Sunday, March 08, 2020

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #6 - "FEEL." Kendrick Lamar

"Ain't nobody praying for me."

I've been struggling to come up with something profound to say about this song, which begins and ends with the line quoted above.  After a few failed attempts at profundity, the most important thought to leave you with is that it's the best song on an album that is a masterpiece.  It's really best to just listen, drink it all in, and think about what he is saying, and how he is saying it.

The one semi-cogent thought to leave you with is that, during the course of the song's 3:34 running time, Lamar achieves a level of intensity that represents the very best of what music can offer.

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #6 - FEEL., Kendrick Lamar.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #7 - "She's Not Me," Jenny Lewis

The Song

A Short Story, starring Jeff, Ron and Richard (and featuring Jenny Lewis)

I. A Hot July Night, 1973

"If you don't turn that radio off, we're never going to get this show rolling."

It's July 1973.  To be specific, it's the early morning hours of July 6, 1973.  A Friday morning, although as far as we're concerned it's still Thursday night, the night after the 4th of July, and it's really, really hot.  Too hot to sleep in my book, although Morte - Richard was his first name, but back then we all called each other by our last names - is snoring quietly behind us.

Nelson (Ron was his first name) is hot under the collar because he wants us to get to the task at hand, which is throwing toilet paper all over the big tree in the front yard of the house where Kirsten lives.  Kirsten is the girl that Nelson has a crush on, and what better way to demonstrate that by decorating her front tree with toilet paper?  All I can say is that it seemed perfectly reasonable at the time.

The three of us are laying on top of sleeping bags in this little section of green space between Ron's house and mine, and I've got my little Panasonic transistor radio pushed up against my right ear, trying to find the perfect volume - loud enough for me to hear, but not loud enough to wake up my mom and dad.  Their bedroom window isn't far from where we're "sleeping," and take my word for it, it would not be good if my dad had to come outside and tell us to knock it off and go to sleep.  It would be even worse if Ron's dad came out.  He wasn't anywhere near as nice as my dad.

"Why don't you start trying to wake Morte up, instead of bugging me?  There's only three songs left."

I was listening to "The After Midnight Countdown," as they called it, on KROY - 1240 AM on your radio dial. Anyone who lived in or around Sacramento in the Sixties and Seventies should remember KROY, will probably remember a few of their DJs.  Those guys (and yes, it was all guys in those days) didn't just play records - they were personalities...heck, they were legends, and everyone had their favorite.  Mine was Bob Sherwood, but coming in a close second was Chuck Roy.  Chuck was handling the countdown on this hot night, which was a little unusual; he was usually the 3-7 p.m. guy.  Always closed his show with "Treat," by Santana, talking over the first part of the song with a monologue that was sometimes hysterically funny, and sometimes somewhat philosophical.  I guess he was having to fill in for someone on vacation.  But Chuck was not the kind of guy who was going to mope around about having to work the midnight shift on the hottest night of the year - nope, he was having a great time, cracking horrible jokes, introducing each new track with a level of enthusiasm that only he could muster.  I wish I could remember some of his jokes, but I'm confident enough in my distant memories to know that they were terrible.  They always were.  But despite the fact that it was after midnight on the night after a major holiday and heading into the weekend, meaning there were probably three people listening, Chuck was building the excitement leading up to the #1 new song like this night's countdown was going to result in the greatest musical revelation since The Beatles.

"Coming in at #3 - He's been gone for a while, and it's probably best not to ask where, but now he's back and this song sounds like it's heading all the way to the top."  

It's "If You Want Me To Stay" by Sly and the Family Stone.  I really liked this song.  It still sounds good today, but what I failed to appreciate at the time was that, as good as it was, it really didn't hold a candle to much of Sly's earlier catalog - including any of the songs on Sly's Greatest Hits album.  What I know now is that those songs were as good as anything that's ever been released, so there's no shame in not being quite that good.  Bottom line: good song, then and now.

"At #2 - He's a living legend, and boy o boy, on this new track he sounds frisky."  

This one is "Let's Get It On," by Marvin Gaye.  OK, I have a confession to make.  My 13-year old self really did not like this song.  I mean, really really really did not like it.  All I can say is that while  I think my 13-year old self had pretty damn good taste in music, no one is perfect.  I got this one wrong.  It happens.

By this time Richard was awake, and giving me a look that was half "I'm still asleep, even though my eyes are open" and half "Why the f*ck are you holding that ridiculous radio up to your ear like that?"  When you put those two halves together the outcome isn't positive, and I knew that my time listening to the Midnight Countdown was just about up.  Come on, Chuck, please don't cut to commercial, just play #1 so I can join these two idiots in our idiotic quest.

