Thursday, May 14, 2009

Night Movies

Bob Seger’s song “Night Moves” is so famous that it scarcely needs an introduction. Having heard the song on the radio yesterday while running errands, I realized I hadn’t listened to it for quite a long time. Returning home, I was compelled to find out what people have said about it over the years. A web search turned up dozens and dozens of references to the song, but I found myself amused by what I found on a website known as Songfacts. Here is the link to the Songfacts discussion of the song, but before I discuss the assertions to be found there, here are the lyrics:

I was a little too tall, could’ve used a few pounds
Tight pants, points, hardly renowned
She was a black-haired beauty with big dark eyes
And points all her own sittin’ way up high
Way up firm and high
Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy
Out in the back seat of my ‘60 Chevy
Workin’ on mysteries without any clues
Workin’ on our night moves
Trying’ to make some front page drive-in news
Workin’ on our night moves . . . in the summertime
In the sweet summertime

We weren’t in love—oh no far from it
We weren’t searching for some pie in the sky summit
We were just young, and restless, and bored
Livin’ by the sword
And we’d steal away every chance we could
To the backroom, to the alley, or the trusty woods
I used her, she used me, but neither one cared
We were getting our share, workin’ on our night moves
Trying to lose the awkward teenage blues
Workin’ on our night moves
And it was summertime
Sweet summertime . . . summertime

And . . . oh, the wonder . . . I felt the lightning
Yeah, and I waited on the thunder
Waited on the thunder

I woke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off? I sat and wondered
Started humming a song from 1962
Ain’t it funny how the night moves
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose
Strange how the night moves
With autumn closin’ in
Night moves . . . night moves
Night moves . . . night moves
Ain’t it funny how you remember
I remember, I remember, I remember . . .

Here are some of the assertions one can find on Songfacts, followed by my rebuttal:

“Fact”: Bob Seger revealed in an interview that the “song from 1962” he refers to in the lyrics is “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes.
PROBLEM: “Be My Baby” wasn’t released until August 1963. Assuming this interview with Bob Seger ever took place at all, one might conclude that Bob Seger is either lying or he has a bad memory, but there’s another way to interpret his claim, which is to interpret it as a proverbial “Freudian slip.” Since the song tries to invoke the nostalgic past, or at least a teenage nostalgic past, Seger’s revelation that he was inspired to write the song after seeing George Lucas’s American Graffiti, released in August 1973, may be true. The tagline on that film’s 1973 theatrical poster is, “Where were you in ’62?” Seger’s confusing the year of “Be My Baby” with the tagline of American Graffiti reveals the way the song draws from motion picture images, from re-presentations of the 1960s, to make sense of the past. What all this reveals, of course, is that the song is really about time, his alienation from the past of his youth (“summertime”) and the weight of age (“autumn”). This sort of high romanticism is characteristic of Seger’s best music.

“Fact”: The song is autobiographical. “The girl had a boyfriend away in the military, and when he came back, she married him, breaking Seger’s heart.”
PROBLEM: “We weren’t in love—oh no far from it . . . we were just young, and restless, and bored.” The lyrics operate at such a high level of generalization (“black-haired beauty with big dark eyes”) that any specific reference to a flesh-and-blood human female is impossible. Change the line to “raven-tressed beauty with pale skin and big dark eyes” and you have one of those dark, mysterious, and provocative women that populate the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Moreover, the actual time period when these activities—by rather stereotyped teenagers, I might add—took place is as elusive as are the period settings in the stories of Poe. Because of the broad level of generalization, the time period could be the 1950s as easily as the 1960s—and that’s just the point. The images in the song are drawn from representations of the 1950s and 60s—that is, from later movies that are set during this historic time period. If the song is about the singer’s memory, curiously, it is a collective memory, not an individualized or specific one.

