The Lost Words Blessing

Of all the arts, music is the one that gives us a little glimpse of heaven.

Architecture only gives us the concrete reality of what’s possible. Writing gives us the stories, calling us to a sensual and emotional life. In art, we see the beauty–and ugliness–of the world we inhabit. Sculpture is the concreteness of the artist’s imagination. Dance shows us the gracefulness of the human body, attempting to do the impossible and yet limited. The actor turns words into performance and recreation.

But only music transports us to a realm beyond the stars.

“The Lost Words Blessing”, text by Robert MacFarlaine, music by Kerry Andrew and played and sang by the Spell Songs Collective featuring the beautiful voice of Karine Polwart.

Reg Gets Even

I’ve seen this movie before. Dozens of times. It’s your typical rock ‘n’ roll biopic we saw in such movies as “Ray”, “The Doors”, “A Star is Born”, and “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

Hollywood has the template down so well, this is how an Elvis biopic might go:
Scene 1. Elvis is driving a truck in Tupelo.
Scene 2. Elvis is recording in Sun Records Studio.
Scene 3. Elvis signs with Col. Tom Parker.
Scene 4. Elvis sings and dances in the movie, “Jailhouse Rock”.
Scene 5. Elvis gets drafted.
Scene 6. Elvis meets his future bride, fourteen-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, while stationed in Germany.
Scene 7. Elvis gets out of the Army.
Scene 8. Elvis makes movies.
Scene 9. Elvis is unhappy at Graceland.
Scene 10. Elvis makes a comeback.
Along the way, there’ll be a scene with Elvis’ addiction to pills. There’ll also be a scene where Elvis talks about his spirituality. Throughout the movie, there will be song after song by Elvis. So many songs the viewer won’t be able to distinguish one from the other. Why so many? The director doesn’t want to miss your favorite.

This is basic biopic 101, and “Rocketman” follows this template. “Rocketman” is the story of how Reg Dwight became Elton John. In scene after scene, we see how his father mistreated him; how Mom didn’t take him seriously; how his employer, Dick James, wasn’t encouraging; how his manager, John Reid, abused him. Even Bernie Taupin, his songwriting partner and friend, ends up being unkind to poor Dwight. When the two go to California and Elton John triumphs at the Troubadour, Bernie takes off with a beautiful woman at the after-the-show party, abandoning Dwight to be alone with himself. Only his Granny treated him with any kind of respect.

“Rocketman” is Reg Dwight’s revenge. After all, this is his project. He was an executive producer on the film.

Along the way through these adventures, Elton John breaks out in song as a kind of song-and-dance man you’d expect from George M. Cohan. In quite a few scenes, so many songs are thrown at the viewer. So many pies that the director is hoping one will stick. Better to have selected five or six songs and used them to give meaning to the story. Then they would be memorable. Instead we are given a jukebox.

In the early seventies, seven of Elton John’s first nine studio albums were unbelievably brilliant. I won’t tell you which didn’t measure up. He could do any musical style from rock ‘n’ roll to blues to country to pop. The songs made you want to listen to them over and over again. Of all the musical artists I’ve listened to over the years, he was one of the few that blew me away from the get-go. When he started performing in a chicken suit, it made me sad.

If you’re in the hankering for some Elton John, put on his music. VH1 did a documentary of “Yellow Brick Road” as a part of his Classic Albums series. Great stuff. As for “Rocketman”, it saddens me the way that the chicken suit saddened me. Elton John is one of the great musicians of the twentieth century and he deserves .better than “Rocketman”. So I guess you might say I give this one two thumbs down. When all is said and done, it’s a mess. A real mess.

Give a listen: Rhiannon Giddens

It’s been a bit of time passed since I posted a musical spotlight. I came upon the amazing Rhiannon Giddens on NPR. Giddens has a great voice that can take any song she chooses and turn it into a jewel. And she has the talent to take on any genre of music and deliver. Here are five of her deliveries. Enjoy!

Trees on the Mountains.

Woman of Constant Sorrow, by Sxip Shirey featuring Rhiannon Giddens

Leaving Eden by The Carolina Chocolate Drops (with Rhiannon Giddens)

S’iomadh Rid (The Dhith Om / Ciamar A Ni Mi)

I’m On My Way.

The Never Never Land of Teenage Angst

It was another time and another place, America in the early sixties. Teenagers found themselves in a musical wilderness. It was that twilight zone between Rock ‘n’ Roll and Beatlemania. Buddy Holly was dead. Chuck Berry was in jail. Little Richard was working for God. Elvis had been drafted. The music had lost its wildness, its ability to save our teenage souls.

