The first time I heard “Praise You” was when I saw the brilliant video for it that was directed by Spike Jonze shortly after the single was released. It was at some early morning hour after a night of drinking that was intermixed with a little bit of pot smoking. (Full disclosure: even when I was younger and would smoke on a semi-consistent basis I was always a lightweight. Two hits, maybe three, and I was more than set. I had friends who would wake and bake. And then have a bowl before lunch. And then have a bowl at 2:00p. And then have a bowl before dinner. And then have a bowl before going out. And then have a couple of bowls and smoke a bong at a party. These people were not real to me; they were unicorns as far as I was concerned. Never in a million years could I ever do that, even if I wanted to. If I smoked up when I awoke I’d be back asleep by 10:00a and I’d have moss growing on me by 7:00p. And smoke a bong? Forget it. I’d be on a couch trying to figure out why my tongue felt like it was 10 pounds, wondering if I’d ever be able to talk again.)
So I stumble upon the video and this song on this particular night and I immediately think I am a thousand times more stoned that I actually am. Full blown Twilight Zone moment where I start to question if what I am seeing is actually what’s happening. Knowing nothing about Fatboy Slim beforehand or even what Spike Jonze looks like (I recognized the name from his other classic videos: “Sabotage” by Beastie Boys and “Cannonball” by The Breeders, amongst others) I just took the video at face value: that the collection of late ’80s/early ’90s people in the dance troupe were real and that the video was made to look like it was shot guerrilla style—kind of like how some videos in the ’80s were made to look like concert footage. The reality was that the video was done guerrilla style, Jonze played the “troupe” leader, and Slim makes an appearance toward the end of the video standing behind Jonze at a movie theater crowded with people unaware of what had just happened. The video cost less than $1,000 to make.
While the video is hilarious and completely sucked me in—especially if you’re drunk-high the first time you see it—the music is brilliant and enchanting. I think I bought the album a couple days later. The vocals on “Praise You” are sampled from Camille Yarbrough’s “Take Yo’ Praise.” The piano was taken from a test album produced by JBL. All of the other samples, which range from the TV cartoon Fat Albert to a disco album that Disney released in the ’70s, flesh out the rest of the sound.
Yarbrough’s vocal sample and the JBL piano sample are the two things that stand front and center here. Until recently, I just assumed that the vocals were from a fellow Brit who fronted a band I was unfamiliar with (like Tim Burgess singing on The Chemical Brothers’ masterpiece “Life Is Sweet”); never would I have guessed that it was a ’70s female soul singer. What’s interesting to me about the piano sample is that it has such great energy and movement without having to be propulsive. A piano’s presence on a song, specifically if it is the foreground instrument from start to finish, needs to be a bit hyperactive in order to move your feet because oftentimes a piano just gets you to move your hands (or maybe sway your head). For the most part the piano is a montage-maker. The piano is typically the personal instrument, the storyteller’s instrument. If you’re going to see someone perform live who plays the piano you’re probably going to be in your seat for most of the show, whereas if the piano is an accent for a band or an artist you are probably not sitting in a seat.
Of course, Fatboy Slim (born Norman Cook) injects some terrific beats and textures behind the piano to bring it to life, but even just the looping piano sample at the beginning of the track is simple and addictive and has great movement. Any electronic track that juggles samples successfully or impressively is something that can endear people to the artist in subtle, different ways than a band with traditional instruments can. If an electronic song with samples connects with a listener it becomes easier to appreciate the alchemy of it all; the hours spent not only retrofitting a previous work into something new, but also the hours spent just trying to find the previous works to begin with.
“Praise You” was released as a single in January of ’99 from the 1998 album You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby and it was the third single (“The Rockafeller Skank” was the first). To say that it was a breath of fresh air amongst the tweener pop and bro rock that defined the last year of the ’90s is a vast understatement.
Fatboy Slim and Spike Jonze would later team up on a video for “Weapon of Choice,” another insanely hilarious and random and well executed video which followed Christopher Walken dancing inside of a hotel by himself. That song and video are outstanding but “Praise You” is on another level.
