Sunday, October 25, 2020

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Bill Bradley, on the Moral Questions That Politics Avoids)

“How can a people that wages war on nature reflect God? How can a society with grating poverty amidst great wealth remain just? What is it that guides one through life? What is it that one yearns and strives for? Politics shrinks from even acknowledging these basic questions. It is easier to give a response based on a poll than one that flows from your heart.”—Former U.S. Senator from New Jersey, Presidential candidate, and New York Knicks basketball player Bill Bradley, Time Present, Time Past: A Memoir (1996)

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Flashback, Fall 1980: Righteous Brothers Cover Lifts Hall and Oates’ ‘Voices’

Hall and Oates had already recorded all their projected songs for their album Voices, but they still felt another was needed. An oldies tune they heard on a jukebox near their New York City studio, they quickly realized, was the missing ingredient in their mix.

The only cut on their LP not written by the duo, “You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling”—released in late September and climbing the charts rapidly in October 40 years ago—fit perfectly with the aural tone they were trying to achieve in their first self-produced album. More important, it marked a turning point in their careers, launching a string of platinum-selling albums and helping them sell out arenas in the first half of the Eighties.

It marked quite a turn from the start of 1980. After Top 10 hits such as “Rich Girl,” Sara Smile,” and “She’s Gone,” Daryl Hall and John Oates had struggled in their albums of the late Seventies to stay at that level. The best they could manage was the single “Wait for Me,” which only reached No. 18 on the charts.

Part of the problem was how to mesh their interest in “new wave” music with the “Philadelphia Sound” of rhythm and blues that they had grown up with—or, as the title of their greatest hits album several years later put it, “Rock and Soul.”

Hall and Oates and their record label, RCA, could have been forgiven for thinking the first single from Voices, the optimistically titled “How Does It Feel to Be Back,” would mark their return to their pop peak. With its use of a jangly Rickenbacker guitar, it was, as I heard a WNEW-FM refer to it at the time, “The Beatles Meet Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.” But it only made it to the Top 30, down a bit even from “Wait for Me.”

Ultimately, the duo’s instinct for the song they needed to complete their album proved fortunate. Subsequently, they differed slightly on exactly where they heard “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (Hall recalled it being played in a downtown nightspot called the Mudd Club, while Oates remembered in his 2017 memoir Change of Seasons that they were in a pizza joint). But each recollected that the Righteous Brothers hit came at the end of their recording sessions, that they recognized how compatible it would be with their own vocal style, and that they recorded the song with the rest of their band the next day in only a few hours.

Only the year before, for his 52nd Street album, Billy Joel had paid lavish tribute to the Righteous Brothers with “Until the Night,” matching his own lyrics and melody to the grandiloquent “Wall of Sound” employed by their producer, Phil Spector. This time, though, Hall and Oates set the classic Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil composition in what Oates called the “punchy and sleek” style of the rest of their LP—one that avoided overdubs.

For all the difference in aural arrangements, Hall and Oates harked back to the vocal style of their predecessors as purveyors of “blue-eyed soul”: Oates emulating the dark baritone of Bill Medley, Hall finding his groove in an approximation of Bobby Hatfield’s falsetto.

Their instinct for the right song for them was justified by events in the fall of 1980. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” climbed to Number 12 on the charts, bettering the performance of “How Does It Feel to Be Back” and giving Voices continued radio exposure—and then the deluge:

*“Kiss on My List,” Hall’s collaboration with Janna Allen, sister of his girlfriend Sara, vaulted to Number 1 shortly after the new year;

*The ebullient “You Make My Dreams” jumped to Number 5;

*Propelled by its four singles, Voices spent 100 weeks—nearly two years—on the Billboard chart.

Having achieved success themselves with a cover song, Hall and Oates a few years later saw a younger artist score a hit with one of their Voices songs: the ballad “Every Time You Go Away,” which British singer Paul Young took to Number 1.

As the British singer Joe Jackson would do in a couple of years with his albums Steppin’ Out and Body and Soul, Hall and Oates felt that their sound benefited from exposure to the polyglot sounds of New York City:

“Living in New York at the time, you had punk and New Wave,” Oates told David Chiu in an interview for the Web site Ultimate Classic Rock. “We were living in the Village. We were in the vortex of all this energy that was happening. And so the music reflected it. It always has reflected where we were at the moment and the environmental and social influences of what was going on around us, because as songwriters, that's all you really have to use as your inspiration.”

