From the archive, 2012. My first piece for PopMatters.com, and it’s about The Shaggs.
Like so many songs of my early childhood in the late 1970s, “Slip Slidin’ Away” became part of my pre-linguistic sensory experience. Instrumentally spare even for a Paul Simon recording, it nevertheless has the distinction of being a song I experience in my chest as some form of synaesthesia, of sound made into sensation. To a two-year old, lyrics are obviously irrelevant, so it’s a testament to the magic of Paul Simon’s voice and the distinctive “and three” percussion that the song makes an impression at all on someone whose cognitive abilities are limited.
It’s tempting to interpret the tune as a lullaby, but even then I knew the song was not telling me that everything would be alright. I understood the words in the title at least, and I knew it meant loss of control, of being slowly moved in some unintended direction.
Released in late 1977 as a bonus track for Simon’s Greatest Hits, Etc., the song went to #5 on the Billboard charts. It’s one of the few situations I can think of where an unreleased song was appended to a hits collection and actually became a hit itself. It didn’t make the cut onto Still Crazy After All These Years, so it seems as though Simon is saying “here’s this thing I didn’t want to tell you about.” Maybe he wasn’t sure it was good enough, or maybe he thought we wouldn’t understand or be prepared for the message.
Because the song was encoded in my memory as a sensation rather than a song, I never took the time later in life to comprehend the lyrics. I absorbed it as I do most songs – music first, lyrics last, if at all. Only within the last few years did I get around to comprehending the verses. A lot of Paul Simon’s tunes have a certain sadness laced with hope, but this one doesn’t offer much in the way of consolation. It simply presents the world as it is – a man too much in love, a woman with lowered (realistic?) expectations from life, a father who doesn’t explain himself, and then the final verse, the knock-down blow:
God only knows
God makes his plan
The information’s unavailable
To the mortal man
We’re working our jobs
Collect our pay
Believe we’re gliding down the highway
When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away
It’s a dark truth that we are, for the most part, not in control, much as we may think we are. Maybe it’s just the timbre of The Paul Simon Voice that softens the punch, but the song manages not to be completely depressing; instead it transmits a feeling of being at peace with an uncertain universe. As children, our lullabies are either unreasonably rosy (“you make me happy when skies are grey”) or strangely horrid (“the cradle will fall?” WTF, mom?), so “Slip Slidin’ Away” might make a good middle ground. It’s the kind of message children would benefit from hearing more often. Somehow I think it was beneficial for me.
UPDATE: I realized recently that the most likely definition of “Slip Slidin’ Away” is death. I was reminded of a talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh (and adapted by Chroma Key into a piece called “When You Drive“) wherein Han says, “we have the habit energy of wanting to arrive. That is why we want to go as quickly as possible…but we arrive at every moment…If we abandon the present moment, our final destination may be our death. You don’t want to arrive there.” So with that in mind, we really do think we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re just getting closer to death.
In our first installment I talked about bands versus singer-songwriters. Here’s what a band brings to the table that I’ve rarely heard a singer-songwriter accomplish: every part of the song represents a uniquely creative musical idea. When I heard this drum part, I immediately wanted to sit down and learn it. Then I wanted to learn the intertwined guitar parts, which are in the band’s own idiosyncratic tuning. And then the bassline. And the vocals. Everything about this song is f*cking magical.
In particular I enjoy the parts of the song where the lyrics are stretched so far apart in time that they’re hard to parse as a full sentence and are processed primarily as just chunks of words. At the end they add up to the very conversational, almost stammering statement, “Not to be, overly dramatic, I just think it’s best. Because you can’t miss what you forget. So let’s just pretend everything and anything between you and me was never meant.”
The band’s chief songwriter, Mike Kinsella, makes his living as indie rock singer-songwriter Owen. The band broke up shortly after the debut LP was released in 1999, but the album just kept going, from mixtape to mix disc, via word of mouth and the Internet. When the band decided in 2014 to reunite for a quick tour, they thought they’d play a few small shows and go back to their lives. They did not anticipate multiple sold-out shows per city. The band has since released two followup LPs as of 2018.
The whole debut record is full of creatively composed arrangements and beautifully sad lyrics. For musicians, the song is a great puzzle to learn, for non-musicians it’s a warmly sad breakup song. In my case, given the person who introduced me to the song and the relationship we had, it’s both.