Blind Lemon Jefferson was born Lemon Henry Jefferson in Coutchman, Texas in 1893 (I know, you probably thought Lemon was part of his nickname and was no part of his birth name). He was blind at birth and was one of eight children. His exact birth date and birthplace weren’t known until some census research was done decades later.
Jefferson started playing guitar in his teens, performing at picnics and parties (sometimes for up to ten hours) before moving to the streets of East Texas. He was influenced by local guitarists and workers as well as Mexican immigrants, and the end result was a country blues sound ahead of its time in that included flamenco style riffs too. Jefferson eventually moved to Dallas and began performing in the Deep Ellum area, meeting up with Lead Belly, a future giant of the blues who held Lemon in high regard, and influencing other Texas giants like Lightnin’ Hopkins. These are the broad points as to why Lemon is referred to as “Father of the Texas Blues.”
Lemon traveled and performed throughout Texas and across the way over to Memphis before eventually making his way to Chicago in either late 1925 or early 1926 to record for the first time. The first sessions from Chicago, recorded by Paramount Records, found Jefferson performing “I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart” and “All I Want Is That Pure Religion,” both of which were gospel songs released under the pseudonym Deacon L.J. Bates. All of his future recordings were under his own name save for “He Arose From the Dead” and “Where Shall I Be?” which were released under the Bates name and Elder J.C. Brown, respectively. Jefferson’s recordings, specifically his blues recordings, are significant because he was one of the earliest and most successful American musicians to record music, which makes him sui generis of country blues and roots music as we know it. (Charley Patton is also in this category too; Patton is the father of Delta blues and is to Mississippi what Jefferson is to Texas.) With the exception of a few recordings on the Okeh label—notably, “Black Snake Moan” and “Matchbox Blues”—all of Jefferson’s recording were done with Paramount.
The aforementioned “Black Snake Moan” and “Matchbox Blues” are seminal recordings in Lemon’s catalog. The former accented with a moaning howl that countless blues and rock artists would try to later emulate even if they weren’t cognizant of the source material, and the latter is the origin of Carl Perkins’s classic “Matchbox,” which influenced some kids from Liverpool who were known to play in clubs in Germany before hitting it big. But it is “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” that probably best exemplifies Jefferson both in music and big picture terms.
Musically speaking, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” unfolds with a rhythmic strumming that is beautiful on its own terms while also being nothing short of an auditory mosaic of Americana. The last part might skew toward hyperbole but when you’re one of the first musicians to record music your legacy and iconography can be literally described as anything short of celestial or supernatural. “Well, there’s one kind of favor I’ll ask of you” begins Jefferson in the first chorus before asking if you can see that his grave is kept clean. His vocals on this track croon and moan as he sings about white horses, coffins, church bells, and dying hearts. This is a song that could sound overly haunting from start to finish (and maybe it is to some), but to me it just sounds like a God-fearing man on another level in terms of musical craft. The religious overtones pale in comparison to his talent; a blind person showing you their world through music at some point ceases to be about the words they’re singing.
In a big picture sense “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” has been covered by a throng of musicians such as: B.B. King, Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, the aforementioned Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lou Reed, and Mavis Staples. Son House used the song’s melody on his “Mississippi County Farm Blues.” It also served as an inadvertent real life request as up until 1967 Jefferson’s grave in Wortham, TX was unmarked until a historical marker and an updated tombstone with inscribed lyrics from the song placed on it because of donations from musicians during the blues and folk revival of that decade.
Blind Lemon Jefferson is a giant of American music; his footprint on modern music is still felt to this day and will continue to exist so long as human beings live on this earth. Trying to pick one song to define is admittedly a bit of a fool’s errand. His entire catalog is a series of chapters that paints a picture of America before the technology on which it was recorded on became a separate, newer picture of America.
[Editor's note: this post is written by Mike W. Petersen, who I met many moons ago when the two of us were working at an Italian restaurant after high school. He introduced me to old school blues, Deskmond Dekker, and Bob Dylan, amongst many other artists and songs that I am forever grateful for. I asked him to guest write a post about a blues song---pick basically anything you like, I said---and this is what he picked. Reader, you are in good hands.]