And our rebellion had lost its bite. James Dean died on a motorcycle one dark night, leaving our teenage angst in limbo. Hollywood gave us the Gidgets and fake imitations of James Dean and Marlon Brando. Even Dick Clark failed us by offering up the Bobby Rydells and Fabians.

All we were left with was souped up engines. Cruisin’ Main on Friday nights. Takin’ Betty Sue to the Prom. Getting to first base. And that was about it. It was Happy Days all around. At least, for our parents. But it had no meaning for us. We had lost the soundtrack of our lives.

Then, from out of nowhere, there blasted out of the speakers of our transistors and car radios a sound that melted our hearts. Our teenage heroes had returned in the form of four fellows–Georgie, Abe, Teddy, Jeffy–from our very own Peanut Butter & Jelly High. (How the school came by the name is a whole other story. Let’s just say the School Board couldn’t settle on a President. And what said America better than peanut butter and jelly. It was right up there with Mom and apple pie.}

The four went off to New York City, entered the Brill Building, enlisted the aid of Duncan and Joy, two seventy year old songwriters with the hearts of sixteen year olds. And The Rushmores were born. Suddenly we had a soul again.

Their first number one was a tribute to teenage angst. “I wanna love love love you if I don’t love you I wanna do.” When I heard that coming from the radio in my hot rod lincoln, it was like Dr. Frankenstein had shot electricity through my veins. We’d all been through it. So we knew the guys had walked the walk, and now they were talking the talk. I’d just struck out with Betty Lou, and The Rushmores were commiserating with me.

The Rushmores were not one hit wonders. They had plenty of arrows in their quiver. The next sent us to the dance floor. After hearing “Looney Tuney”, nobody was doing the Twist.

Do the Bugs Shake
Do the Daffy Rattle
And the Porky Roll
It’s on with the show
and the what’s-up-doc
It’s time to do
the that’s-all-folks rock.

The Rushmores had caught a wave and there didn’t seem to be a wipe out coming. They were totally bitchin’ with their tunes.

Now I am sure y’all have heard those nonsensical songs from the fifties like “Yakety Yak,” “Sh-boo,” and “Alley Oop.” Well, The Rushmores number three was “Soda Jerk”:
He’s no clerk
he’s a soda jerk.
Chocolate, strawberry,
vanilla with a cherry,
root beer float
ice cream in a boat.

And their biggest hit, “Her Name Was Sherelle,” was one of those teenage-tragedy weepers like “Last Kiss” or “Tell Laura I Love Her”:
Her name was Sherelle
The Devil gave her his big sale
He played her heartstrings well
Then he took her to a motel
Now she’s go-go-going to hell.

Just as The Rushmores hit the big time, they were drafted. And that ended their musical careers. Last we heard Georgie died in Vietnam, Abe got knifed in a gang fight, Teddy got kicked by a horse, Jeffy OD-ed on heroin.

Now I hardly ever hear The Rushmores on those golden oldies stations. But there are a beaucoup load of fans out here. We remember the days when they looked down from Music Mountain, and we dream what might have been. The four lads from Liverpool would have had some real competition.

We Are the People

Recently I saw John Mellencamp in concert. Man, that was two and a half hours of great music and fun. It reminded me what great songs he’s made and continues to make. So many of his songs remind me of what’s best in America. Others call attention to the challenges we have as Americans.

This Fourth of July, think about what we have in common. No matter how far we’ve got to go to forming that more perfect union, we’ve come a long way. And this particular song reminds me that we are in it together. None of us get off scot free. If we don’t pull together, we’ll be broken. It’s like Ben Franklin said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Lately we’ve been hanging separately. And that’s a darn shame. Because We Are The People. And if things are falling apart, it’s our fault.

To celebrate that hanging together thing on this two-hundred-and forty-third Fourth of July Independence Day, here”s John Mellencamp’s “We Are The People”:

Let’s look around us and be thankful for our neighbors. The more different they are from us the better. After all, America has a big heart. Despite what others think of her.

Don’t believe it. Just tell those guys that hit Normandy Beach on June 6, 1944. Don’t believe it. Just tell those folks who Americans fed with the Marshall Plan after World War II. Don’t believe it. Just tell it to all those folks who have benefitted from Peace Corps volunteers, digging wells, teaching children. Don’t believe it. Just ask those Berliners who were cut off from the world in 1948 and 1949.

Look around you and see the beauty of this country and say thank you for all we have as Americans. And remember We Are The People. We’ve got better days ahead of us if we hang together. Otherwise….