Songs

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We’ll be closed today, but we’ll be open earlier than usual tomorrow at 9am. Yes, we have a big selection of the limited black Friday release. Also we’ll have some delicious pizza and brownies from our friends at Moon Palace’s Geek Love Cafe. We hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

And now, as is our tradition, here is Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.”

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We love Thanksgiving! It’s one of our family’s favorite days of the year. We’ve already got all our groceries and now it’s just three days away!

 

This week we discussed with a friend what his son’s musical taste was likely to become, growing up in a home with two musicians and others often visiting for band practice in the basement. It reminded us of Paul Witgenstein, who was destined to become a pianist, and whose determination to play led to the commission of a whole new subgenre in music for the left hand.

Witgenstein grew up in one of the wealthiest households in the world. His home in Vienna was of often visited by famous musicians, including Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler, and as a boy he played duets with Richard Strauss. What’s more is that his grandmother was the woman who had adopted Joseph Joachim, the famous violinist and friend of Brahms, and arranged for him to study piano with Felix Mendelssohn.

In December of 1913, Paul Witgenstein made his debut in Vienna’s Grosser Musikvereinsaal and received good reviews. The following summer, of course, came “the guns of August,” and at twenty-seven he was conscripted to serve in the Austrian army alongside his philosopher brother, Ludwig. In battle on the Eastern front, he was shot and lost consciousness. When he awoke as a prisoner of war, he found his right arm had been amputated.

While a prisoner in Siberia, Witgenstein “practiced” on a wooden crate with his left hand, and began to dream of ways to play his favorite music of Chopin without a right hand. He was returned to Austria by the Russians in a prisoner exchange in 1915, in part because they felt a one-armed man was not useful for forced labor.

After the War, Wittgenstein used his family’s enormous wealth to commission works from an extraordinary list of great composers, creating a collection of concerti similar to the book of variations created by Anton Diabelli which we featured in a post last month. This collection came to include works by Ravel, Britten, Richard Strauss and Prokofiev, to name just a few.

Pianist Nicholas McCarthy has a lot to say about Witgenstein and the music he commissioned, because he himself was born without a right arm. “The most poignant thing must have been to have lost his hand after such a long struggle to become a pianist,” he wrote. “Because he came from such a high society family, being an ‘entertainer’ was looked down upon.”

Wittgenstein had a bit of an attitude himself, and was even critical of several of the works he commissioned. He did not initially approve of Maurice Ravel’s employment of jazz motifs in his Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major, and to the consternation of the composer chose to perform it with his own revisions. This is a shame because the single movement concerto is one of the most interesting of Ravel’s explorations of American music, while also incorporating clever ideas from Saint Saen’s 6 Etudes por la main gauche seule.

More remarkably, Wittgenstein chose not to perform the concerto composed by Sergei Prokofiev altogether.

We are passionate fans of Prokofiev’s works, and can’t imagine simply sitting on something so lively and inventive. Wittgenstein did not, as is sometimes written, refuse to play the Piano Concerto No 4 in B-flat major, he said he would perform it when he understood it, and this just never happened. This sounds to us a lot like the notorious “Minnesota no,” which is when the booker doesn’t get back to you about your band after repeated entreaties because he doesn’t want to tell you that you suck.

Unlike Ravel, Prokofiev remained friendly with Wittgenstein. He considered adapting it as a two-hand concerto, but never found the time. Sadly, it went unperformed until Wittgenstein passed away in the early sixties. This is because he retained exclusive performance rights for the works he commissioned during his lifetime. “You don’t build a house so that someone else can live in it,” he famously explained.

For this reason many of the works Wittgenstein commissioned are not familiar, even to fans of the composers. For instance, Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote a characteristically bombastic concerto for in 1922 which has elements of his exciting film scores as well as a Wagnerian sense of tonality. It is, in many ways, our favorite of the left handed repertoire.

Wittgenstein’s exclusivity caused one of the lefty concertos to nearly go unheard. This was the concerto written by German composer Paul Hindesmith, which Wittgenstein apparently so disliked he did not keep the autograph (or original) copy. After his widows’ passing his papers became available to researches and in 2004 a copy of Hindesmith’s Opus 29 was discovered. Although it contained errors, Hindesmith’s enthusiasts were able to reconstruct his Concerto for the Left Hand from sketches and it received its long-overdue debut in Berlin.

Paul Wittgenstein lived out his late years teaching in the United States, where he’d become a citizen in 1946. In spite of his complicated relationship with some of the composers, his commissioned works and their story inspire pianists whether they have the use of one or two hands.

Another remarkable story began in 1964, when concert pianist Leon Fleisher developed a nerve condition called focal distonial, which cost him the use of his right hand in the middle of a successful career distinguished by his interpretations of Mozart and Brahms. For years he performed the left handed repertoire, until his condition was improved with the experimental use of botox. In 2004, the same year he performed the debut of the nearly-lost Hindesmith concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic, Fleisher released his first album since his recovery. He titled it Two Hands.

