Thursday, May 21, 2009

Me & My Jack of Diamonds

Sure, I have some Grateful Dead songs on my iTunes and you'd have to be a hippy-hater to not like their classic album "American Beauty" but there's a funny thing that happens when "The Dead" and music dorks intersect. Nobody ever really dabbles in "The Dead". It's as if you're a "Dead Head" or you can't stand the band. Until recently I was closer to the latter, but I think I'm beginning to feel the Darkstar tractor beam pulling me in . . .

I tend to approach musical behemoths in the same way. I resist dabbling until I can perceive a crack in their monumental veneer, an opening that allows me to understand and appreciate their work, and then I dive in and rarely surface until I've devoured a majority of their catalog. So you can see why I'm trepidatious. Well, that and I'm not sure that I'm comfortable with the "dead head" moniker.

not me, but the other guy looks like a bigger, fatter version of my uncle (seriously)

My "in" in this case is the John Phillips composition, "Me & My Uncle" otherwise known by the title "Jack of Diamonds." I'm a big John Phillips fan and picked up the compilation by the name "Jack of Diamonds" that pulled together a random assortment of rarities and odds n' ends from the 1970s. There are two versions of the tune "Jack of Diamonds" on the CD and strangely enough the "alternate" version is the more conventional of the two. I've selected the regular version, which has an extremely relaxed and dare I say druggy vibe - I mean, this is John Phillips we're talking about here.

John Phillips - Jack of Diamonds
The story goes that Phillips wrote the song during an all night drinking session accompanied by Judy Collins, Stephen Stills and Neil Young, among others, in 1963. At the time Phillips was a member of the folk group, The Journeymen, and Stills and Young had yet to make it to L.A. to form The Buffalo Springfield. Collins was the only one in the group of partiers with an active recording career and so unbeknownst to Phillips, Collins recorded the song for her Judy Collins Concert album. You can listen to the full song here (it might ask you to download the rhapsody widget thingy, but it doesn't take long and its well worth it). The most interesting thing about the song, is that Phillips woke up the next morning with absolutely no recollection of writing or playing the song and story has it that, "John used to joke that, little by little, with each royalty check, the memory of writing the song would come back to him." This version comes from the early 1970s after Collins, The Dead and a few others had already made it a classic. Phillips wanted to put his own stamp on it and switched around the lyrics a bit and re-titled it. To me it has a bit of that Steely Dan "Do It Again" slick rock shuffle.

We need to stop a second because who knew that there was more to know about Judy Collins?!? I have two previous associations with Collins: 1) my very un-hip step-grandmother liked her, and 2) I heard that she was Stephen Stills' cougar back in the 60s and that Suite Judy Blue Eyes was written about her. Next, we get to the other versions of the song, most notably when The Grateful Dead started working it into their live repertoire around 1966.

I guess if I'm going to ease my way into the dead, I might as well start with the song the Grateful Dead played more than any other, cover or original, all the way from 1966 to 1995! according to this very thorough website.

A relatively brief searcheroo on Soulseek unveiled about a half dozen live versions of the tune and I tried my best to select the ones that I thought really stood out and actually sounded different from each other. I swear it wasn't intentional, but the versions I selected came from the successive years of 1969, 1970 and 1971.

The Grateful Dead - Me & My Uncle (Live in Santa Rosa 6/28/69)
The Grateful Dead - Me & My Uncle (Live at Fillmore East 2/14/70)
The Grateful Dead - Me & My Uncle (Live at Fillmore East 4/29/71)

Monday, May 4, 2009

Of Canoes and Tall Buildings . . .

John Hartford is one of my alltime favorite artists and an early inspiration for creating a separate country-ish blog in "Weed, Whites & Wine." I chanced upon this songwriter and renowned instrumentalist through his most famous song, "Gentle On My Mind." Of the hundreds of versions out there, it was Elvis' version from his Elvis in Memphis sessions that initially won my heart. While some might roll their eyes at this pop-country staple, to me it was new and the lyrics were extremely vivid, simple and honest - all three things speak to Hartford's musical legacy. Hartford wrote and sang about what he loved: freedom, boats, the Mississippi river and love.

I'd been meaning to get around to doing a post about some Hartford tunes so when this Monday morning rolled around and I struggled to face another week, I thought of one of my favorite anti-corporate anthems and no, we're not talking about a Rage Against the Machine song. We're talking about Hartford's, "In Tall Buildings." This song hit me back when I had just moved to New York City and I was working at a great job on the Upper East Side. As I got ready for work one morning, I put on a record as I often did while getting dressed. As I wrestled with my neck-tie the words of the song sank in:

Someday, baby, when I am a man,
and other's have taught me
the best that they can
they'll sell me a suit
and cut off my hair
and send me to work in tall buildings

and it's goodbye to the sunshine
goodbye to the dew
goodbye to the flowers
and goodbye to you
I'm off to the subway
I must not be late
going to work in tall buildings

now when I retire
and my life is my own
I made all the payments
it's time to go home
and wonder what happened
betwixt and between
when I went to work in tall buildings

and it's goodbye to the sunshine
goodbye to the dew
goodbye to the flowers
and goodbye to you
I'm off to the subway
I mustn't be late
going to work in tall buildings

Damn! I nearly quit my job that same day. I kept the job and eventually upgraded to one that didn't require a suit, though I still find myself rushing to the subway. I think of this song often and how Hartford managed to have his cake and eat it too, leading a particularly unconventional life.

As the story goes, Hartford rode the post-Dylan wave with a run of solo albums on RCA in the late sixties that yielded his biggest hit and one of the most recorded songs in history, "Gentle on My Mind." Hartford was known to say that that song bought him his freedom. With this freedom he took some time off and got his license to be a riverboat pilot. This pretty much sums up Hartford from the biography on his website, "Summer days might find him piloting the Julia Belle Swain on her afternoon run, before entertaining the passengers at night. During festival season, his amazing instinct for single-handedly captivating an audience would often have him leaving the stage and leading a processional of joyful dancers through the grounds, like a fiddle-playing pied piper."

I've picked two songs to showcase today, the second being "In Tall Buildings" and the first being the title track from his mid-80s album, "Gum Tree Canoe". Above is a picture of John and his wife in their own gum tree canoe. I feel like the two songs combined present a picture of how I, for one, would want to rank my personal priorities in life and live them out in the spirit of John Hartford. RIP.

John Hartford - Gum Tree Canoe
My dad has always had a canoe and I grew up with these simple, yet elegant boats on every summer camping trip. In fact, we're in the midst of planning the next one for this summer and I can't stop thinking about taking the canoe out in the early morning before the rest of the campers are awake.

John Hartford - In Tall Buildings
Wouldn't it be nicer to say:
hello to the sunshine
hello to the dew
hello to the flowers
and hello to you . . .

Both of these songs as well as my favorite version of "Gentle On My Mind" are collected on an excellent compilation of Hartford's Flying Fish sides, called "Oh Me Oh My How The Time Does Fly."