There are any number of reasons why King’s X were never as huge as the bands they influenced (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden) went on to become: Christian themes, a mohawked black guy for a lead singer, a sound too heavy for pop and too poppy for metal (Vocal harmonies and stratocaster crunch? Who wants that in their metal?). So their appeal was left primarily to the only groups of people who really care deeply about pure music: nerds and musicians. Unlike hair metal, King’s X weren’t selling a lifestyle to the bored; unlike thrash or death metal, they weren’t selling a sense of strength to the powerless; unlike punk or alternative rock, they weren’t reactionaries against a mainstream. They were just another band from Texas, that vast crossroads where musical outlaws run roughshod across the borderlines of genres. Perhaps the primary thing, though, that made them so unmarketable was the simple fact that there has never been anything cool about sincerity.
Their painful sincerity is in full flower on “Goldilox,” the second cut on their debut album. It’s immediately recognizable to every nerdy boy who can’t talk to girls as their Theme Song. “I can’t believe summer’s
almost here / I made it through another year even if alone” is, in some shape or form, written in the diary of every socially awkward teenager. Couched in different timbres, it would be twee indie rock. But sung by a soul singer (did I mention the mohawk?) fronting a heavy rock trio on an album named after a C.S. Lewis book, it has some barriers to entry for normal folks. But that’s who they were: three misfit Christian kids (who met each other in Springfield, Missouri!) who liked the Beatles and hard rock.
The King’s X Marketing Predicament continues to the present day. They are forever the best kind of cult band, though: still making records, still accessible to their fans (Doug signed my bass!), still writing honest songs. It should also be noted that “Goldilox” is the closest thing to a conventional love song the band has ever written. After 15 albums, they’ve managed never to write anything resembling a ballad. They got it out of the way early on side 1 of their first album.
Buy Goldilox (LP Version) at amazon.com
1.) Strip away all theatrics and fashion from popular music and you generally won’t find most teenagers. You’ll just find nerds, musicians and adults.
In the 80’s there was a brief media to-do about backmasking, the encoding of evil messages in heavy metal records, accessible by playing certain albums backward. If only they’d known about the coded messages of De La Soul. If America’s parents in 1989 had any idea what “Jimbrowski must wear a cap, just in case the girl likes to clap” really meant, they’d be more afraid of De La than Judas Priest.
For any small-town kid in, say, Arkansas, listening to a De La record might as well have been a starter course in cryptography. In addition to the usual hip-hop slang, De La went further to fashion their own inside references and characters: “Jenny,” “buddy,” “Derwin,” “chestnuts.” Factor in Prince Paul’s curatorial approach to sampling, and you’ve got the makings of an album that rewards repeated listening across decades. Every time I catch up to a DJ like Prince Paul by discovering the source of a cut, or untangle the rhymes of MCs like Dave and Pos, I feel like I’m slowly graduating to their level of awareness.
But it’s not all knotty linguistics or DJ science on this tune. This one ain’t about bragging or sticking it to the ever-present threat of sucka MCs. This is the band stepping back and letting their friends Q-Tip, Monie Love, and the Jungle Brothers join the fun, and the effect is something like stepping into a summer barbecue in a Long Island of the mind. So maybe it’s fine that the parents don’t know who Jimmy is or why he needs a hat.
>> Buy 3 Feet High & Rising at amazon.com
OK enough with the quietly introspective songsmithery; it’s time for some adrenaline-soaked, mach-10-with-your-hair-on-fire, sonic bombast rock and roll. If this song doesn’t make you want to get in a car and drive fast with the windows down, then an important part of you is missing and needs to be recovered from maturity’s dustbin. Or maybe you have no use for boisterous immaturity, maybe you don’t still enjoy yelling into the wind every so often. That’s OK; you’re a better adult than I am.
“Addicted to That Rush” is, to my mind, the single greatest audio approximation of what it means to be 14 years old. There were plenty of things wrong with hair metal – the boneheaded lyrics, the posing, the lifestyle excesses – but the one thing it did exceptionally well was provide high-energy fun. I’ve said my piece on this before (on the blog David Slade and I started but never got around to maintaining) but I’ll continue to speak up for the joys of vulgarian exhilaration that loud, fast music provides.