This new LP by Ryan Holweger hits a sweet spot here at Hymies. The album is filled with raucous country rock gems, but what really sticks to the ribs are the Uncle Tupelo-ish ballads like “After the Oil Rush.” There’s really timeless moments on this album and Holweger’s record release show at Mortimer’s tonight promises to be a great live set filled with exactly those sort of things. Adding to the appeal is opener Martin Devaney, who will be releasing his first album in years this December. Fans of swoony country-rock be warned: the multi-talented Ryan Holweger is going to be on your radar this winter.

Are cats awesome, or just an enormous pain in our butts? In our family, the merits of our own Momar the Cat are the subject of household debate. Dave dotes on him but the little black and white trouble maker only makes rare visits to the record store, usually ending in disaster.

Whether Mo Cat enjoys the music we play or not is hard to tell. It seems he’s much more interested in the songs of the birds — maybe he would prefer we more often listen to Oliver Messiaen.

Anyway, here are a few songs we chose for the ten pound terror…

Henry Mancini’s “Song for Cat” is a mambo masterpiece, magically melding lush swing with soulful latin strut. The song was composed for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but like so many of the maestro’s best moments has a life of its own.

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The highlight of the 1957 album New Jazz Lp The Cats is a trio performance led by pianist Tommy Flanagan, but the record swings solidly in its opening track “Minor Mishap.” This song features John Coltrane, Idrees Sulieman and Kenny Burrell as soloists — one of the last Coltrane performances before his epic early Atlantic recordings.

Flanagan’s ponderous “How Long Has This Been Going On?” (with the rhythm section of Doug Watkins and Louis Hayes) is the sort of evocative make-out jazz our friend Mo Cat enjoys interrupting. Flanagan is underrated among pianists of his era, heard here at his best.

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Our last selection of songs for swinging cats comes from Quincy Jones’ appropriately slinky album, Quincy Plays for Pussycats. His take on “What’s New Pussycat?” is fun, but the best thing on this record is “Blues for Trumpet and Koto,” written by the reliably inventive Marvin Hamlisch (whose name is mis-spelled on the album’s credits). As with most of the great Quincy Jones Orchestra recordings on Mercury, the performers are not credited, so we don’t know who are the soloists in this big band based duet. We think its a perfect soundtrack for the afternoons when our Mo Cat wrestles with the clumsy mutt we adopted two years ago.

welcome backThat’s the theme from Welcome Back Kotter, written by John Sebastian for the middle-70s television series. While with the Lovin’ Spoonful Sebastian had written seven top 10 hits, this TV theme was his only successful single as a solo artist.

Welcome Back Kotter was one of the first sitcoms to present a lighter version of the Norman Lear format established with All in the Family, and it ran successfully for four seasons on ABC. The show centers around Gabe Kotter, a teacher played by comedian Gabe Kaplan, who returns to his alma mater, James Buchanan High School in Brooklyn, to teach a group of outcasts known as the Sweathogs (because they have the hottest room in the building). While Kaplan was the star, the series is best remembered for having launched the career of John Travolta, who you might remember from such films as The Boy in the Plastic Bubble and Phenomenon.

Folks often have a laugh at the John Travolta’s tidily quaffed hair on LP jackets in the shop, assuming his musical career started with Saturday Night Fever or Grease — but in fact his first hit, “Let Her In,” was released when he was still starring on Welcome Back Kotter. His first ever appearance on an album was even earlier than that — he had a role in the 1974 Sherman Brothers musical Over Here! which also featured two of the Andrews Sisters.

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Comedian Gabe Kaplan’s 1974 LP, Holes and Mello Roles, was the inspiration for the television series. It was first released by ABC Records with an image of popsicles crashing into the moon on the jacket. After the success of the series, the album was reissued with an image featuring Kaplan with the Sweathogs.

fonzThe Sweathogs made an goofy appearance on this 1976 TV-marketed oldies compilation, Fonzie’s Favorites. The back of the album (which includes a die-cut stand so you can put the Fonz on your piano next to the kids’ school pictures) promises “the Fonz has not taken to singing on this album. Better!! He has chosen his favorite 50s records to share with you.”

One side of this collection of familiar favorites by the likes of the Coasters, the Elegants and the Five Satins ends with a couple novelty songs — notably “The Fonzarelli Slide,” which inexplicably has the cast of Welcome Back Kotter meeting the Fonz, who would of course be older than Kotter by the middle seventies.

This wasn’t the only connection between the two hit sitcoms — when Pat Morita, who played Arnold, left Happy Days it was to star in a short-lived Welcome Back Kotter spin-off, Mr. T and Tina (which was, incidentally, the first sitcom to feature an Asian American as the lead). Sitcom spin-offs were all the rage and Happy Days itself produced six of them. Arnold’s replacement, Al, later married the mother of Fonzie’s cousin Chachi, who was played by Ellen Travolta, sister of actor John Travolta. Still with us? She first played Arnold Horshack’s mother on Welcome Back Kotter. And this concludes the least interesting paragraph ever posted on the Hymie’s blog.

