• Richard Lloyd of Television: “What is country music? It’s always driven by heartache. Rock & roll on the other hand, often exudes a kind of celebration of rebelliousness and debauchery. But what comes after debauchery? Agony. You can’t have one without the other. They call that big angel, big devil where I come from.”
• Hayes Carll: “I take stock of myself and the world around me and write about it. ... I understand a lot of people look to music as an escape, and it can be really upsetting when it feels like that’s disrupted. But I have a really low tolerance for the people who say ‘shut up and sing.’ It minimizes everybody’s voice. We are citizens, and we are artists.”
• Jason Isbell: "Politics is not a football game, and I think that’s where a lot of Americans make a mistake: They root for one side, and when that side wins, they rub it in your face, and when that side loses, they get really pissed off and saying the game was rigged. It’s not a sporting event. It’s real. Whoever wins, we all have to deal with it, for better or for worse. I did what I could so I was able to sleep at night, no matter who won."
• And finally, the late great Joe Strummer: “I used to be just another guy on the street, but now I’m just another LP on the shelf.”
Charles Brown’s presence is felt every year during the holidays thanks to two classic ballads — “Merry Christmas Baby” and “Please Come Home for Christmas.”
The list of artists who’ve covered the songs is a “Who’s Who” in music. “Merry Christmas Baby” has been recorded more than 90 times, by artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Bruce Springsteen to Otis Redding and Chuck Berry, to name a few. More than 30 artists have recorded “Please Come Home for Christmas.” Among them: The Eagles, James Brown, Willie Nelson and Bon Jovi.
Released 12 years apart, the origin of both songs is in some dispute. Brown insisted he wrote both, reworking “Merry Christmas Baby” for a friend who needed money for surgery and penning “Please Come Home for Christmas” while being forced to work for a kingpin who ran illegal gambling clubs in Northern Kentucky.
“Merry Christmas Baby” is credited to Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore, the leader of the trio that Brown first recorded with in the mid 1940s. Charles plays piano and sings lead on the song but was denied the writing credit he always claimed he deserved.
“Johnny Moore was illiterate,” Brown told me. “He couldn’t sign his name.”
Brown claimed that he reworked Baxter’s lyrics for a song titled “Merry Xmas Baby” as a favor. Richie Dell Thomas, a friend of Brown’s who I met in the 1990s in Houston, said she remembered him working on the song in her apartment in Los Angeles.
“That song is his as much as it anyone else’s,” Thomas said. “Charles doesn’t lie about that stuff.”
In a December 2017 article in the Smithsonian Magazine, writer William Browning reaches the same conclusion, saying, “At a minimum, I think Brown should have received partial credit for writing the song.”
I did not know the origin of “Please Come Home for Christmas” until I read a 2014 Cincinnati Enquirerarticle by Steven Rosen, who notes that Brown spent time working in gambling clubs owned by the notorious Frank “Screw” Andrews from 1959 to 1961.
By this point, Brown’s star had faded — he had not had a hit since 1952 — and he was in heavy debt due to a lifelong gambling habit. He became Andrews’ house pianist, working with fellow singer/pianist Amos Milburn.
In 1960, Syd Nathan of King Records asked Brown if he could “write something as good as ‘Merry Christmas Baby’.” The result was “Please Come Home for Christmas,” Brown’s last hit as part of a split single with Milburn’s “Christmas Comes but Once a Year.” But on the second song, which Brown claimed was a solo effort, King Records musician Gene Rudd receives a co-writing credit.
Had Brown received proper publishing credit for those two songs — and, if we’re being honest, not gambled as much — the residuals would have left him comfortable financially. But, like other artists who saw potential windfalls vanish without a trace, he didn’t get to benefit from his creation.
If you know me, you know how much I love music. All kinds, live or studio. Ones that play to the masses — there’s nothing better than a good pop song — and ones that draw a handful to each show.
My primary requirement is that the majority of the instruments be played by humans, not machines. Also, as a writer, I greatly appreciate anyone who can tell a story through words and/or emotions. The best performers can do both.
Here are a few other thoughts I’ve had recently…
• I'm an Elvis fan. Not a member of the cult, but one who recognizes his appeal, talent, and ability to cut across generations. (I'm also a big fan of the TCB band. Damn, they were good.)
• Have you ever listened to an album and wondered, "What were they thinking when they chose THAT as the first single?"
• Jon Dee Graham has long been one of my favorite artists, in part because he’s so freaking smart about the small things in life. Here is a quote in which he paraphrases Bruce Springsteen, another favorite:
"Springsteen was here for South By Southwest and, the one thing that he said that really just killed me, because once again, it proves to me that artists are all the same…he said you must have absolute confidence and you must doubt completely, and you must be as brave as possible but you need to worry all the time, and you need to know that you're the best act in town and yet at the same time know in your heart you suck. And that's it, right there, that's it."
