Song 304: The Standells, “Dirty Water” (1966)

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What does it mean to be from Boston? For one thing, it means embracing a song about your hometown that celebrates curfews, muggers, the Boston Strangler, and a polluted river. We are a strange people, but we have a damn great sense of humor when we want to.

The Standells had a pretty great sense of humor too, though they hailed from California, not Massachusetts. Their hit “Dirty Water” was written by their producer, Ed Cobb, who was once mugged in Boston. He used the his music business standing to gripe not only about our crime (including our famous serial killer, whose murders were only a few years old in 1966), but the college women with curfews, and the then-disgusting Charles River.

“Dirty Water” is basically just a verse bookended by choruses, but it holds years of resentment and celebration, especially when you consider its place with the Red Sox. The song was actually used as a victory anthem for the Bruins first, and the Sox followed suit in 1997. Since then, “Dirty Water” has closed out every home win, and it’s been a rallying cry for Red Sox Nation, and for Bostonians everywhere, for untold years.

It’s also a prime example of the garage rock genre, blah blah blah, whatever. When we won the World Series last night for the third time in nine years, “Dirty Water” played over the PA. Our team consisted of a bunch of guys with huge beards, and one of them, a tree trunk of a man we call Big Papi, put on a giant helmet right before the last out, preparing for an inevitable bench-clearing party at the mound like a soldier dressing for battle. The Sox have always been a weird, motley crew, just like us. That’s why we love them.

We may not be underdogs this year; we haven’t been underdogs since October 2004. But it’s been a rough year for Boston. We needed this one.


Song 209: Neil Diamond, “Cherry, Cherry” (1966)

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I always forget how long Neil Diamond has been around. He’s primarily thought of as a ’70s schlockmeister, but he’s been releasing well-written songs since 1962. He worked for years in the Brill Building, the song factory where some of your favorites were written and produced.

“Cherry, Cherry” was produced by two of the Brill Building’s ace songwriters, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (composers of hits like “Be My Baby” and “Da Doo Ron Ron”). You can hear their pop expertise in this track, which incorporates many different musical ideas–that acoustic guitar riff, the little breakdown that comes after the first chorus–to make one big catchy concoction.

I’m always surprised when I’m reminded that songs like “Cherry, Cherry,” “Solitary Man,” and “Sweet Caroline” were released as early as they were. Then again, despite Diamond’s place in the national consciousness as Mr. Seventies, his songs sound like they exist in their own timeline, their own pop universe. The fact that “Cherry, Cherry” was released the same year as Revolver is crazy to me. I don’t know if it seems like it should have come earlier or later than the Beatles landmark, but it doesn’t sound right.

So why, out of all of Neil Diamond’s great songs, did I choose “Cherry, Cherry?” I just think it’s awesome. I love the acoustic guitar, the handclaps, the way he says “aaall right.” Everything about it is just perfectly placed, and it’s one of those songs whose spirit is infectious. The minute it comes on the radio, you want to stand up, clap, and dance. Neil Diamond brings out the schlockmeister in all of us, and for that we should be grateful.


Song 133: Otis Redding, “Try a Little Tenderness” (1966)

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Every time I hear “Try a Little Tenderness,” I wonder who came up with that little trumpet-and-saxophone introduction, that little requiem for … what? Past happiness? Happiness that never was? Either way, it’s a hell of an intro, one that laments the state between these two people. Otis Redding, like a sexy marriage counselor (like Hitch!) is here to help: try a little tenderness.

This song is the ultimate example of a slow burn: it starts quiet and sad, and then the cylinders begin firing. It’s also an example of the greatness of Stax/Volt, the Memphis-based record label that was home to Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, Wilson Pickett, and Albert King. I don’t know if they were perceived this way at the time, but I tend to think of Stax as Motown’s denser, more funky cousin. Both labels had superstars, but Stax’s artists were seemingly less concerned about broad appeal. They were more concerned about being great.

What I didn’t know until today is that “Try a Little Tenderness” wasn’t written in 1966, when Redding recorded his version—it’s from 1933. 1933! It was first recorded by the Ray Noble Orchestra, and a rendition by Bing Crosby (Bing Crosby!) came soon after. Unbelievable.

Then, of course, there’s Jay-Z’s and Kanye West’s contribution to the song’s history, but I think that’s another post altogether.