The problem with this autobiographical reading is that if he and the black-haired beauty with big dark eyes were “Trying to lose the awkward teenage blues” (the singer assumes we all know what he means by this, that we are all drawing from the same source of cultural knowledge), what is the age of the (unrepresentable) boyfriend away in the military? After all, teenagers having sex in the back seat of an automobile is painfully stereotyped teenage behavior. For teenagers, like most people, it was a whole lot easier then, as it is now, to have sex in bed, or on the living room floor for that matter. For some reason, however, the singer and the black-haired beauty with big dark eyes (according to the autobiographical reading, the proverbial mouse who played while the cat was away) preferred the back seat of a Chevy, an alley, or a backroom. Obviously the memory the song is about isn’t about “unrequited love” at all, but about the pleasures of transgression, of illicit sex. “Neither one cared” because they both equally relished the deliciousness of the illicit relationship. So the song is arguably about a memory that may have been, an erotic fantasy that occurred with a girl-who-never-was. The problem with those who prefer the autobiographical approach is that they mistakenly believe there exists a clear window with an unobstructed view of their subject. No such window exists, just as no memory exists apart from desire. The point is, the lyrics may be a representation of past experience, but that doesn’t mean they are literally autobiographical. It’s possible to argue that the song succeeds precisely because it captures a collective form of experience, not the experience of a single individual.

“Fact”: He really did screw the black-haired beauty with big dark eyes with the boyfriend away in the military in the back seat of his ‘62 Chevy. BUT . . . 62 (three syllables) didn’t fit lyrically, so he changed it to 60 (two syllables).
PROBLEM: How do we know it was actually a Chevy and not a Ford? After all, most biographical information about Bob Seger indicates he was born in Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit; Ford Motor Company is based in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit. Why not sing “62 Ford,” since his birth took place in a hospital named after the automobile-making benefactor Henry Ford? “62 Ford” has the same number of syllables as “60 Chevy.” Why does he say a Chevy rather than a Ford? Well, because “Chevy” rhymes with “heavy,” as in, “where the woods got heavy.” But he could have written the lyrics as follows:

Out past the cornfields where the woods became dense
In the back seat of my ’62 Ford
We were just young, and restless, and bored
Workin’ on our night moves

If this revision doesn’t seem as poetic as the lyrics in the actual song, that’s because it isn’t, although Ford rhymes with bored, and who knows how many times he re-arranged the lyrics? The point is, does it make any difference whatsoever whether it was a Ford, Chevy, Dodge, Nash or Rambler? Apparently, “Chevy” has something more all-American about it than “Ford,” and we all know that Chevrolet later used Bob Seger’s song “Like A Rock” for an advertising campaign. Perhaps the Chevrolet division of General Motors appreciated his reference to “Chevy” in the multi-platinum selling “Night Moves,” and decided to repay the favor. So much for his allegiance to Ford Motor Company and the Henry Ford Hospital in which he was born.

A friend of mine, now retired, once told me an anecdote about going to the movies. He had just seen the James Dean film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and upon exiting the darkened theater was amused to notice that fellow male viewers of the film were standing in the lobby practicing their best James Dean imitation. His anecdote is illustrative of the power movies have over our imaginations and the construction of our identities. It is interesting that Night Moves is also the name of a 1975 film starring Gene Hackman—even the title of Bob Seger’s song is derived from a movie. The lesson: Artists are notorious liars (although perhaps not intentionally so), and therefore the last person you should trust to explain the meaning of an artwork is the artist himself.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On The Town

Raymond Williams observed in his classic, The Country and the City, “’Country’ and ‘city’ are very powerful words, and this is not surprising when we remember how much they seem to stand for in the experience of human communities.... In the long history of human settlements, this connection between the land from which directly or indirectly we all get our living and the achievements of human society has been deeply known. And one of these achievements has been the city: the capital, the large town, a distinctive form of civilisation. . . . On the city has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light. Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness and ambition . . .”

F. W. Murnau’s justly famous film Sunrise (1927) realizes the contradictions Williams identifies in a rather revealing way: a (naïve) country bumpkin goes to the big city and his life is almost ruined by a wicked temptress. Only the last-minute realization of his deep love for his guileless wife prevents him from certain destruction at the hands of the city woman, the femme fatale. Hence while the city is associated with sophistication and learning, it is also associated with temptation and corruption–feminine guile. In Pretty Woman (1990), for instance, the film that made Julia Roberts into a Hollywood star, the city is also associated with corruption, its opening scenes set on Hollywood Boulevard, with its long parade of hookers and prostitutes. The city woman from Sunrise is among them somewhere.

