FFWDing to the Best Part: “Nookie,” Limp Bizkit (1999)

If binge drinking and/or date rape had a soundtrack, it would be 97% Limp Bizkit. Every thing about this band — starting with their name — should have me bristling with hatred. Fred Durst’s backwards Yankees cap, soul patch, and kiss-and-telling behavior. Their lyrics, which are juvenile at best and misogynistic at worst. The way they re-interpreted and destroyed George Michael’s ‘Faith.’ Wes Borland’s stupid, stupid contacts. The use of the phrase ‘Chocolate Starfish’ as part of the title of album #3.

They are manufactured and affected, affecting an image that is terrible … unless you’re a 14-year-old NASCAR fan in the heartland, cooking up meth that’s only 45% pure. Too harsh? Maybe, maybe not.

But you know? I’ve been known to listen to ‘Nookie.’ So much, in fact, that I pretty much have all its lyrics committed to memory.

The bass line is bouncy, the rhythm is catchy, and the chorus — while admittedly as lowest-common-denominator as they come — is infectious in its own way. (The video, however, perfectly illustrates all of the negative points I listed above PLUS a lovely puffy-coat-and-shorts combo.)

And while I feel naming the “Best Part” of this song is sort of like naming my favorite Two and a Half Men episode, I’ve got one. Right around 0:59, when you think they are going to “like a chump…” segue into the first chorus, there is another smattering of rock-rap, the syncopation of which I appreciate.

Should I be feelin’ bad? No
Should I be feelin good? No
Its kinda sad I’m the laughin’ stock of the neighborhood
You would think that I’d be movin’ on
But I’m a sucker like I said
F*cked up in the head, not!!

Actually, forget what I said, all of it. The non-ironic employment of “not” — in 1999, no less — ruined this whole thing.

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A Song That Reminds You of Someone: “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” The Verve (1997)

Task 5 on the “30” Day Music Challenge — A Song That Reminds You of Someone

Before I get into who this song reminds me of (and why), I’d like to offer this little ditty — whose “best part” comes from The Rolling Stones by way of record producer Andrew Loog Oldham — a bit of a superlative. I maintain that this song’s employment in the 1999 instant classic Cruel Intentions (yeah, that’s right) represents one of the best-ever uses of music in film.

Picture it (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT 15 years later): Ryan Philippe’s character (Sebastian) has suffered death-by-New-York-City-taxi-cab.  The only girl he ever truly loved, Annette (Reese Witherspoon) has gotten revenge on Sebastian’s despicable stepsister, Kathryn (played brilliantly by Sarah Michelle Gellar). The song comes in ever-so-quietly at 0:17 in the clip below and swells as Kathryn’s world begins to unravel in epic fashion. A single tear falls. And shortly before the credits roll, we cut to Annette, who has taken to the streets in Sebastian’s vintage Jaguar, having lost love but gained strength.  You know you want to see it:

But that’s not why I’m here. Why I’m here is to explain why this song reminds me of my friend Katie. Katie and I met in 2001 on a blind-friend-date (to keep the story brief, I’ll say that a friend of mine knew her from college and put us in touch when I moved to St. Louis). Together we have shared many adventures, big and small, more than bottle of screw-top wine, and millions of laughs. But for the better part of a decade, her ringtone on my phone has been “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” because of this one fleeting and seemingly inconsequential moment we shared.

Katie and Me … Several Years Ago, OKAY.


It was a fall (I think?) afternoon in St. Louis, and we were taking advantage of that sliver of time in the city — after the stifling humidity of summer and before the cruel Midwestern winter sets in — by enjoying a coffee outdoors. Sitting there minding our own business, we hear this song coming our way, growing ever-louder. A red convertible Jaguar (ironically) pulls up to the coffee shop, parallel parks, and the driver hops out. LEAVES IT RUNNING — in the middle of the city — and saunters in to grab a latte. Meanwhile, The Verve is just blasting away.

So we totally stole the car.

In actuality, we sat there with WTF expressions, laughed at the absurd douchery of it all, and continued to enjoy our afternoon. It was absolutely a nothing moment, and yet it has stuck with me. And whenever I hear those opening strings, I’ll think of Katie, and the great friendship we share.