• Milkduds and Merlot: Sounds like the end of a long day, the name of a country song ... or both.
• And finally, a belated RIP to Etta James, who died in mid January. This song is not one of her best known, or even one of her best, but it’s definitely one of my favorites.
A few thoughts on music from a 50-year-old white guy… (Photos are mine, too.)
I’ve spent my life trying to explain to people why I enjoy the music I like, and (usually unsuccessfully) why they should, too.
Leave it to Jason Isbell to explain it better than I could: “It’s punk, but it doesn’t sound like punk. It’s punk with different instruments and different songs.”
Isbell then goes on to explain, “It’s people who are trying to do the right thing. When it’s at its best, it’s people trying to make music because they love music, and they’re not trying to swindle anybody, they’re not trying to get rich and famous immediately, they’re trying to make music that goes back to their roots, they’re trying to have some credibility, they’re trying to be authentic.”
I recently saw Isbell at the UNITE to Face Addiction rally in Washington, D.C., where he was on the bill with Joe Walsh, Sheryl Crow, Steven Tyler, the Goo-Goo Dolls, and The Fray, among others. As a freelancer, I received a press pass to take pictures at the event, but my primary interest was seeing Isbell live for the first time.
All afternoon, I found myself telling people about Isbell’s music. Despite critical acclaim, especially for his last two albums, and growing awareness, many in the crowd didn’t know who he was.
“Just listen,” I said. “Then you’ll know.”
I turned around to look at the crowd during “Cover Me Up.”
I wish I could be a music critic or a concert photographer. I love capturing live events and think I’m pretty decent at it, but I'm not sure I'd be the most objective critic (if there is such a thing). I know what I like, what I don’t, and even though I’m open to anything that catches my ear, I’m reasonably sure my opinions wouldn’t gibe with much of what passes for criticism these days.
That said, here are some things I’ve heard recently that I’ve enjoyed and put into heavy rotation:
• Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats: “SOB”
The best, most unrepentant song I’ve heard since “Rehab.” It brings a smile to my face everytime I hear it, and the video is terrific. Their self-titled album gives me the same warm feeling that “St. Paul and the Broken Bones” did last year.
• Tommy Stinson: “Can’t Be Bothered”
I’m a huge fan of The Replacements, but only recently have gotten into Stinson’s solo work. This is his latest, a single from a yet-to-be-delivered album, and it’s really good. It made me go back and revisit Bash & Pop’s “Friday Night is Killing Me,” the first Stinson solo effort and best album that came from The Replacements ashes. That is, until Paul Westerberg delivered “Mono.”
• Keith Richards: “Crosseyed Heart”
“Live at the Hollywood Palladium,” an out-of-print live album from 1988, remains in my rotation because it represents the best of what made the Stones great. And that, at least for me, is Richards. His new album is more of the same, which is plenty good.
• Dave and Phil Alvin: “Lost Time”
The follow up to the brothers' “Common Ground” is better, more lived in, and always welcome, although I find myself yearning for an album by Dave and his Guilty Men lineup.
• Amy Helm: “Didn’t It Rain”
On what is an admittedly male-centric list, the solo debut by Levon’s daughter more than holds its own. Terrific harmony, nice songwriting, and a couple of cuts that feature Helm’s late father on drums.
• Ryan Adams: “1989”
Everyone it seems has an opinion on Adams’ track-by-track cover/reinterpretation of Taylor Swift’s multiplatinum album. No matter what you think about Swift, and I’m an admirer of her talent (although I could do without the rest), Adams’ effort ranks up there with his best and ballsiest work.
• William Harries Graham and the Painted Redstarts: “Foreign Fields”
Damn, this is good, and Graham is at least 20 years younger than anyone on my current list. Jon Dee Graham’s son contributes an album that is nothing like his father’s work musically. And when it’s this good, who cares?
Great quote: “I suppose that I didn’t know what I would become, but I always wanted to be extremely brave and I wanted to be a constant reminder to the universe of what passion looks like. What it sounds like. What it feels like.” — Lady Gaga
Like I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of The Replacements, and saw them twice on their all-too-brief (though highly entertaining) reunion. Still I couldn’t help but laugh after reading this comment recently: The Replacements and REM were the Beatles and The Rolling Stones for the fucked up.
An EP not on my earlier list but also worth mentioning is Glen Hansard’s tribute to Jason Molina, the Songs: Ohia and Magnetic Electric Co. singer/songwriter who died two years ago from alcohol-related complications at the age of 39.
