Man, I love Cat Stevens. I remember going through my parents’ records as a kid and finding Teaser and the Firecat, and deciding to put it on the turntable out of sheer curiosity. I loved it, and I was immediately hooked on “The Wind,” a song so delicate that it sounded like it would fall apart at any second. Stevens is among a handful of acoustic singer-songwriters whose overall sound transcends the “acoustic singer-songwriter” description; Cat Stevens sounds like Cat Stevens. The fact that he’s a guy with an acoustic guitar is secondary.
Given that reputation, it’s interesting to hear his early work, especially the oft-covered “The First Cut Is The Deepest.” The first few notes sound like the precision of “The Wind,” but it soon gives way to full-on pop. I love that about this song, and I also love how Stevens is really trying to appeal to the pop audience masses here, as if he’s not yet sure what kind of artist he wants to be. It’s a little awkward, but charmingly so. Stevens doesn’t sound entirely comfortable in this setting, but that tone fits this song about getting over your first heartbreak. Many of the lyrics aren’t much to speak of, but the couplet “When it comes to being lucky she’s cursed/When it comes to loving me she’s worst” is fantastic.
And let’s talk about that false ending around the 2:28 mark. That kind of thing is standard pop stuff, of course, but it works great here, as the intro guitar phrase returns to lull you into a false sense of closure. When he returns with “baaaby,” Stevens sounds like he’s getting the hang of the song, and with pop music in general, just in time for the track to fade out. Figuring it all out at the wrong time: sounds like a love song to me.
“Little Wing” is my favorite Jimi Hendrix song for a variety of reasons. First of all, it shows how delicate a guitar player Hendrix was. He isn’t often remembered that way, but it’s true. He could be fast, but even then, he was precise. Despite his theatrics, Hendrix had an enormous amount of control over his playing, and that’s on perfect display on “Little Wing,” a song that sounds almost fragile because of the way Hendrix handles the guitar.
I also love how short the song is, which may be a strange thing to say about a song you love. But not enough musicians and songwriters–hell, artists in general–subscribe to the “leave ’em wanting more philosophy,” and Hendrix was never afraid to stop whenever the song needed to stop. “Little Wing” is only 2 minutes and 25 seconds long, which is just long enough for you to get attached to it. As writer Harry Shapiro wrote, “he said what he wanted to say and stop.”
Shapiro also wrote that Hendrix played the song using his thumb on the bass notes. This is a fairly common thing for guitarists to do, but it’s frankly amazing that Hendrix could do that while using the rest of his hand to play so beautifully.
And let’s talk about what he’s playing. All those moving parts, in the intro especially, remind me of something a symphony would do. It takes a great musical mind to condense that feel to a single instrument, especially without the song sounded overcrowded. At the same time, the solo (which he plays twice) is comparatively simple. It mainly features one note at a time, played relatively slowly. It’s one of my all-time favorite guitar solos, not only because it’s just a gorgeous melody, but because it fits the song so well. “Little Wing” is about a woman signifying, well, everything Jimi Hendrix can think of. That idea perfectly fits the note-heavy verses. Then comes that solo, under which Hendrix sings “fly on, Little Wing,” an encouragement to soar while his guitar seems to do the same.
Hendrix said he got the idea from playing the Monterey Pop Festival and simply looking around, seeing everybody looking happy: “Everybody really flying and they’s really in a nice mood, like the police and everybody was really great out there. So I just took all these things and put them in one very small little matchbox, you know, into a girl.” He added, “That’s one of the very few ones I like.” What a relief that last part was to read. If Jimi Hendrix hadn’t liked “Little Wing,” what hope would the rest of us have at liking anything?
Aretha Franklin’s record I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You has a track listing that’s almost like a greatest-hits record: the sultry title track, “Respect,” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” a song that rivals “Respect” for its use of demanding, well, respect from men. Tucked near the end of the albums first side, however, is a song that may not stand out like those others, but it’s damn great.
“Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” sounds like the kind of stuff Dusty Springfield was cranking out in the late sixties: it’s got a light, bossa nova feel, completely with a mellow trumpet and clicking, lounge-ready percussion. And for a while, the song sounds like it’s going to be just as sleepy as it feels. Until that chorus.
That chorus! I mean, it’s not like it’s a shockingly great piece of music, and it doesn’t jolt you in its audacity. But it lightens the song unexpectedly, and I think it’s gorgeous—especially the way Franklin sings “baby, baby hold on” in a way that sounds less like begging and more like coaxing. Like all her work in I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, it’s a great performance, and one that hints at the greatness to come.