In Amadeus, Milos Forman frames Mozart’s death with the composer’s “Requiem Mass in D minor.” As the story unfolds, the “Requiem” becomes an all-encompassing effort, taxing Mozart creatively and physically. It represents the utmost of his talents, serving as an autobiographical monument to a musical genius.
If “Space Guitar” was recorded at the end of his career, it would be an appropriate requiem for Johnny “Guitar” Watson, a musician whose style and skill would influence legendary artists across the spectrum of American popular music for decades.
Like the “Requiem” in reverse, Watson defined his versatility, presence, and skill in just under two and a half minutes and it would echo through his career. But outside of blues fans and guitar aficionados, Watson remains in relative obscurity despite influencing generations of musicians and previewing the importance of electric guitar in the nascent style that would become rock and roll.
Johnny Watson had yet to adopt the nickname “Guitar” when he recorded “Space Guitar” in 1954. At the time, the teenaged Young John Watson was primarily a vocalist and piano player. He had scored a recording contract at 12, and had been recording and touring the West Coast with his own combo, and other R&B acts like the Mellotones since moving to Los Angeles at 15. He had already fronted two versions of “Motorhead Baby” as well as cutting the classic “Highway 60.”
With any young performer, whether Mozart or Madonna, there comes a time to grow up and push the envelope. “Space Guitar” was that turning point for Young John. He was looking to define himself as a lead player while simultaneously setting himself apart from the jump bands with which he toured the juke joint circuit. The sound of “Space Guitar” serves as both homage to his Texas blues roots (with licks and phrasing that owe a lot to T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown) and a bold step away from the conventions of lead guitar.
Perhaps it was that bold step that doomed “Space Guitar.” In hindsight, it was a song way ahead of its time. In 1954, the R&B charts were dominated by doo-wop, electric blues, and a brand of R&B that was still a couple years (and notches in tempo) away from rock and roll. “Space Guitar” finds itself more sonically at home with late-‘60s garage than the R&B charts when it was released. Though the rhythm section’s feet are firmly planted in the conventions of ‘50s jump blues, the lead is 15 years ahead of its time.
As a “Requiem,” “Space Guitar” represents who Watson wanted to—and eventually did—become: a brash showman, inveterate ladies’ man and guitar pioneer. “Space Guitar” has all the bravado and showiness for which Watson’s stage performances were known. He was an early adopter of ridiculously long guitar cables, allowing him to do the kind of stage acrobatics future guitarists would emulate in arena shows for decades. The acrobatics here are all on six strings: he makes his Stratocaster whistle, snarl, and bark. The song starts with rapid-fire bursts of biting guitar riffs, frantic like a cartoon chase scene, then dives headfirst into soloing up and down the length of the guitar’s neck. The onslaught of wild guitar relents only briefly for a sax solo intermittently drenched in reverb. Watson’s guitar dives back into the song, culminating in a spree of lightning-fast riffs unmatched until the likes of Dick Dale. (Keep in mind that Dick Dale’s signature machine-gun-fast ‘60s surf was played with a pick. Watson was notorious for wearing out three sets of strings a night without ever touching a pick. The man must have had bulletproof callouses or a ready and willing blood donor backstage.)
As impressive as his raw fingerpicking (eww…) is by itself, it is only half the equation of “Space Guitar.” There was no shortage of great guitarists on the R&B charts at the time. B.B King, Lowell Fulson, Guitar Slim and other blues legends all held spots in the charts (and in some cases the stage) with Watson. What Watson did with his guitar’s sound on this record was light years beyond his contemporaries.