Lyric Theory: “The Boxer,” Simon and Garfunkel (1970)

The poet reads his crooked rhyme…
Thirty dollars pays your rent on Bleecker Street. (Paul Simon)

Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village

Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village

One endearing feature of music trends is their habit of hopping from one local scene to another. Picture 1960s Motown in Detroit, or Prince’s funky 1980s enclave in Minneapolis, or the early 1990s Seattle grunge scene, or the hippies in greater Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon circa 1970. Musicians cross-pollinate in communities that form, flourish for a few years, and then wither into legend. Greenwich Village, NYC hosted one such scene in the mid 1960s. Its cheap rents attracted impoverished artists who collaborated, conspired, and competed in coffeehouses and clubs such as Gerde’s Folk City and The Bitter End. The artsiness of the general Greenwich/SoHo area has been widely celebrated in song by its present, former, and would-be denizens: Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning,” Dar Williams’ “Spring Street,” Paul Simon’s “Bleecker Street,” and the like.

I could find a small apartment
Where a struggling artist died
And pretend, because I pay the rent,
I know that pain inside (Dar Williams)

Simon and his sixth-grade classmate Art Garfunkel had participated in a school play together and performed on and off as “Tom and Jerry” for years in high school and college while Simon studied English and Garfunkel, math and architecture. In 1964, they recorded an album for Columbia Records as “Simon and Garfunkel.” It went nowhere, and Simon decamped for England, where he wrote songs for other artists, including “Red Rubber Ball,” a #2 hit stateside for The Cyrkle. That song, like Simon’s later work with Garfunkel, featured acoustic rock stylings and close harmony singing reminiscent of late 50s country-pop teen idols The Everly Brothers.

Meanwhile, in Simon’s absence, S&G’s producer remixed their sparse folk ballad “The Sounds of Silence” with rock instrumentation. It went to #1, and Simon renewed his partnership with Garfunkel, releasing a string of four huge albums that helped define intelligent late ’60s pop.

Simon wrote all the lyrics, wrote all the melodies, sang, and played the guitar. Garfunkel … sang. He sang very prettily, but Bob Dylan’s nasal twang had rewritten the rules of pop listening expectations on that account. Garfunkel knew he was dispensable, and he attempted to build an acting career with the aid of director Mike Nichols, who had previously used S&G’s repertoire heavily in his film “The Graduate.” Simon, for his part, found the life of S&G so busy that all of his new songs were about their whirlwind pop star lifestyle, and the rising drama of their partnership. By the end of 1970, it was all over, save sporadic reunions for short-term projects.

I’m laying out my winter clothes
And wishing I was gone, going home
Where the New York City winters
Aren’t bleeding me (Paul Simon)

All these influences came together on their final studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. The title track, a gospel piano-drenched hymn of brotherly comfort, became one of the most recorded songs besides “Happy Birthday.” “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” declared the narrator’s desire to escape the hubbub and quietly “sail away like a swan, here and gone.” “Cecilia,” referencing the Roman Catholic patron saint of musicians, lamented Simon’s bouts of writer’s block, depicting his muse of inspiration as a fickle lover who abandons him mid-coitus. “Keep the Customer Satisfied” re-imagined S&G as a duo of petty criminals, skipping from town to town but concluding, “I’m so tired.” “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” (nodding to Garfunkel’s interest in architecture) and “The Only Living Boy in New York” directly addressed the duo’s imminent dissolution. “Baby Driver” recalls Simon’s musical upbringing, including a bass-playing father. “Bye Bye Love” covered the Everly Brothers while reinforcing the theme of farewells.

I can’t believe your song is gone so soon.
I barely learned the tune.
I remember, “Frank Lloyd Wright,”
All of the nights we harmonized ’til dawn.
I never laughed so long.
So long, so long. (Paul Simon)

"That's OK, Paul. 'Just Like a Woman' is really about you."

“That’s OK, Paul. ‘Just Like a Woman’ is really about you.”