Not to be contrarian or anything, but Erma Franklin’s original version of “Piece of My Heart” blows Janis Joplin’s version out of the water. Sure, Joplin sings the hell out of it, and it’s an overall great performance. But I think the relative restraint in Franklin’s version is a little more believable, and the arrangement, with that walking bassline and those crying horns, is a thing of beauty.
I had no idea that the two versions were released only a year apart; I always assumed that Franklin’s version was an early-sixties soul single that evolved into a late sixties rock freakout. It’s quite a stylistic leap to take in only a year’s time, which is another reason to give Joplin and her band credit where it’s due.
But I do prefer Franklin’s version, and I’ll let critic and essayist Ellen Willis sum up the difference between the two versions much better than I ever could:
When Franklin sings it, it is a challenge: no matter what you do to me, I will not let you destroy my ability to be human, to love. Joplin seems rather to be saying, surely if I keep taking this, if I keep setting an example of love and forgiveness, surely he has to understand, change, give me back what I have given.
Joplin, she adds, used the blues to “scream [pain] out of existence.” Franklin, meanwhile, interprets and reasons, as if she’s singing “Piece of My Heart” to build an argument. And speaking of building, the way Franklin’s version grows from calmness to anger is more interesting to me than Joplin’s rendition, which seems to be all anger, whether it’s seething under the surface or out in the open. Both styles have their strengths and weaknesses, but I’ll take Franklin’s.
Nina Simone has one of Those Voices. It’s simultaneously sad, joyous, angry, and steadfast, perfectly suited to whatever song she happens to be singing, whether it’s “Strange Fruit” or “Rich Girl” by Hall & Oates.
Listening to her version of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” recently, I was struck by how all of the above characteristics are present. It’s not a happy song, of course, but Simone ascribes some hopefulness to it, especially by the end, when she’s describing a bird flying away, higher and higher.
But first things first: “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” was written by jazz ambassador Billy Taylor, and it’s been sung many, many times. And rightfully so. It’s beautiful, from the gospel melody to the simplicity of its lyrics, which, despite the flight imagery at the end, are plain and bluntly honest. I think why this song works so well is that the wish for equality is so logical, so undemanding, that those straightforward lyrics are almost darkly humorous. It’s such a simple desire—I want to be a person, I want to be heard—so why am I even here singing about it? This is what it takes?
Also interesting is that, though written for the civil rights movement (Taylor’s original version was released in 1963, the year of “Letter From Birmingham Jail”), this song applies to any group who face discrimination. The fact that Simone is a black woman lends the song an added poignancy, and that magnificent voice—initially plaintive and a little shaky; ultimately determined and impassioned—makes the song simultaneously personal and universal.
Simone goes a hell of a long way within 3 minutes and 10 seconds, and by the time she’s singing “And I’d sing ‘cause I’d know,” followed by a sound that’s somewhere between a “yeah” and Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp, it’s clear that she’s not about to slow down. The song then fades, with Simone hollering like a woman possessed. There’s no resolving chord, no definitive close. The battle doesn’t end, but neither does the fight.
Like everybody else, I’d known this song forever. And I hadn’t thought much of it. Similarly, I’d known the big Mamas & the Papas songs, and aside from “Monday, Monday,” which I love, they never did much for me. The second that “California Dreamin'” starts, I change the radio station.
Yet when I saw Morvern Callar and its magnificent last scene, I loved “Dedicated To The One I Love” from that moment on. The song was used perfectly as the soundtrack to a scene that summed up a movie about one woman’s detachment from her spouse’s death: lights strobe, a crowd goes wild, yet Morvern (as played by the great Samantha Morton) just keeps walking forward, as if it’s all she can do.
Why does that happen? Why did it take The Squid and the Whale for me to love “The Swimming Song”? If I had heard the Faces’ “Ooh La La” on the radio before seeing Rushmore, would I have even listened to the whole thing? Why does it take a particular visual context for us to notice some songs?
I can’t claim to know the answer to those questions, but I know that it happens to me all the time. And of course, it’s the reason that some music videos work so well. The director notices something that he or she hears in the song, adds a visual equivalent, and hopes that you’ve noticed the same thing–or would like to. In Morvern Callar, director Lynne Ramsay did that with “Dedicated To The One I Love,” exploiting the song’s grand romantic gestures, dramatic triplets and key changes included, as counterpoint for a complete lack of emotional engagement. It’s perfect.