While it was often the product of an overloud (or occasionally broken) amplifier, guitar distortion was well-established in electric blues before Watson’s masterpiece was produced. There are plenty of earlier examples like “Rocket 88″ by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats or Guitar Slim’s “The Things that I Used to Do” where the lead guitar’s tone is distorted. The difference with “Space Guitar” is that Watson uses distortion and reverb as sonic dynamics in the song. He dials both the reverb and distortion in and out like he’s running quality control on the amplifier. It swims in reverb, then sweeps back to a tight, distinctly crunchy distortion. Reverb was a new feature on amplifiers at the time, and combined with the biting tone of his Strat, it provides a new ingredient with which Watson could experiment. He’s the mad scientist, taking the newly discovered formula and testing it on himself.
“Space Guitar” is also, like Watson, overtly sexual. It is unmistakably a guitarist’s mating call, with more wolf-whistle riffs than a construction site cliché. He was a notorious ladies’ man and the B-side of “Space Guitar”—”Half-Pint A-Whiskey”—leaves little doubt as to how Johnny felt about the ladies: let’s get loaded and stay up late. But Watson was not just a Gangster of Love, he was allegedly a purveyor as well. Rumor among his fellow players—excuse me, musicians—was that Johnny made more cash off pimping than guitar. From his early blues to his resurgence as a funk player in the mid-‘70s, this is a recurring theme that “Space Guitar” firmly established.
The single didn’t sell enough to chart, and Watson was dropped from the Federal label shortly thereafter. He recorded relatively steadily for his four-decade career, but commercial success was elusive, with less than a dozen of his songs cracking the top 40 R&B charts and peaking at 41 on the U.S. Pop charts. Watson made a living as a touring musician with legends like Herb Alpert, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Johnny Otis and later Frank Zappa. His funk era even garnered a handful of gold records, including “Ain’t That a Bitch” and “A Real Mother For Ya,” both of which featured Watson playing every instrument save for the horn section. But after this slight streak, a combination of record company changes, drugs, and personal tragedies sidelined Watson.
Even without much popular success, Watson influenced a pantheon of rock and blues musicians throughout his career. Johnny’s hard-plucked bends and triplets on “These Lonely, Lonely Nights” would inspire a young Frank Zappa to pick up a guitar. “Cuttin’ In” and “Broke and Lonely” established a vocal style Etta James would emulate to great success. Even Watson’s stage antics with Guitar Slim—playing behind his back and picking with his teeth—would wow audiences more than a decade later for Jimi Hendrix. Other artists like Prince, Steve Miller and Stevie Ray Vaughn would cite Watson as an influence, and his songs are well-sampled by a cross section of hip-hop and R&B artists including Snoop, Dr. Dre, Will Smith, Redman, Mary J. Blige, Wiz Khalifa and Jay Z.
When Watson collapsed onstage in Japan in 1996 of a heart attack, the tributes came mainly from guitar magazines and other musicians. It’s a tragedy that his name isn’t held in the same regard as the musicians he influenced, but Johnny Watson’s impact on popular music and the prescience of “Space Guitar” are undeniable. Watson was defining not only himself, but the sounds that would forever define the electric guitar more than a decade after it was recorded.
“When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’”
— Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records
Howlin’ Wolf was 6′ 3″, 300 lbs at a time when that must have made him look like he was 7′, 375 lbs. Add in his booming, raspy voice and you have the necessary ingredients for a walking “larger than life” cliché. Howlin’ Wolf was not a gambler, drinker, womanizer, or drug user at a time when all or a combination of those things were quite common for a musician. Wolf was one of the few blues musicians who made money early on and managed to keep it—he once famously said, “I had a 4,000 dollar car and 3,900 dollars in my pocket. I’m the onliest [sic] one drove out of the South like a gentleman” to Chicago. Add a wife who managed his money (another rarity of that time) and their business acumen of paying Wolf’s musicians above the going rates and offering them health insurance (a rarer rarity), and you have the necessary ingredients for a walking “salt of the earth” cliché.
Wolf was born Chester Arthur (named after the 21st President) and his nickname’s origin was from his grandfather, who would tell him when he was younger that if he misbehaved the howlin’ wolves in the country would get him, which is the kind of nickname you simply cannot buy. Wolf’s parents split when he was young and his mother, who was very religious and strict, kicked him out of the house. Wolf later moved in with an uncle but that arrangement didn’t last long. When he was 13 he walked to his fathers’ house and lived with him and his family. (Years later, Wolf visited his mother after he became successful and she wanted no part of him because he was a musician, and thus a fallen person in her religious purview.)