After the celebrated title track, the album’s other cornerstone was the five-plus-minute “The Boxer,” which although produced by Roy Hallee follows good Phil Spector production technique, building from a quiet country guitar lick to a howling banshee finale with choral harmonies, buzzing bass harmonica, fuzzed up bass guitar, and even massive chains slapped against the floor of a vacant warehouse. The lyrics describe a man who tried to make a career in New York City, is weighed down by failure, and leaves for pleasanter climes, insisting nonetheless that he’s not beaten. Simon apologists saw in the song a satire targeting his rival Bob Dylan, allegedly a “poor boy” prone to “lie lie lie lie lie lie” about the circumstances of his past, building a personal mythology to confound the press and his fans.

Such a jab would not have been unprecedented; Simon had already poked fun at Dylan with the parody song “A Simple Desultory Phillipic (Or, How I was Robert McNamara’d into Submission)” back in 1966. But with “The Boxer,” Dylan, who covered the song himself on his “Self Portrait” double album the year it was released, surely knew better. Carly Simon’s (no relation) “You’re So Vain” has been dissected similarly for 40 years. Is it about Warren Beatty? Jack Nicholson? Some other famous beau? Yes, to all. It’s about all the powerful, entitled litterati of the Manhattan publishing industry in which she grew up as part of the Simon & Schuster conglomerate, and all the privileged, preening glitterati she met in Hollywood before and during her marriage to James Taylor.

You’re where you should be, all the time,
And when you’re not, you’re with
Some underworld spy,
Or the wife of a close friend. (Carly Simon)

Joe Frazier vs Muhammad Ali, Madison Square Garden, 1971

Joe Frazier vs Muhammad Ali, Madison Square Garden, 1971

In the same way, “The Boxer” is about Dylan, but also about Paul Simon, and every street corner busker in Greenwich Village. They come to town seeking a music career but find only “a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue,” probably a reference to Columbia Records’ Studio C (701 Seventh Avenue) or Studio A (799 Seventh Avenue), or perhaps to Madison Square Garden, which opened in 1968 at its new Pennsylvania Plaza location on the block contained by 7th and 8th Avenues, and 31st through 33rd Streets, or to Carnegie Hall (881 7th Avenue). The promises of concert promoters and music industry executives are eventually recognized as “a pocketful of mumbles… all lies and jest.”

Hustle's the name of the game, and nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain

Hustle’s the name of the game, and nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain

The “musician as prostitute” theme has been mined by other stars through the years. In 1975, Glen Cambell recorded Larry Weiss’ “Rhinestone Cowboy,” which depicts a man endlessly treading “the dirty sidewalks of Broadway” in hopes of gaudy glory (rhinestones, not real diamonds) with “the lights shining on me… and offers coming over the phone.” The cowboy image likely came from “Midnight Cowboy,” the 1965 book made into an Oscar-winning 1969 film starring Dustin Hoffman (post -“The Graduate”) as a pimp attempting to help Texan Jon Voight  make his way as a gigolo in NYC. Weiss, like Paul Simon, had grown up in New Jersey and Queens and knew the musician’s career frustration of “riding a train that’s taking the long way.” North Carolina-based singer-songwriter David Wilcox’s 1999 album track “Sex and Music,” in an extended metaphor, also ruminates on the uncomfortable parallels between his career and the oldest profession:

“At first you say you do it for love
But then you do it with friends
As soon as you do it for money
Right there’s where the innocence ends…
And it leads you to strange addictions
like image and marketing spin
You’re just trying to get them to like you,
and how could that be such a sin?” (David Wilcox)

Many’s the musician with misgivings about the intersection of art and commerce. As for Paul Simon, his fortunes undulated from peaks in 1976 (Grammies for Album of the Year and Best Male Pop Performance) and 1981 (rejoining Garfunkel for a Concert in Central Park before an awed hometown crowd of half a million New Yorkers)  to a subsequent nadir followed by a triumphant comeback on 1986’s “Graceland” album, which won Album and Record (i.e. recorded song) of the year awards. He has finally settled comfortably into the role of musical elder statesman in the thirty years since then, but still puts out new records. The fighter still remains.

