Nashville pre-Kris and post-Kris, because he changed everything. That one song ruined Tom T. Hall’s poker parties. It might have sent him to the crazy house. God forbid he ever heard any of my songs.
You walk into the room With your pencil in your hand You see somebody naked You say, “Who is that man?” You try so hard But you don’t understand Just what you’re gonna say When you get home You know something is happening here But you don’t know what it is Do you, Mister Jones?
If “Sunday Morning Coming Down” rattled Tom’s cage, sent him into the looney bin, my song surely would have made him blow his brains out, right there in the minivan. Hopefully he didn’t hear it.
I just released an album of standards, all the songs usually done by Michael Buble, Harry Connick Jr., maybe Brian Wilson’s done a couple, Linda Ronstadt done ‘em. But the reviews of their records are different than the reviews of my record.
In their reviews no one says anything. In my reviews, [inaudible] they’ve got to look under every stone when it comes to me. They’ve got to mention all the songwriters’ names. Well that’s OK with me. After all, they’re great songwriters and these are standards. I’ve seen the reviews come in, and they’ll mention all the songwriters in half the review, as if everybody knows them. Nobody’s heard of them, not in this time, anyway. Buddy Kaye, Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh, to name a few.
But, you know, I’m glad they mention their names, and you know what? I’m glad they got their names in the press. It might have taken some time to do it, but they’re finally there. I can only wonder why it took so long. My only regret is that they’re not here to see it.
Traditional rock ‘n’ roll, we’re talking about that. It’s all about rhythm. Johnny Cash said it best: “Get rhythm. Get rhythm when you get the blues.” Very few rock ‘n’ roll bands today play with rhythm. They don’t know what it is. Rock ‘n’ roll is a combination of blues, and it’s a strange thing made up of two parts. A lot of people don’t know this, but the blues, which is an American music, is not what you think it is. It’s a combination of Arabic violins and Strauss waltzes working it out. But it’s true.
The other half of rock ‘n’ roll has got to be hillbilly. And that’s a derogatory term, but it ought not to be. That’s a term that includes the Delmore Bros., Stanley Bros., Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashley … groups like that. Moonshiners gone berserk. Fast cars on dirt roads. That’s the kind of combination that makes up rock ‘n’ roll, and it can’t be cooked up in a science laboratory or a studio.
You have to have the right kind of rhythm to play this kind of music. If you can’t hardly play the blues, how do you [inaudible] those other two kinds of music in there? You can fake it, but you can’t really do it.
Critics have made a career out of accusing me of having a career of confounding expectations. Really? Because that’s all I do. That’s how I think about it. Confounding expectations.
“What do you do for a living, man?” “Oh, I confound expectations.”
You’re going to get a job, the man says, “What do you do?” “Oh, confound expectations.: And the man says, “Well, we already have that spot filled. Call us back. Or don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Confounding expectations. What does that mean? ‘Why me, Lord? I’d confound them, but I don’t know how to do it.’
The Blackwood Bros. have been talking to me about making a record together. That might confound expectations, but it shouldn’t. Of course it would be a gospel album. I don’t think it would be anything out of the ordinary for me. Not a bit. One of the songs I’m thinking about singing is “Stand By Me” by the Blackwood Brothers. Not “Stand By Me” the pop song. No. The real “Stand By Me.” The real one goes like this:
When the storm of life is raging / Stand by me / When the storm of life is raging / Stand by me / When the world is tossing me / Like a ship upon the sea / Thou who rulest wind and water / Stand by me
In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / When the hosts of hell assail / And my strength begins to fail / Thou who never lost a battle / Stand by me
In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by me / In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by me / When I do the best I can / And my friends don’t understand / Thou who knowest all about me / Stand by me
That’s the song. I like it better than the pop song. If I record one by that name, that’s going to be the one. I’m also thinking of recording a song, not on that album, though: “Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
Anyway, why me, Lord. What did I do?
Anyway, I’m proud to be here tonight for MusiCares. I’m honored to have all these artists singing my songs. There’s nothing like that. Great artists. [applause, inaudible]. They’re all singing the truth, and you can hear it in their voices.
I’m proud to be here tonight for MusiCares. I think a lot of this organization. They’ve helped many people. Many musicians who have contributed a lot to our culture. I’d like to personally thank them for what they did for a friend of mine, Billy Lee Riley. A friend of mine who they helped for six years when he was down and couldn’t work. Billy was a son of rock ‘n’ roll, obviously.
He was a true original. He did it all: He played, he sang, he wrote. He would have been a bigger star but Jerry Lee came along. And you know what happens when someone like that comes along. You just don’t stand a chance.
So Billy became what is known in the industry — a condescending term, by the way — as a one-hit wonder. But sometimes, just sometimes, once in a while, a one-hit wonder can make a more powerful impact than a recording star who’s got 20 or 30 hits behind him. And Billy’s hit song was called “Red Hot,” and it was red hot. It could blast you out of your skull and make you feel happy about it. Change your life.
He did it with style and grace. You won’t find him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s not there. Metallica is. Abba is. Mamas and the Papas — I know they’re in there. Jefferson Airplane, Alice Cooper, Steely Dan — I’ve got nothing against them. Soft rock, hard rock, psychedelic pop. I got nothing against any of that stuff, but after all, it is called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Billy Lee Riley is not there. Yet.
I’d see him a couple times a year and we’d always spent time together and he was on a rockabilly festival nostalgia circuit, and we’d cross paths now and again. We’d always spend time together. He was a hero of mine. I’d heard “Red Hot.” I must have been only 15 or 16 when I did and it’s impressed me to this day.
I never grow tired of listening to it. Never got tired of watching Billy Lee perform, either. We spent time together just talking and playing into the night. He was a deep, truthful man. He wasn’t bitter or nostalgic. He just accepted it. He knew where he had come from and he was content with who he was.
And then one day he got sick. And like my friend John Mellencamp would sing — because John sang some truth today — one day you get sick and you don’t get better. That’s from a song of his called “Life is Short Even on Its Longest Days.” It’s one of the better songs of the last few years, actually. I ain’t lying.
And I ain’t lying when I tell you that MusiCares paid for my friend’s doctor bills, and helped him to get spending money. They were able to at least make his life comfortable, tolerable to the end. That is something that can’t be repaid. Any organization that would do that would have to have my blessing.
I’m going to get out of here now. I’m going to put an egg in my shoe and beat it. I probably left out a lot of people and said too much about some. But that’s OK. Like the spiritual song, ‘I’m still just crossing over Jordan too.’ Let’s hope we meet again. Sometime. And we will, if, like Hank Williams said, “the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.”