Wolf met his wife Lillie at one of his shows, which is pretty amazing when you consider that she and her family mostly rejected blues music as something borderline seedy. The story goes that he was immediately taken by her when he saw her and pursued her. By all accounts, Wolf and Lillie were deeply in love and affectionate until the day he died, which is something that all of us wish for at the end of the day. Good fortune followed Wolf’s personal life.
Good fortune followed Wolf’s musical life too: he met Charley Patton when he was 18, and Sonny Boy Williamson II married Wolf’s half sister and taught him how to play harmonica. He became a staple on the radio on KWEM in West Memphis for a few years before finally heading into the recording studio at Sun Records, recording “Moanin’ At Midnight” and “How Many More Years.” He eventually moved to Chicago and signed with Chess Records where he would be matched up with Herbert Sumlin, an indefensibly overlooked blues guitarist, and Willie Dixon, the preeminent blues songwriter, musician and producer, and a stable of other talented musicians including Buddy Guy, who is still a man amongst boys to this day and is beloved around here in Chicago. Willie Dixon is a giant of the blues—overshadowed only by those who literally created the genre over a hundred years ago—and Dixon wrote every Wolf song recorded up until 1961. Wolf and Dixon split in 1964 and, ironically, the first song Wolf recorded after this was “Killing Floor,” a song that shows Sumlin’s genius if there was ever any doubt.
To me, there are 4 songs other than “Killing Floor” that define Howlin’ Wolf: “Smokestack Lightning,” “Sitting on Top Of the World,” “Spoonful,” and “The Red Rooster”—all of which also define Chess Records as well as the Chicago blues sound in general.
“Smokestack Lightning”: Chicago blues is known for its volume and being the chaotic child of Memphis and the Delta; it embraced the electric guitar in never before heard ways and played the harmonica and stomped the drums louder than most. This song, though, has a soulful core and groove every to it that no rational human being should be able to resist; Wolf’s crooning here is better than most career crooners. This is one of the crown jewels of the blues genre and one of the all-time best songs to listen to while driving at night.
“Sitting on Top of the World”: Jesus what a perfect song. Wolf’s vocals, all of the instruments; all of it. The piano just caroms all over and jabs at you at times and it all sounds like the coolest, smoke-filled joint you’d ever want to be in. In a perfect world this is the de facto blues anthem of Chicago instead of “Sweet Home Chicago.”
“Spoonful”: released in 1960, the overall bass-heavy sound and polished guitar picking that floats in and out essentially created Clapton, Cream, Zeppelin, and countless other power blues worshipers. Lyrically, it concisely and matter-of-factly describes the nature of violence in a way that Dostoevsky would’ve probably nodded in agreement with.
“The Red Rooster”: the Stones’ cover of this song in 1964 (which was called “Little Red Rooster”) is still the only time a blues song ever hit #1 in the UK. This song basically validated the Rolling Stones so there’s that. Wolf’s version will forever be the classic, though, because of his distinctive voice and Dixon’s distinctive slide guitar, which basically birthed Keith Richards.
What separates “Killing Floor” from the rest of his catalog for me is simply that it is slightly more perfect. Sumlin’s opening guitar riff is so ridiculous fifty years later that its indelibility will never be questioned. Lafayette Leake’s piano and Andrew McMahon’s bass are so perfect as is, but then you add Buddy Guy’s acoustic guitar and a couple of saxophones and all bets are off. Wolf’s vocals, as always, are spot on and have the presence required for a song about a guy who narrowly escapes being killed by his woman. Led Zeppelin would later rip this song off and re-package it as “The Lemon Song” but Robert Plant ain’t no Howlin’ Wolf, sir. Just listen to how both sing “I should’ve quit you a long time ago.”