FFWDing to the Best Part: “What’s the World Coming To,” Fleetwood Mac (2003)

Disclosure that some of you may or may not know already: I mother-effing LOVE Fleetwood Mac. Loved them as a three-year old, when reportedly I would sing certain phrases of “Second Hand News” verbatim (specifically, “won’t you lay me down in the tall grass and let me do my stuff”). Loved them recently, when I saw them in concert and have the $45 tee shirt to prove it. How Stevie Nicks could be wrapped in layers of black velvet while Lindsey and John and Mick sweat it out in tees and jeans is a mystery for the ages. Were I to ever trip my way into having a son (or get the honor of naming a friend-baby/cousin), the middle name might just be Fleetwood. (Thereby ensuring I never get such honor.)

When decompressing after the aforementioned show, I started listening to all of the band’s offerings on my iPhone.  I always liked “What’s the World Coming To,” and exclaimed “Oh! New Fleetwood Mac” when it started playing, quickly realizing that it is nearly 11 years old. But it’s all relative, because it is from what is still, in fact, their most recent album.

This wasn’t a single/hit, so very few of you will know it, and the only YouTube clip I could find (other than live performances) was lacking in video (or correct spelling), so [sic] all over the place. The basic theme of this song is “Stop this world, I wanna get off,” or “Life’s a bitch, and then you die,” or “Get off my lawn,” but the chipper percussion and fast tempo betray the underlying cynicism.

And then, at the best part? From 3:14 – 3:21,  Lindsey Buckingham sets off on a rousing vocal arpeggio that suggests he might have a little hope in this dark, dark world after all.  A similar run takes us into the close.  And for the record, WOW does Stevie Nicks look beautiful in the picture on the screen at the same time.  No wonder he’s been so pissed at her all these years.

A Song That Makes You Sad: “Ordinary World,” Duran Duran (1992)

Task 4 on the “30-Day” (HA!) Music Challenge is to write about a song that makes you sad. It’s mid-week, and I’ve been fighting some form of sinus congestion for three weeks or so, so WHY NOT WALLOW.

How has Duran Duran stayed out of my FFWDing… (or otherwise music-centric) content thus far? Historically, they are my favorite band. I say “historically” because we have had our turbulent times in our 32-ish-year relationship when I am “mad” at them. Such as now, when I’ve solidly disliked their last two studio albums. Sometimes I’m obsessive, listening to every rare cut and B-side I can get my synthesizer-loving little hands on. Other times, I’m content to go weeks or months without hearing frontman Simon Le Bon’s signature wail.

Like every bad fan, the oldies (“Rio” et al.) are typically my favorites, but their 1992 “comeback” single is its own little gem. Also, I’m realizing as I type this, a relative oldie, as it has surpassed the drinking age. From Warren Cuccurullo’s expert guitar picking in the intro — solidifying his place in the band, to some Duranies, as nearly equal to Andy Taylor — to the falsetto-laced harmonies in the fade-out, this is one beautifully crafted piece of music.

And it’s downright sad.

Many reports have stated that this was written five or so years after the death of Simon Le Bon’s close friend. The verses contain some of the head-scratching vagaries for which Le Bon is well known (“Well now pride’s gone out the window, cross the rooftops, run away”) but for the most part, the story is clear. The narrator has lost a loved one, and against all odds, he needs to find his way back to an “ordinary world,” which was Duran Duran’s own name for a concept that would later be referred to as the “new normal.” We all love people, and they go away — through choice or through the realities of mortality — but all we left behind can do is get on with living–

But I won’t cry for yesterday
There’s an ordinary world
Somehow I have to find
And as I try to make my way
To the ordinary world
I will learn to survive

What really gets me are the closing lines of the bridge, which are basically a version of, “Someone’s got it way worse, man. Take a deep breath and move along.” —

Here besides the news
Of holy war and holy need
Ours is just a little sorrowed talk

Every time I’ve seen them do this in concert, I weep like a child. Mostly because I’ve lost loved ones prematurely, but also because Simon — as arrogant, preening, and occasionally loathsome as he is — is still affected by this one (or is an even better actor than he’s previously let on). He’s learned to survive, all right, but it doesn’t mean he can’t miss his friend, especially when singing a song dedicated to his memory.