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Travolta’s albums were the most successful, but he was not the only of Kotter’s Sweathogs to make a record. Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who played Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington not only sang back-up on Rick James’ Street Songs but made two albums of his own in the late 70s. A 1981 Halo single produced by Hilton-Jacobs is one of the rarest modern soul/boogie records you’ll never find (and is a pretty good party jam), selling for more than $1500 on any rare occasion when it appears online.

Hilton-Jacobs turned in a well-received performance as Joe Jackson in the 1992 TV movie based on Katherine Jackson’s autobiography, The Jacksons: An American Dream. He had a recurring role as a hard-nosed detective on the series based on Alien Nation, and has many screenwriting credits as well.

None of the remaining Sweathogs made records, although Ron Pallilo, who played Arnold Horshack, once portrayed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart off Broadway.

For Dia de los Muertes, a selection of a few songs about dead celebrities. There are, of course, many more. Some are sincere tributes, and some slightly satirical.

The celebration of a dead celebrity is one of my favorite thematic forms in pop music and today we’re going to listen to a small sampling that runs through most genres. Some of them are genuine tributes and some less sincere.

This first track is Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues” from the 2001 album Time (The Revelator). It was ranked #2 on our “Top Ten Songs About Elvis” ages ago, falling behind “Elvis is Everywhere” by Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper. There are a lot of tributes to Elvis Presley, but he is not the #1 subject of dead celebrity songs.

Our guess is that honor would go to Hank Williams. We have a whole section of entire albums dedicated to Hank Sr. in our shop. Some classic include the Waylon Jennings standard “I Don’t Think Hank Done it This Way” and Johnny Paycheck’s “Help Me Hank I’m Fallin’.” An obscure favorite of ours in Robert Earl Keen’s bizarre “The Great Hank.”

Our own in-house record label released an album by Whiskey Jeff and the Beer Back Band which includes a tribute to Hank!

One of the earliest and most sincere tributes to hank was recorded soon after his death by Ernest Tubb.

“A Tribute to a King” by William Bell is an excellent follow-up to the Ernest Tubb track because each are exemplary within their respective genres. William Bell’s tribute to Otis Redding is great southern soul and our the best track on this playlist. Otis Redding is another frequent subject of tribute songs.

Not all songs about dead celebrities mourn their passing – Millions of Dead Cops spit on the grave of movie star John Wayne with this vitriolic attack. Its kind of hard to tell how much of John Wayne’s legacy is the interpretation of his admirers and how much was actually John Wayne. Was John Wayne a nazi? No. Is it difficult to reconcile some of the things he said? Yes. MDC took it too far with this track, but it remains a highlight of their first record.

Bauhaus’ first single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” pioneered gothic rock, but also drew from from the dub influence common in UK pop at the time. The epic tune captures the enduring fascination with Lugosi, whose 1931 performance as Dracula seared the image of vampirism into the American psyche.

REM’s super-hit “Man on the Moon” was certainly the most successful tribute to a dead celebrity since “Candle in the Wind,” and unlike most pervasive radio hits of the mid-90s its aged pretty well. This is still a really great song. And Automatic for the People contained a second tribute to a dead celebrity, by the way – “Monty Got a Raw Deal” memorializes actor Montgomery Cliff, who really did get a pretty raw deal.

The members of Bauhaus would probably enjoy Nick Lowe’s gory tribute to silent film actress Marie Provost, who died at the age of forty in 1937. Nick Lowe takes a liberty with the sad circumstances of her death, however, as she did die along in her apartment but was not in fact eaten by her dachshund. Police concluded the dog nibbled at her leg in an effort to rouse her.

Kids in the Hall star Bruce McCollough probably summed it up in “Vigil”, from his obnoxious but surprisingly listenable debut musical performance, Shame-Based Man.

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This may be an unusual place to end our collection of tributes to dead celebrities – After all, what about “Candle in the Wind”, and how can any collection be complete without “American Pie”? You’ve already heard them enough and unlike “Man on the Moon” they’ve gotten to be tired old radio standards. we usually change the station when we hear those tired 70s tropes.

This collection has also entirely omitted jazz, even though jazz artists reliably remember their predecessors. We think Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (Dedicated to Lester Young) is among his finest melodies, and Duke Ellington’s album And His Mother Called Him Bill is a heartbreaking tribute to the recently-deceased Billy Strayhorn that is beyond comparison. Mingus also wrote a piece about Charlie Parker called “If Charlie Parker Had Been a Gun-Slinger There’d be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats”.

Anyway, here is Simon and Garfunkel’s “So Long Frank Lloyd Wright” which is a pretty simple farewell to the great architect.

[Yes, the image you see at the top of this post is Michael Jackson at James Brown’s funeral.]

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