"All right folks, the song you've been waiting for - it's a new artist, one we haven't heard from before and man o man, I think you're really going to like this one.  She's from Las Vegas, Nevada, and before you turn out the lights, I want you to give a listen to Jenny..."

It was at this moment that Ron grabbed my arm, and hissed (that's really the only way to describe the sound that came from him at that moment) "All right, Vaca, we're out of here. Four rolls each."

So...of course I missed the artist's full name, and the name of the song.  I didn't even get to hear the whole song.  But what I heard, changed my life forever.  (Not really.  But it seemed so at the time.  Everything seems really dramatic when you're 13 years old).  A guitar lick, followed by a female vocal and an arrangement that blended the best of early Seventies Soul with the best of early Seventies pop.  As we packed up, I even got to hear a little snippet of an awesomely cool guitar solo near the end, right before Ron ripped the radio out of my hand, turned it off, and threw it on the sleeping bag.

The toilet paper?  It went to good use.  A guy a couple of years older than us, who lived across the street from Kirsten, even came out to help out a bit.  And he - if memory serves, his name was Ned - contributed the piece de resistance to our little crusade.  The thing that turned something epic into something epicly stupid - an M-80 firecracker, which we lit on the front porch of Kirsten's house.  Yes, we really did do dumb things like that back then, and the one thing I really remember about that night is how hard we were all laughing as we frantically ran down the street, back to our relatively safe haven.  No one saw us, no one heard us (or if they did, it was late enough that they chalked it up to experience), and eventually we went to sleep.

The #1 song that I didn't quite get to hear?  Oh well - a song that good, I would hear it again. That's what I told myself at the time.

Except I never did.  Not even once.  And because this was the way my mind worked at the time (and truth be told, not much has changed), I clung to those short snippets of music - creating an entire song in my mind, imagining who "Jenny" was and what might have happened to her, wondering most of all how such an incredible song could just slip into the darkness like that.  Over the years, I began to wonder if that part of the night was a dream.  Maybe I was the one snoring quietly, and not Richard.

II. A Hot July Night, 2014

I bought four CDs on the way home from work that day, but only had time to listen to three of them before heading to bed.  It was another hot July night, one of those nights where you have trouble deciding whether to open the windows when you go to bed, or just leave the AC on all night.  We chose the latter, but then faced the first-world dilemma of trying to find that exact temperature that a) will allow you to sleep restfully, while b) not having to cover up with a bunch of blankets that at some point during the night will leave you overheated and soaked with sweat.  I failed in the effort, leaving myself wide awake at 3 in the morning. Not wanting to wake Debra, but wanting desperately to do something other than toss and turn and worry about the work day ahead of me, I decided to make myself relatively useful and give a listen to the last new CD of the day: "The Voyager," by Jenny Lewis.

I would imagine that, like most music fans, my first exposure to Lewis had come via her lead role in the band Rilo Kiley, which made at least a couple of great albums in the "decade of the aughts."  Her album with the Watson Twins was one that I bought on the strength of the cover photo alone, thinking that an album with a cover that good had to have some great music inside.  That theory has not always worked for me, but in this instance it did.

The album's opener, "Head Underwater," was a promising start.  That segued into "She's Not Me," and...

Have you ever felt the feeling that follows when your heart literally skips a beat?  The first time it happened, it scared the you-know-what out of me.  I was having some particularly bad digestive problems at the time, and one of the side effects was a slightly irregular heartbeat.  In any event, it's unnerving because you can literally feel your heart stop beating for a moment, and then you get this feeling of light-headedness, and then (hopefully) everything goes back to normal.

That feeling is exactly what happened when "She's Not Me" began playing.  And I was instantly transported back to that hot July night, 41 years earlier, the night I spent with Ron and Richard throwing toilet paper over a tree and lighting a firecracker on the front porch of the house where a girl lived that Ron really wanted to ask out.  Because this was the song that Chuck Roy played that night, and then disappeared into the darkness for four decades.

Of course, I know that's impossible.  But I'm telling you, that's exactly what happened.  And this is what it sounded like:

I lost track of Richard a long time ago.  Tragically, Ron took his life in the 1980s, after a bad breakup.  He always did wear his heart on his sleeve, even if it sometimes took the odd form of throwing toilet paper.  My mom and dad still live in the house, but the place between what was then "our" house and Ron's is all paved over, and my guess is that no one in their right mind would allow their 13-year olds to sleep overnight in the front yard in this day and age.  I'm not even sure if Chuck Roy is still alive, though I'm pretty sure now that "Chuck Roy" wasn't his real name.

What is left are the memories of a hot July night, and this song.

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #7 - "She's Not Me," Jenny Lewis.