“It Was Triumph We Once Proposed: Songs of Jason Molina” is Hansard’s five-song tribute. It includes loyal covers of two of Molina’s best-received compositions, “Hold On Magnolia” and “Farewell Transmission,” either of which makes the entire EP worth owning. “Farewell Transmission” is especially melancholy and beautiful, and a reminder of how too many musicians leave us too soon.
To see Molina perform “Farewell Transmission,” just click on the video. (Song starts at the 1:20 mark)
Great quote finale: From Jason Isbell, pretty much summing up my attitude toward writing about music in this or any other space — “I’m happy [for] anything that’s given me more of a home to do what I like to do.”
For some reason, I’ve been having trouble writing about the death of Prince. So many words have been said and so much purple ink spilled that there really isn’t much more that I can contribute.
But damn, that dude was talented. All you have to do is watch his Super Bowl halftime show.
No matter what you thought about Prince, he was a visionary in the music world. Like David Bowie, he mixed fashion, androgyny, funk, and throwback rock and roll into an always fascinating stew.
The results pushed the entire music industry in directions it did not anticipate; who would have thought he could almost turn Tipper Gore into a Republican? (If you don’t believe me, look it up.)
I wish 2016 would just let up when it comes to the deaths of people I’ve admired and appreciated as a fan of music and the performing arts. If I was a popular performer in the 1970s and '80s, I'd be more than a little scared. (Unless my name was Keith Richards, of course.)
Here are some excerpts from a Rolling Stone interview with Paul Westerberg after Prince’s death. The two were acquaintances who played the same clubs in Minneapolis; Westerberg also recorded at Prince’s studio, Paisley Park, after The Replacements broke up.
• He was like a ray of light in a very cautious place. He was a star. He made no bones about it. He was glitz to a place that wasn't used to it. I remember a little scuffle broke out in front of the stage one night and Prince said, "Stop fighting, you'll mess up your clothes."
• People like to paint him as a reclusive this or that; I think he was genuinely truly, truly shy. But one thing says a lot about him: I was there making a solo record a few years later, and I got a message that said that my friend had just died. I was truly rattled, and the next time I went back into the studio, he had filled it up with balloons. Now I'm gonna cry.
• I've spent more time with Bob Dylan, and I've got to say that I was more in awe of Prince. I can't think of anyone better – an all-around composer, musician, guitarist, star, showman, the whole package, anyone better. If Elvis wrote all of his songs and played guitar, it still wouldn't quite be there.
• When I got word today, I was trying to write a song. I put it down. I found myself walking up to the store, and I bought myself a handful of colorful clothes. I was just drawn to do something that he would have done.
My favorite post on this topic:
If you give us back Prince, Merle Haggard, David Bowie and Alan Rickman we will gladly give you the top 4 presidential candidates in return.
This is appropriate song, given the type of year we’ve been having.
An excerpt from Patti Smith's recent book on the creative process:
“Why is one compelled to write? To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the wants of others. Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras had her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed."
I have Starbucks.
More on the creative process, courtesy of John Doe, another of my favorite musicians:
“One of the reasons I'm here is to make stuff. To make songs and to be an actor and do art and things like that, so that's what's important. You shouldn't worry about what your rewards are. Your reward should be having created that thing.
“I hardly ever wake up and think, ‘Oh, today I'm gonna write a song.’ It just happens. And I think it's the same as — again, to get philosophical — a lot of things, the more time you put into it, the more reward comes out of it. So if I'm writing and playing most every day, then more stuff will come out of it. If I put it away, then there's other stuff that's going on in your head. If you have a down period, try not to get frightened of it or don't get spooked by it. Just let it go. Let it go until you feel like playing again.”
Simon Wright, in his “Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” blog, has summed up my musical tastes perfectly: “The uncomfortable reality is that my record collection is peopled with screwed-up individuals who self-medicated themselves into oblivion and/or an early grave but made some fine rock ’n’ roll along the way.”
And finally, a Replacements-related note: Playing the Live at Maxwell’s version of "Hayday" is oddly soothing while shopping at Home Depot, aka the ninth circle of hell. Check it out here and see if you agree.
Some random thoughts on Aug. 16, an infamous day for music fans:
• RIP, Aretha Franklin, and on the anniversary of Elvis' death too. Wow...
• Agree with this statement wholeheartedly: Some days I need the music and some days I need the lyrics. And this song is one of the best examples of that. It's a wonderful tonic for the soul.
• Another music note: If the Dixie Chicks are recording (as has been rumored), I wish they would cover "Young and Angry Again" by Lori McKenna. It’s a great song they could do a lot with from her new album, The Tree.