The word town is derived from the Old English tūn, meaning enclosure, village, or town; the word city is generally used to designate a community of greater size, population, or importance than a town or village. By way of analogy, town is to city as creek is to river, or sea to ocean, although city and town are often used interchangeably, and in any case both actually refer to some geographic place of some indeterminate size. Since the size of the population is irrelevant, to refer to one’s town or hometown is to refer to a community in which one’s identity is remorselessly known and rigidly fixed, a place where one is “stereotyped” and boxed in. In his song, “Small Town,” John Mellencamp sings:

No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
eah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be

But this is a myth, of course: since anonymity in a small town is impossible (unlike the liminal space opened up by the anonymity of New York City in Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s On the Town), people will never let you be just what you want to be. Here’s Gene Pitney:

If we stop to gaze upon a star
People talk about how bad we are
Ours is not an easy age
We’re like tigers in a cage
What a town without pity can do

He goes on to ask, “Why don’t they help us, try to help us/Before this clay and granite planet falls apart?” In a small town, as in a big city, the familiar “townspeople” can very easily transform into the members of a faceless and hostile crowd, as they do in, say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The horror realized in that film isn’t that people are replaced by pods, but that anonymous crowds aren’t supposed to exist in small towns. It’s not surprising, then, that popular music expresses the same ambivalence toward the town and city: songs like “Downtown” may talk about the fun of being where the action is, but songs like “Poor Side of Town” talk about the hope of escaping rigid class distinctions.

Twenty Songs On The Town:
The Beach Boys – Leavin’ This Town
Petula Clark – Downtown
Rick Danko, Jonas Fjeld, Eric Andersen – Wrong Side Of Town
The Dream Academy – Life In A Northern Town
Steve Earle – Guitar Town
Billy Joel – Uptown Girl
Lipps, Inc. – Funkytown
Gene McDaniels – It’s A Lonely Town
John Mellencamp – Small Town
Roy Orbison – Uptown
Gene Pitney – Town Without Pity
Chris Rea – Windy Town
Stan Ridgway – Lonely Town
Johnny Rivers – Poor Side of Town
Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes – Love On The Wrong Side of Town
Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town
The Stray Cats – Rock This Town
U2 – Red Hill Mining Town
The Vogues – Magic Town
Bill Withers – Lonely Town, Lonely Street

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

About Ten Perfect Pop Songs

Yesterday, I came across this list put together by guitarist Jay Ferguson, in which the artist has assembled what he considers as the ten perfect pop songs ever recorded. While I found the list and his accompanying discussions quite fascinating, I also found myself wanting to take issue with his choices, but then I remembered that the whole purpose of lists is to be provocative. Early punk rockers were fond of posting lists (I Like…/I Don’t Like…) for precisely the purpose of being provocative, and they were frequently successful. Since we live in an age of aphorisms (statements of personal taste) rather than one of axioms (universally accepted truths that are potentially falsifiable), it is impossible to post a list consisting of “the ten perfect pop songs” without the list appearing as capricious, nothing but a highly individualized statement of personal taste.

So what makes a perfect pop song? Rather than appeal to formal qualities only (melody or hook, for instance), I think the perfect pop song must 1) have achieved some degree of notoriety at inception (it was successful, controversial, provocative, etc.); and must 2) have transcended the historical moment in which it first appeared. These criteria thus allow for the inclusion of the “one-hit wonder,” many of which have remained remarkably persistent over the years, but also allow for a certain “timeless” quality in the song, in the sense that it has demonstrated an appeal to more than one generation. The real trick is to limit oneself to ten—why? Why pick only ten flavors of jellybeans when you’re in a store with literally dozens of flavors? Thus to limit oneself to ten is really just a parlor game, but that’s fine. I’ll play—but because I’m recalcitrant, I’ll list eleven instead. The following list tries to avoid naming only what I would consider my “personal favorites,” and also tends to avoid naming only rock ‘n’ roll songs.