 

(Don’t) FFWD To the Best Part: “Take a Chance on Me,” ABBA, 1977

Til the one day when the ladies met these fellows

Til the one day when these ladies met these fellows

How long does a song have to stay awesome to be an awesome song? Some pop songs offer their best moment right out of the gate, no fast forwarding required or even recommended. A great opening hook gives a song huge momentum, as in today’s song from ABBA. The song as a whole presages the transition from disco to New Wave, with prominent synths instead of strings or horns. But the chugging, “take-a-chance, take-a-chance, take-a-take-a-chance-chance” fifth interval bassline from Bjorn and Bennie, switching to an open octave on the dominant for the second chord, makes such a terrific counterpoint to Agnetha’s and Anni-Frid’s melody that I’m actually disappointed when the “real song” kicks in halfway through the chorus.

If you understand the relevance of this picture, you are officially old.

If you understand the relevance of this picture, you are officially old.

I seem to be a sucker for those cold acapella openings; I love them from Fun., and The Eagles, and Larry Gatlin too. Even Blue Swede’s bizarre “Ooga Chocka” version of “Hooked on a Feeling” gets the blood pumping far more than the pedestrian 70s rock-pop instrumentation comprising the bulk of the song. Music requires tonal movement, and there are so many directions to go after a sparse-yet-arresting beginning.

Nothing gets me down, except requests for sensible lyrics.

Nothing gets me down, except requests for sensible lyrics.

Some songs put a great instrumental riff at the beginning and then spend the rest of the song on autopilot: Axel F and Jump come to mind. (These were also the first two that my wife independently suggested when I mentioned this theme.) Does anyone really care about any part of “Gonna Make You Sweat” after the first ten seconds? Often the opening riff recurs again under the vocals later (The Power of Love, Sweet Dreams Are Made of This, Orinoco Flow, Layla, Every Breath You Take) or between verses (Nine to Five, Land of Confusion). Occasionally it never rears its head again, as in the Go-Go’s Head Over Heels. All these songs have decent middles and endings that still don’t live up to the full promise of their iconic openings. Often, one good riff is all it takes.

FFWDing to the Best Part: “Grace, Too,” The Tragically Hip (1994)

Finally, I have returned to Neurotic City … sorry for the delay folks. Let’s play a little word association game. If I say, “97X *BAM* … “ what do you say?

I hope it is “… the future of rock and roll.” If not, I may not be able to be your friend (kidding). It was 1994 and I was driving a red Geo Storm, delivering pizzas for a pizza giant, and I was listening to 97X late one Friday night – and it hit me like a ton of bricks.

What was it? The simple drums from Johnny Fay? The interplay between the guitars from Paul Langlois and Rob Baker? Gord Sinclair’s bass? It had to be the brilliant combination of all of these, because the musical interlude at the start of the song is a good 40+ seconds – and I hung through that to hear the haunting vocals from world-class vocal enigma, Gordon Downie. And you know what? I am so glad I listened to the whole of the song “Grace, Too.”

As you may have noticed from my prior articles, I take my rock on the heavy side, driven by guitars. But that isn’t the case on this one. Yes, there are heavy guitar parts (1:08 – 1:30 and 2:19 – 2:33 among others) but not until a minute in … what was it that kept me listening this long? Was it Downie’s piercing voice served with a side of maple-syrupy madness that only his true brand of crazy can muster? Seriously, this man’s stage presence, thoughts, and his actions are not normal, but are 100% awesome – check out any video from That Night in Toronto on the YouTubes.

The thing is, this is the question that has always surrounded The Tragically Hip for me -– what kind of band is this Canadian import? Listen to their songs: “Blow at High Dough,” “Courage,” “Poets,” “At the Hundredth Meridian,” “50 Mission Cap,” “Ahead By a Century,” “Thugs,” and others. Report back to me when you have a good classification for these Canucks. Some call it Canadian Rock -– I prefer heavy folk.

But let’s get back to the problem at hand (I feel a YouTube rabbit hole opening) — the best part of “Grace, Too.” If you don’t want to listen to the whole song (big big mistake), skip ahead to 3:30 and listen through to the end. Here you get a crescendo that builds from the final chorus -– a cacophony of guitars, bass, and drums, highlighted by Downie’s shrieks. This right here is The Tragically Hip. An amalgamation of styles, sounds, and emotions that can help try to bring some sort of definition to this interesting band. Hopefully the link takes you to The Tragically Hip channel on YouTube so you too can find yourself falling down this rabbit hole of sound.

 

No dress rehearsal — this is our life.