Cub Koda once wrote, “[...]Wolf was the primal force of the music spun out to its ultimate conclusion. A Robert Johnson may have possessed more lyrical insight, a Muddy Waters more dignity, and a B.B. King certainly more technical expertise, but no one could match him for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits.” Howlin’ Wolf was a different animal. He was an amalgamation of many before him but still unmistakably modern, and if you can’t be the progenitor of a genre then that is the creative zenith one can hit. Howlin’ Wolf will outlive us all because there will never be anyone like him again.
 For what it’s worth, “Howlin’ Wolf” and “Night Train” are the best nicknames of all time. Everything else is a Timex compared to those Rolexs.
“She could pick a guitar and sing as good as any man I’ve ever heard.”
— Big Bill Broonzy
A sizable minority of the artists profiled on this site fall under the category of “There Will Probably Never Be Artists Like This Again.” Some of the obvious ones that I’ve already written about include The Beatles, Elvis, The Velvet Underground, Robert Johnson, and Aretha. Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Tupac, and Pink Floyd are some of the future artists to be written about that fit this category too. Either way, not surprisingly, this sizable minority is mostly made up of artists you have heard before even if you only know them by name and you haven’t heard their entire catalog of music. (In fact, in the case of the Stones there are a few albums you should outright avoid.) Memphis Minnie, on the other hand, falls into the category of “Artists That We’ll Never See Again That You’ve Probably Never Heard Of”—unless you grew up listening to old school blues/roots music of the first half of the 20th century.
Memphis Minnie was born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana in 1897. She was the oldest of thirteen children and when she was 7 years old her family moved to Walls, Mississippi, a town about twenty miles south of Memphis. At 13 she ran away from home to Memphis and played the corners on Beale Street. She toured with Ringling Brothers Circus for 4 years and when she came back to Memphis she found work playing guitar and being a prostitute. Along the way she married 3 times, recorded over two hundred songs, made a name for herself in Memphis and Chicago, and outplayed most men on the guitar—all things that a woman simply did not do at that time, let alone a black woman.
Kansas Joe McCoy was born Joe McCoy in Raymond, Mississippi in 1905. He had numerous stage names (Hillbilly Plowboy and Georgia Pine Boy among them), and a heart condition kept him out of both wars. After the divorce from Minnie, he and his brother Charlie formed the band the Harlem Hamfats. One of the songs they recorded—”The Weed Smoker’s Dream”—was later redone by Joe and became “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Peggy Lee did a cover of this song and it became one of her first hits, and has been a jazz standard ever since.
The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 remains to this day the most destructive river flood in US history. It broke the levee system in 145 places and flooded roughly 127,000 square miles (50 miles wide, 99 miles long). It killed 246 people in 7 states. 14% of Arkansas was covered in flood water (Arkansas is just over 53,000 square miles in total area).
The cultural effect of the flood is that it caused many black people and families to migrate up north—to Chicago in particular. If you’ve ever wondered why Chicago seemingly suddenly became a major hub of the blues, why Chess Records would later rival anything that was coming out of the Delta region and Memphis, this flood is a large part why.
“When the Levee Breaks” was written in 1929 and was the first song they recorded (their names were given to them by an A&R man at Columbia Records earlier that year). There’s a good chance you know this song by its significantly altered cover that ends Led Zeppelin IV. Zeppelin maximized the song in every respect: booming drums, altered lyrics, screaming vocals, distorted harmonica, swirling riffs, and more than double the length of the original. The original just consists of Joe and Minnie playing their guitars.
Within Minnie and McCoy’s catalog (they split in 1935) you could easily make a case for “Bumble Bee” and “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” and within Minnie’s solo catalog you could make a case for “Three Time Seven Blues,” “Moaning the Blues,” “Chickasaw Train Blues,” “Can’t Afford To Lose My Man,” and about a dozen others. What sets Memphis Minnie apart from everyone else in modern music is that she was the rare female blues guitarist and singer during the first part of the 20th century. Women who sang the blues rarely played guitar, and those that did play guitar rarely played the blues. So pretty much every song Minnie ever recorded is significant in some way.