One of the things that struck me about Jay Ferguson’s list of the ten perfect pop songs is that he did not list any songs by perhaps the most famous pop singers of all time (in America at least), figures such as—to name a very few—Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, and Patsy Cline. My list tries to acknowledge these figures. After all, Louis Armstrong created the image of the pop singer as artist in the first place, and without him establishing this image, the whole idea of “ten perfect pop songs” would be literally unthinkable. And how can you ignore Frank Sinatra, one of the most highly successful and popular singers America has known, and who created the idea of an album being a unified whole, not a haphazard assembly of 2-3 minute songs? Limiting a list to so very few is rife with problems, but nonetheless here is my list of eleven perfect pop songs:

1. What A Wonderful World, Louis Armstrong
Armstrong’s rough, gravelly voice is instantly recognizable and is known world-wide. Despite the limitations of his voice, he was a great singer, and “What A Wonderful World” has proved its durability by being a hit single several times over several decades—when it was first released in 1968, when it was re-released in the early 1970s following his death, and a hit again when it appeared on the soundtrack to Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). Remember that it was Armstrong’s version of “Hello, Dolly!” in 1964 that knocked the Beatles off the top of the Billboard chart, which they had so long dominated.

2. It Never Entered My Mind, Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra’s album In the Wee Small Hours (1955) is one of pop music’s finest records. Every song on the album is an expression of a different dramatic persona. Sinatra approached a song like an actor approaching a role, seeking to express not himself but a character, with the song being like an inner monologue. There is no singer today who hasn’t been influenced by Sinatra’s use of the microphone; whether he or she is conscious of this fact is irrelevant. I love this song for its dramatic idea and for his phrasing—pop music at its finest.

3. Yesterday, The Beatles
The success and durability of this pop ballad goes without saying. Certainly it is among the greatest of Lennon-McCartney’s pop songs. If the Guinness Book of Records is correct, “Yesterday” has the most cover versions of any song ever written. Most certainly it gave rise to the short-lived Sixties genre known as “Baroque rock.”

4. Smoke From A Distant Fire, The Sanford Townsend Band
Session players and songwriters Ed Sanford and John Townsend struck gold with this one huge hit, and what a song it is. Again, I love the idea of this song, in the same vein as the Righteous Brothers’ “You've Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” except it is more raucous and less lugubrious. If one were to make a list of those pop songs ideally suited for Top 40 radio, most certainly this would be one of them.

5. Kentucky Rain, Elvis Presley
The music made by Elvis during and after his 1968 “comeback” has to be some of the finest music of his career. In this song—and every song on 1969’s From Elvis in Memphis for that matter—his singing was strong, dramatic, and heartfelt. I loved this song when I first heard it forty years ago, and I still do—it is impossible for me to turn off the radio if this song is playing. It features a great arrangement, a strong melody, and of course wonderfully emotive vocals.

6. (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, Aretha Franklin
Former President Bill Clinton named Aretha Franklin “a national treasure,” and songs such as this flawless pop recording indicate why he did so. She of course has many hits and many fine albums, but this song is an ideal demonstration of her voice.

7. She’s Got You, Patsy Cline
Make no mistake: Patsy Cline was a pop singer, not a country singer, and man, could she sing. She recorded many fine songs, but I’ve always liked this one (this, and “Poor Man’s Roses”) the best. The song structure is very economical, to be sure, but the lyrical content is more about loneliness than heartbreak—and that’s what Patsy Cline’s voice could capture so very well—loneliness.

8. 867-5309/Jenny, Tommy Tutone
Perhaps it’s a “one-hit wonder,” but I think this is very nearly a perfect pop song: a great hook, chiming guitars, a driving rhythm, and a brilliant idea—improbably, a love song to a fallen woman the singer has never met.