There is a helium-inflated flotilla of rock critics and indie rock hipsters out there who will tell you that fast guitar solos = soulless masturbation. This metaphor, while occasionally accurate, misses an important point about music: it doesn’t have to be art. It can be whatever its audience wants it to be. It can be sports – a viscerally exhilarating contest of physical feats. It can be speech – a means of simple communication. Can a sporting event be said to have a soul? Are the Olympics inherently masturbatory? Of course musicians should aspire to be more than athletes, but the performance of a truly great athlete is still worth experiencing, and that’s what we have here in Paul Gilbert and Billy Sheehan of Mr. Big.
Music contains multitudes. I’ve heard people say music is a language, but it’s actually something that sits in parallel to language, and is roughly the same size because it contains within it all the various forms and dialects of what individual cultures consider music to be. Humans are often as guarded and belligerent with each other about their music as they are about their religion. We need individual religions and languages to have discrete boundaries and rules, but there are no rules on Music itself, just musical genres. Nor, really, are there rules about Language and Religion – you can make up your own language or religion today if you want. It’s yours for the taking.
All of this is far more mileage than I ever expected to get out of the hair metal shredfest that is “Addicted to That Rush.” My attempts at philosophizing will always fall short of expressing the sensation that this song gives me. It gets me energized; it provokes a significant physical and emotional response. Isn’t that what the best songs do?
For many years my perpetually adolescent outlook on life had led me to view with deep suspicion all acquired tastes. If a taste had to be acquired, I thought, what good was it anyway? At some point in my late 20’s I realized the answer: because sometimes things are more complex than you are. Only by surrounding yourself with something unfamiliar and being exposed to it on a regular basis can you crack the necessary codes to understanding it.
Not that it happens all at once. I willed myself into jazz based on the trust I had in the musicians I admired who acknowledged its musical supremacy, and that process took a few years. Jazz really is the most advanced musical artform from the standpoint of rhythm and harmony, so it naturally turns a lot of people off. For many people raised on rock music, it is the textbook definition of “acquired taste.”
So, for me, was Neil Finn. In the late 90’s, I was still recovering from guitar addiction and transitioning into the pomp and fanfare of Jellyfish. Neil Finn just seemed like another guy singing songs, nothing particularly impressive from the standpoint of timbre or instrumentation. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s when I heard “She Will Have Her Way” in an episode of Sports Night that I knew I needed to revisit Neil and Crowded House.
Neil’s lyrics manage to be simultaneously direct and vague. He’ll alternate something structured and coherent like “I’m so sore that I could cry” with an abstract photo-lyric like “always in the night lay your tired arms.” His chord progressions often take a left turn on the second or third time through a verse. He can also write lyrics that don’t rhyme but you never notice it. Like The Weepies, he writes songs that can put you in your own movie, but it’s always a movie directed by Neil Finn, where the sky is always cloudy but the grass is usually green.
Whatever your interpretation of this song’s lyrics, the title makes clear that the woman gets her way. For as many love songs as exist in the pop universe, I found this topic of relenting to the will of the woman to be surprisingly underrepresented (“Baby’s Got Sauce” by G. Love notwithstanding). Not many men like to admit their lack of control in a relationship, and the resignation in Finn’s voice speaks to the underlying assumption that no matter how smart or in control a guy thinks he is, there’s usually a woman out there smarter and more complex than him.
If aliens came to me and asked me to play them one song to represent humanity at its best, I would play “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & the Drells for them. It is distilled joy.
If this song does not make you at least a little happy every time you hear it, then you may be a heartless robot. This song is as irresistible as a basket full of puppies and kittens on Christmas morning. It has the most perfect bassline. It has the happiest two-chord progression ever. Even its brief, mellow bridge makes one smile. The fact that it has no real lyrics to speak of is immaterial. The fact that the song was ostensibly written as a companion to a dance no one knows is irrelevant. It remains the simplest, most elegant musical construct man has yet devised.
If I were L. Ron Hubbard, I would have designed a religion around this song instead of a lame sci-fi story. It is a testament to the ability of music itself to spontaneously generate joy. Perhaps the secret to its magic is that is has no melody. It is simply a groove. The happiest groove ever written. Melodies lose their luster with overuse, but grooves never die. A fat groove is a joy forever.
