Monday, September 5, 2011

Song Lyric of the Day (Dan Peek of “America,” “Glad to See” God)

“God, I'm glad to see you
I thought you'd left me far away
I wouldn't give much to be you
But I want you to know I feel this way.”—“Glad to See You,” written by Dan Peek, from the Holiday LP by America (1974)

It’s funny how, for some strange reason, images from the past, no matter how inconsequential to the course of your life, linger in your memory. One such for me comes from March 1975, when I stepped onto the campus of Columbia University for the first time, attending a convention for high-school journalists. My small group entered the student-affairs building to discuss what we’d seen on display earlier in the day.

We were all a little tired from the damp late-winter weather and how our paper suffered in comparison with other papers in competition when we heard a simple but lovely tune coming from a piano in the corner. Nobody sang, but, from constant playing of the record since late the prior year, I recognized the tune instantly: “Glad to See You,” from the bestselling Holiday album by America.

One of the glories of that bygone era of album-oriented radio in those years was that you could embrace a “deep cut” from the LP and disregard the hit singles, if you liked. And so it was with me, as I took to this song at the expense of the megaseller “Tin Man.”

The America band member who composed “Glad to See You,” along with Holiday’s second major single, “Lonely People,” Dan Peek, passed away in his sleep in late July at age 60. The event didn’t get anywhere near the amount of press accorded to Amy Winehouse, not to mention another Seventies musician of roughly the same age, Andrew Gold, let alone two composers of some of the most recorded music of the Fifties and Sixties, Jerry Leiber (“On Broadway”) and Nick Ashford (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”).

Over the weekend, I happened to be checking out songs from YouTube when I noticed all sorts of tributes to Peek in the wake of his death. The one that especially moved me was a medley of “Glad to See You” and another Peek tune, “Tomorrow,” performed by a singer-pianist only identified as “Larry.”

The only clue I could find about the latter was the setting for the video: his home. It seems highly possible, if not likely, that he’s simply an America fan.

The production on this cover version is simple, certainly featuring nothing like the multi-instrumental textures employed by George Martin (performing the same kind of magic that he did for the Beatles) in the studio with Peek and America bandmates Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell. (To listen to the original Holiday version of the song, click here for the YouTube link.)

But “Larry’s” single piano brings to the fore a song simple in the same way that a Shaker hymn is: well-crafted, heartfelt and soaring. Most of those commenting on YouTube were as moved as I was by the sensitive performance.

But one person drew my attention to something I had never seriously considered before: the song’s spiritual nature. When I first heard it as a teenager, I thought of its use of the word “God” in it as simply a secular exclamation point, rather than an address to the Almighty. I wouldn’t be surprised if others had a similar reaction: invocations of God, not necessarily common at that time, might be even less so now, and the rest of the song is not particularly explicit on the point.

(America, of course, is a band sometimes given to cryptic lyrics, most famously in “Horse With No Name.” Reading over the sheer variety of meanings attached to the latter in this link made me howl with laughter.)

Another YouTube comment about “Glad to See You” made me reassess Peek’s career, his partnership with Beckley and Bunnell, and, more generally, rock ‘n’ rollers’ relationship to audiences in general. Beckley and Bunnell, that person indicated, had not performed this song in their more recent concerts.

Why not? I wondered. Before yielding to the temptation to say they just didn’t want to perform anything by Peek, who left the band in 1977 (more on this in a bit), it bears remembering that they include “Lonely People” in their act.

There’s another way to think of this, I think: “Glad to See You” never became a hit, and if you are at pains to give audiences what they want (as America, evidently, is: one friend told me that at a concert of Beckley’s and Bunnell’s he attended not too long ago, he could close his eyes and swear he was listening to studio versions of songs), you’re going to cut back on anything in a catalogue not a hit.

Too bad: fine songs can get overlooked that way. In the case of “Glad to See You,” audiences are shortchanged on an experience that, like the more obvious “Lonely People,” has the capacity to lift the heart from its depths.

The first couple of lines from the song should have clued me (and others) into where this was coming from: “Bells ring in my ear,/Voices I hear,/Whispering daily to me.” It is the aural experience of church.

Lines in the second and third stanzas could be about anyone so mired in their own circumstances that they can’t respond to such a transcendent spiritual experience: “I’m watching the show/The last one to know/Which way that things are going.”

That, in fact, was what was happening to Peek, as he became caught up in the exhaustion, stress and temptations of a touring rock ‘n’ roll band. In 1977, feeling that this lifestyle was taking years off his life, he quit the band he helped found. Within a few years, he had become a major part of the burgeoning Christian pop/rock scene.

Hearing God and the angels “whispering daily to me” might make you stop and reconsider your way of life, but it doesn’t mean that you’ll turn everything around on a dime. Nor does it mean that you won’t suffer disappointment once you commit to God, as Peek discovered later when Beckley and Bunnell decided, given their different musical directions over the years, that a reunion of the trio would probably be counterproductive.

But a spiritual turnaround begins with the recognition Peek had in this song: that God has not, in fact, “left me far away.” It involves rising to one’s feet and taking the first uncertain, even tumbling, steps forward.

Peek might have died this summer, but there’s a very real possibility he would have ended up like Winehouse had he not decided to take the anguished but necessary step of leaving his longtime friends (and fellow Air Force brats) Beckley and Bunnell 34 years before. The voice of God can’t merely whisper, it has to scream to be heard in the life he lived before then, the same kind that the Byrds had evoked in the prior decade in “So You Wanna Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”: “The price you paid for your riches and fame/Was it all a strange game? You’re a little insane.”

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