Song 296: The Grateful Dead, “Scarlet Begonias” (1974)

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I think I just have to finally face the fact that I really like The Grateful Dead. I always respected them–they’re clearly great musicians–but I got tired of hearing them, and hearing about them. And their obsessive fans. Oh lord, the fans.

But here’s the thing: Jerry Garcia was a brilliant guitar player. I don’t mean that he was fast or innovative (though he could be both), but that he made his guitar sound beautiful. For one thing, his tone, that unmistakable Jerry Garcia sound, was warm and fluid, making his guitar sound like another instrument entirely. I often think of him like the Allman Brothers Band’s Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, guitarists who could play solos that were pretty. They weren’t light, or insubstantial. They were often like melodies, separate songs dropped into “Blue Sky” or “Melissa.”

There’s plenty to like about “Scarlet Begonias,” especially that simple but effective melody. But what I love most is Garcia’s solo, which starts at around 2:37. It’s not long, and it’s not complex. But it’s beautiful, and its concision is an apt reflection of the sweet fleeting moment in the song. It sounds like it’s the beginning of an involved musical passage (which it undoubtedly was in live performances). It’s fitting that the last line before the solo is the song’s bittersweet centerpiece: “I had to learn the hard way to let her pass by.”

I love the way this song treats seeing this woman on a London street. It’s all in the mind of the narrator, all his perceptions and guesses about what this mystery woman is like; this isn’t so much a romantic song as it is a fantasy based on a momentary glance. And the idea that “it never turns out the way it does in a song,” sung in a song? That’s funny.

And speaking of lyrics, you don’t get much better than “There ain’t nothing wrong with the way she moves.” So simple but so well put.


Song 117: Richard and Linda Thompson, “Withered and Died” (1974)

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Is there a sadder song in existence than “Withered and Died”? It’s just one big fucking bummer from beginning to end. Even the one line that refers to happiness, “once I was bending the tops of the trees,” is sad, because as beautiful as that image is, you know “once” has to be followed up with “then.” That verse that ends with “he’s gone with the rest, my dreams have withered and died.” Ugh.

But man, this song is gorgeous. Richard Thompson has a knack for writing songs that sound traditional (another is “Dimming of the Day”), making intimate stories sound like universally known hymns. In some ways, the concept behind “Withered and Died,” with its timeless story of someone being screwed over by someone they love, is universally known, especially in the world of pop music.

Linda Thompson–at the time, Richard’s wife–sells this song by underselling it. She sounds despondent but not upset, as if the shock of heartbreak has worn off (or has just begun). How this song can really only have (by design) that one story, that one character with a limited point of view, and succeed, I don’t understand. But it works.


Song 107: Big Star, “September Gurls” (1974)

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What songs do you listen to when the world is terrible? I tend to alternate between sad songs and midtempo ones that have a subtle kind of determination despite the bittersweet lyrics. I don’t often choose an outright happy (or happy-sounding) song, unless it’s “I Want You Back,” which never fails to make me feel better. Otherwise, if I’m not in the mood, happy songs just get on my nerves.

Even though there are only three Big Star records, there are so many good songs: “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “Thirteen,” “Back of a Car,” “Way Out West,” “Nightime.” But when I think about Big Star, I think of “September Gurls.” Its twelve-string wash always provides me with a sense of relief, even if I don’t realize I need it.

What’s interesting to me about this song is that it’s shimmery, shiny pop music, yet there’s so much that doesn’t make sense: what’s a September Gurl? What’s a December Boy? What does “I was your butch until we touched” mean? What was the end of “I loved you, well, never mind” supposed to be? It all makes just enough sense to work, the vague lyrics meshing nicely with the sharply focused instrumentation.

So what does it mean? I’ve always thought that the song was about two people who are a little colder and more bitter than everybody else (September and December), but the boy’s a little more cold and bitter than the girl he’s pining after. They’re out of step with everyone they know, but also with each other, and all the boy needs is to be a little more forgiving, a little more flexible.

I’m probably way off, but it doesn’t matter. That’s what I love about music: we can all be wrong about what the writer intended, but as long as it’s right to us, we’re doing it right. Which is what makes artists who are willing to be so abstract, so beautifully vague, so valuable.


Song 81: Randy Newman, “Louisiana 1927”

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Randy Newman tends to sneak up on me. I always expect first-rate songwriting and maybe a humorous turn here and there, but I don’t expect him to wreck me with a line or melody until it’s happening. Like many people, I listened to “Louisiana 1927” with new ears after Hurricane Katrina. The song eerily echoes the 2005 flood in the government’s lax response to both disasters and the opinion that the government purposely delayed a response to the flood to weed out the lower class. The latter is a serious charge, of course, but I can easily imagine feeling that way after not being helped for days, weeks, months, years.

Newman captures that feeling in “Louisiana 1927,” a song about the Great Mississippi Flood, which left 700,000 people homeless. Calvin Coolidge responds to the momentous disaster by showing up with a fat man holding a notebook, blaming only the river for the damage. In true Newman form, touches like these make the song both darkly funny and heartbreaking, but more heartbreaking, especially as the strings swell and Newman sings “They’re trying to wash us away” in a matter-of-fact tone. In another singer’s hands, this song may have been a dramatic call to arms, but in Newman’s, it’s simply a blunt retelling set to gorgeous music, a faded photograph being described by a gifted storyteller.

If you’re at all curious about Randy Newman, Good Old Boys is as good a place as any to start. It’s a record about the American south, told from the point of view of its inhabitants, in varying degrees of likability. The opening track “Rednecks” is about as brave and brilliant as contemporary pop songwriting gets.


Song 52: The Ronettes, “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine” (1965/1974)

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Man, this one is sad. The thing that gets to me most is that phrase in the intro and between verses, with the tympani and strings. It’s beautiful, but there’s one note throwing a slight wrench in the works, making it sound slightly “bluesy” in a way that’s absolutely heartbreaking. Then there’s the chorus, which contradicts Alfred Lord Tennyson’s statement that “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all.” Actually, say the Ronettes, ’tis better to have stayed indoors.

The Ronettes, as practitioners of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”, usually had more bells and baritone sax to their songs. To my ears, those are absent (though maybe there are some bells in there; that mono wall can be hard to pick apart). They’re more famous for songs like the incredible “Be My Baby”, more rock than what Spector supposedly called “little symphonies for the kids”, and it’s that grandness that makes this song work so well. I like to think of teenagers in 1965 sitting in their bedrooms, setting this one on the turntable or hearing it on the radio, thinking about their high school romances, thinking, “Yes, exactly!” (Alas, this definitely never happened: Though recorded in 1965, the song wasn’t released until 1974.)

Everything feels massively important in teenage years, and, purposely or not, I think this song nails that feeling exactly. Beth Orton covered this song in 1996, and it sounds just as dramatic in the hands of a person in her late 20s. I’d imagine it would sound the same sung by a person in their 70s; love is love, loss is loss. It’s amazing how that works.