As an added bonus, if you listen to it with headphones on, you can hear all sorts of extra voices in the studio. It’s like you’re there with them, making this thing up as they go.
>> Download Tighten Up Pt. 1 (LP Version) from amazon.com.
I had known about Jeff Buckley since 1997 when I met him at my college’s annual spring concert. The weather was unseasonably cold and Jeff had been prevailed upon by some friends of mine to come to Conway from Memphis where he was working on the followup to his now-classic album, Grace. I wish I could remember the occasion better, but at the time I was busy working as stage crew. I remember the guy had a unique voice, but that’s about it. A few months later I read that he had drowned.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I even picked up a copy of Grace, and then everything else. I won’t go on about the talent we lost in Jeff, or the incredible influence he’s had on just about every rock vocalist since about 1999. I’ll just say that while I very much enjoyed his work, it wasn’t until the two-disc Live At Sin-é legacy edition was released in 2003 that I realized just what we had in Jeff. His a cappella version of Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband,” in which he naturally adjusts the possessive adjectives to “Be Your Husband,” sets the tone: you hear the patrons of the cafe chattering and clinking their glasses as Jeff sets up and starts stomping and clapping. By two minutes in, the place is dead quiet as Jeff calls forth the ghosts of Parchman Farm, conjuring spirits to be his backing vocalists. What he did, I was not previously aware humans could do.
His chops as a soul vocalist established, he opens disc two with a verbatim rendition of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Yeh Jo Halka Halka Saroor Hai” and immediately you’re hit with the realization that this is not merely some white boy who knows his Memphis R&B. This is a musical traveler with bigger ears than anyone his age has any right to have. In between songs, he reveals himself further to be a complete dork, talking about the radio, Nusrat, beverages, poking fun at CBGBs, and whatever else pops into his head. In doing so, he shows his allegiance to the ranks of The Uncool by admitting to a variety of enthusiasms, thus shearing him of any facade of Cool (because cool people, as everyone knows, are perpetually bored). He becomes no longer the packaged product of a record label, hair perfectly mussed and guitar slung low. He’s just Jeff, the guy for whom Nusrat is Elvis, a guy with boundless potential whose artistic voice is still under construction. It’s one of the only times on a record that I’ve ever felt like I was getting to know a real person.
As a small tribute to Jeff and to this song, I hastily assembled this video a few years ago using public domain footage from archive.org. I hadn’t looked at it in awhile; it’s got 80,000 views. Neato.
1.) 10 years passed between the EP version and the two-disc legacy edition, which makes me wonder if this sort of thing could only have been released posthumously, when Columbia Records had less of an investment in the persona of “Jeff Buckley.”
Sometimes a song arrives in your life at an important moment and is forever elevated in your mind by the association. These are the soundtrack songs, playing underneath the movies we like to pretend our lives are. Very often we come back to those songs years later and realize they’re as immature and embarrassing as we were at the time. Only rarely does a song live up to its moment in time and still withstand scrutiny years on as something that not only witnessed our growth but perhaps even contributed to it.
This is one of those songs.
Somewhere I heard the story that Deb Talan and Steve Tannen were each singer-songwriters who were fans of each other’s before they met. When they did meet, they began playing together and eventually married. It’s the story every musician would die to have come true. So it’s an impressive feat, then, that The Weepies can still write some deeply sad songs.
“World Spins Madly On” was my soundtrack song for the first few months of my New York residency. I had just started a job at an ad agency that had provided me with more stress than I’ve ever experienced. Adapting to life in a large ad agency in a massive city, living in a shoebox apartment, working from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on an impossible project…I just felt empty inside. I felt the hope of something new, the anxiety of the unknown, and the fear of failure. This song regularly accompanied me from the subway at 14th street to Union Square to the office and back again. It functioned as a constant reminder that I was not alone in my particular suffering, and it hinted that my loneliness might even be so commonplace as to be unremarkable. The song never quite despairs; it sits suspended in judgment and in time, as the whole world keeps moving while I’m standing still. It remains a song that never wears out its welcome. It’s so good it doesn’t even need my emotional attachment to it to give it weight.