The pair continued to record in the same vein in their subsequent LPs in the next few years: Private Eyes, H2O, and Big Bam Boom. Buoyed by MTV videos that, though laughable by their own admission, gave them additional exposure, they achieved superstar status.

“The momentum and success of Voices ushered in the next wild chapter of our career,” Oates recalled in Change of Seasons. “We had done it. We had produced ourselves and in doing so, tapped into the core of who we were as writers, artists, and producers. We’d once again found a sound. There was no turning back, but we had no idea what lay ahead. As it turned out, this new phase was, for many fans, the beginning of Hall and Oates.”

Amazingly, unlike, say, the Everly Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel, Hall and Oates have been able to maintain their partnership unfractured. Each was adept not only at singing, but also at songwriting and playing multiple instruments. Neither, then, felt threatened or jealous of the other’s skills, and they have not differed radically over the direction of their music. The result is that they have stayed together long enough to become the most successful duo in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Quote of the Day (Edgar Allan Poe, on a Jesting Dwarf’s Revenge on a Sadistic Leader)

[Hop-Frog the dwarf-jester said to the king]: “ ‘Just after your majesty, had struck the girl and thrown the wine in her face…there came into my mind a capital diversion—one of my own country frolics—often enacted among us, at our masquerades: but here it will be new altogether….I will equip you as ourang-outangs…. The resemblance shall be so striking, that the company of masqueraders will take you [the king and his seven advisers] for real beasts—and of course, they will be as much terrified as astonished…’.

“And now, while the whole assembly (the apes included) were convulsed with laughter, the jester suddenly uttered a shrill whistle; when the chain flew violently up for about thirty feet— dragging with it the dismayed and struggling ourang-outangs, and leaving them suspended in mid-air between the sky-light and the floor….

" ‘Ah, ha!’; said at length the infuriated jester. ‘Ah, ha! I begin to see who these people are now!’ Here, pretending to scrutinize the king more closely, he held the flambeau to the flaxen coat which enveloped him, and which instantly burst into a sheet of vivid flame. In less than half a minute the whole eight ourang-outangs were blazing fiercely, amid the shrieks of the multitude who gazed at them from below, horror-stricken, and without the power to render them the slightest assistance….

“The dwarf seized his opportunity, and once more spoke:

“ ‘I now see distinctly,’ he said, ‘what manner of people these maskers are. They are a great king and his seven privy-councillors,—a king who does not scruple to strike a defenseless girl and his seven councillors who abet him in the outrage. As for myself, I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester--and this is my last jest.’

“Owing to the high combustibility of both the flax and the tar to which it adhered, the dwarf had scarcely made an end of his brief speech before the work of vengeance was complete. The eight corpses swung in their chains, a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass. The cripple hurled his torch at them, clambered leisurely to the ceiling, and disappeared through the sky-light.”—American short-story writer, poet, and essayist Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), “Hop-Frog” (1849)

Years ago, I read numerous tales by Edgar Allan Poe for my high school and college English classes. But I had never focused on this late story until I read an essay on the horror and suspense maven in Neil Gaiman’s nonfiction collection, The View From the Cheap Seats (2016)

Gaiman hailed this story’s “terrible and appropriate cruelty,” and it has taken on other implications than those suggested when it first appeared in print. (Some critics believed at the time that this was Poe’s vicarious vengeance on those who questioned his courtship of a couple of women; others thought it arose from the revolts that had occurred in several European countries in 1848.)

Contemporary readers might point to other elements of the central characterization here: a leader who is caustic, abusive towards women, and mocking the disabled, who at length goes too far, triggering a spontaneous retaliation against himself and his corrupt toadies.

A chain, once used to facilitate oppression, becomes a means of liberation. The king’s counselors, who enable his sadism and abuses of power by cheering him on, share in his downfall.