9. Everybody Plays the Fool, The Main Ingredient
This is a pop song that is warm, genuine, melodic—and carries the sting of truth. Although by no means a group known primarily as being a one-hit wonder, “Everybody Plays the Fool” became The Main Ingredient’s biggest and best-known hit, and an auspicious beginning to the group’s Cuba Gooding, Sr. period. Gooding’s lead vocal has a humanness to it that the best pop singers have always had.

10. Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, Willie Nelson
There’s no doubt in my mind that Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger is one of the all-time best pop albums ever made—and no, it ain’t “country.” Willie Nelson is a great songwriter, not a great country songwriter. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” is a sparse, haunting ballad that rests on the painful truth that love is either waxing or waning (in this case the latter), and features only Willie’s distinctive voice and his old, battered, Spanish guitar.

11. Rainy Night in Georgia, Brook Benton
Is it possible for a song to break your heart? If it is, this pop song from 1970 does it to me. “Rainy Night in Georgia” was written by Tony Joe White, but Brook Benton got the hit from it. Haunting, melancholic, impossible to turn off if it is playing on the radio, “Rainy Night in Georgia” is nothing less than perfect studio production coupled with superb pop songwriting. It is also a perfect realization of the so-called “sympathetic fallacy,” in which nature seemingly reflects one’s inner state of mind (psyche).

Monday, May 11, 2009

Teacher's Pet

The role of the teacher can be best understood as someone who provides the student with two kinds of knowledge. Following Gilbert Ryle, these kinds of knowledge are knowing how and knowing that. A teacher who “knows how” may teach a special form of craftsmanship (knowing how to make, build, play, design, or draw something), or may teach a specialized vocation (how to install, repair, rebuild, or fix something, for instance). But the form of knowledge of knowing that is different than knowing how: just because I know how to ride a bicycle, for instance, doesn’t mean that you know how to ride a bicycle, while on the other hand, you and I may both know that it is cold, rainy, and windy outside, and therefore not the best time to learn to ride a bicycle. Most teachers are entrusted with their students’ minds, to teach students the way to know that something is true or false (“practical reason” or rationality): mathematics and formal logic, for instance, but also history and politics (“political reason”), and so on.

Within the institution of schooling, teachers are the people entrusted with the minds of students. Hence teaching is, as Tracy Kidder has observed in Among Schoolchildren (1989), one of the few occupations in which any form of measurable success rests on the skill and inspiration of those people “at the bottom of the institutional pyramid” (p. 52). In this sense, teaching is much like police work, and perhaps it’s no wonder, therefore, that both types of people are depicted as virtuous and dedicated, on the one hand, or tyrannical and hypocritical authority figures on the other. These contradictory representations of the teacher are reflected in popular music, in which the male or female teacher often has a special form of attraction distinct from the (repressive) institution itself. The teacher has been the subject of erotic fantasies, in which the pupil desires the teacher to teach a form of knowing how that is not the academic subject itself (“Abigail Beecher,” “Teacher’s Pet”), a figure of hypocrisy (“Society’s Child”), a brutal authority figure instilling mindless submission to power (“Another Brick in the Wall”), or a highly idealized father figure (“To Sir With Love”). Books have been written exploring the depiction of teachers in the movies (see Ann C. Paietta, Teachers in the Movies; McFarland, 2007), and while I know of no book doing the same for popular music, no doubt the range of representations is quite similar. The first movie to link rock music, the school, and the teacher is, of course, Blackboard Jungle (released March 1955), the film that, as Thomas Doherty has observed (Teenagers and Teenpics, p. 76), was also the film that alerted Hollywood filmmakers to the way rock music could contribute to a movie’s appeal. No rock recordings could have represented the teacher in any fashion prior to 1955.

Songs About Teachers And The Lessons Learned:
Abba – “When I Kissed the Teacher”
Chuck Berry – “School Day”
Alice Cooper – “School’s Out”
Freddie Cannon – “Abigail Beecher”
Doris Day – “Teacher’s Pet”
Elton John – “Teacher I Need You”
Janis Ian – “Society’s Child”
Hall & Oates – “Adult Education”
Lulu – “To Sir With Love”
Pink Floyd – “Another Brick in the Wall”
The Police – “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”
Van Halen – “Hot For Teacher”