Their fate also mirrors their relationship to the king and to each other while they were alive: “a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass”—a warning that retribution, though coming late to men who exploit the marginalized and defenseless and to the circle that excuses these crimes, will surely arrive nonetheless.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Quote of the Day (Roald Dahl, on the Presence of a Ghost)

“The best ghost stories don’t have ghosts in them. At least you don’t see the ghost. Instead you see only the result of his actions. Occasionally you can feel it brushing past you, or you are made aware of its presence by subtle means… If a story does permit a ghost to be seen, then he doesn’t look like one. He looks like an ordinary person.”— British novelist, short-story writer, poet, screenwriter, and wartime fighter pilot Roald Dahl (1916-1990), introduction to Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories (1983)

(The image accompanying this post shows Claire Bloom and Julie Harris in the Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting, an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s chilling novel The Haunting of Hill House. Believe me, the atmosphere of this movie is about as far as you can get from the one Wise would make only two years later, the box-office smash The Sound of Music.)

Joke of the Day (Becca Kohler, on Fantasy Football)

“When my boyfriend plays fantasy football, I play fantasy new boyfriend.”—Canadian comedian Becca Kohler quoted in “Laughter: The Best Medicine,” Reader’s Digest, September 2015

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Photo of the Day: Rain Garden, Mahwah NJ

I took this photo at the start of this month while in Mahwah, at the northern edge of Bergen County, NJ. This rain garden, next to Winter’s Pond, filters rain water coming off hard surfaces such as roadways, driveways, parking lots and rooftops. The wildflower meadow here, seeded a year ago, filters and absorbs stormwater runoff and its pollutants before they enter groundwater and waterways. 

Quote of the Day (Roy Blount, Jr., on the Fine Art of Yodeling)

“In the abstract, yodeling may make us think of Walt Whitman’s ‘barbaric yawp,’ but a good streak of yodeling is elevated. It’s ageless, classless, beyond gender. Male yodelers come from deeper down and make a bigger jump into falsetto, but when any yodeler, young or old, commences gargling melody, he or she seems possessed, transported—not in a swoony American Idol way but as if the yodeler is channeling a bouncy, olden spirit. It’s not the yodeler doing the tonsil-juggling, it’s the yodel. An Aeolian harp being dragged by a horse—pleasingly— over washboard terrain. Steel guitar blended with locomotive chugga-chugga. Dozens of Easter eggs tumbling down a chute.” — Southern humorist and all-around man of letters Roy Blount, Jr., “Gone Off Up North: American Yawp,” Oxford American, Issue 58, Fall 2007 (Southern Music Issue Vol. IX)         

Since childhood, I had heard yodeling on TV and in movie theaters. But it is a whole different experience to hear it live, as I did 34 years ago when I first set foot in Switzerland. That night, several middle-aged men in lederhosen carried on vocally in the most carefree, merry fashion.

According to this piece by Roy Blount Jr., the Alpine version of yodeling did not derive from such close, intimate company, but rather from communicating over distances, where “your voice goes way up high….People addressing one another, or their goats or whatever, from Alp to Alp would have to shift way up high. They would have to use their clutch….And then, lacking many other forms of entertainment, they’d fool around with it some, yo-ohhh-d’ly-o’dly.”

You may have guessed, from what I’ve just written, that I’m hardly a longtime aficionado of this vocal form. But, after reading and listening (in guest appearance on NPR’s quiz show, Wait, Wait... Don’t Tell Me!) to Blount over the years, I was eager to discover what he had to say on the subject. I was not disappointed.

Few writers can match Blount for his rollicking, energetic gusto. I particularly love how he conveys the tactile experience of listening to yodeling that you get from this passage. It’s great how he juxtaposes ethereal words (“elevated,.” “falsetto,” “transported,” “swoony”) with decidedly earthier ones (“gargling,” “tonsil-joggling,” “chugga-chugga,” “tumbling”).

At the same time, he gives a concise, fun history of the great (Jimmy Rodgers, Cliff Carlisle, Ranger Doug of Riders in the Sky, Caroline Cotton, Emmett Miller) and the not-so-great (Johnny Cash and Jimmie Dale Gilmore) practitioners of yodeling.

(Yes, as you might suspect, the image accompanying this post depicts the singer Jewel, who, as Blount notes in this article, can “yodel her buns off.” When she performs “Chime Bells,” he observes, “It’s like seeing somebody who’s been drifting around on a big lilypad suddenly catch hold of a ski-rope and take off boogity-shoot over choppy water. All right! Now we’re hooking onto something!” If you don’t believe me—or Blount—then listen to her in this YouTube clip and judge for yourself.)