What sets apart “When the Levee Breaks” for me, even if only by a fraction above every other song in her/their catalog, is how beautiful the guitar picking is by both. Here you have a melody that just skips along without a care in the world and the subject matter is profoundly sad. When Minnie sings “Oh cryin’ won’t help you/Prayin’ won’t do you no good” it has substantially more weight to it than when Robert Plant sings it (obviously). The Great Flood of 1927 killed people, destroyed large swaths of land, and displaced countless people; Nature at its most relentless. Memphis Minnie was a hell of a blues singer and guitar player but she reins in her energy on “When the Levee Breaks” and drops her voice lower so as to better capture the fear, solemnity, and melancholy that a song like this, written when it was, demands. The end result is one of the best blues songs of its era; the kind of song that so thoroughly encapsulates its sadness that it can affect one in myriad ways beyond sadness.
 Seriously, listen to “Moaning the Blues.”
Old school blues singers, especially the men, typically had voices that were raw, gravelly, powerful, booming, or all, or some combination of the four. Unless you have an undying love for the early blues genre (from the ’20s to the ’60s revival era) my guess is that the word beautiful is not the first word that comes to mind. Charley Patton’s voice might be beautiful but the use of that word is probably tethered to his historical standing within the genre. The prototypical blues voice is rough and sounds old. Weathered. On the flip side you have Mississippi John Hurt whose voice and guitar picking style is beautiful, gorgeous even. John had that gravelly quality in his voice but it was always kept in check by the overall beauty of it; he had the voice of a man whose quiet happiness and humility arrived once he started singing, like countless singers who are shy and reserved before they take the mic. His voice is infectious. His music married country and blues in ways few artists have ever been able to do since. His guitar playing mostly centered around up-tempo picking that was more interested in rhythm and melody over the jagged riffs of the blues (though he could play traditional blues when he wanted to). If you were to play just the music of some of his songs to a random and diverse age group I am sure that a handful of them would think they were listening to an Led Zeppelin III era outtake. Mississippi John Hurt was ahead of his time. His gentleness ran so counter to the accepted norms of the day that his music will always stand out amongst his peers and contemporaries.
John’s gentle sound did him no favors during the ’20s as a live performer; his music live required an intimacy that was the antithesis of the times. He was, however, able to sell some records because his music could find that kind of intimacy inside of a home.
In 1928, Hurt recorded twelve songs for Okeh Records based on the recommendation of his friend and music partner Willie Narmour after Narmour won an Okeh recording session as a prize. He stopped going into studios after that and had pretty much stopped playing live music until some of his Okeh recordings (namely “Frankie” and “Spike Driver Blues”) were discovered in the ’50s and included in the landmark compilation Anthology of American Folk Music. Anthology almost singularly ushered in the revival era of the ’50s and ’60s and during this time John found himself being tracked down to Avalon, MS where he was raised (thank God for those music Calvinists who tracked down John and countless other blues and country singers), and eventually being asked to perform live at shows across the country to audiences half his age. He performed at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, The Tonight Show, and countless colleges and concert halls before his death in 1966. By all accounts he was grateful for the chance to play music again, and amazed that people would pay him to do so.
Mississippi John Hurt was perfect for the ’60s. People craved intimacy with music and live shows and John gave it to them in spades. His gentle sound and personality shone through exponentially. John would play “You Are My Sunshine” at concerts, which was fitting beyond words.
John’s most recognizable song is probably “Spike Driver Blues” but in reality every one of his songs is beautiful, significant, influential, and deeply American in the best sense of that phrase. With his revival success John recorded a sizable catalog of music for Vanguard Records and the Library of Congress. Vanguard’s Today! would be required listening in junior high or high school if it were up to me.
In 1966 John went on to Pete Seeger’s television show Rainbow Quest and performed a live version of “John Henry,” the traditional song that “Spike Driver Blues” was an offshoot of. This recording of “John Henry” is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, and since Hurt never recorded a studio version this is what I have to go with. “John Henry” is steeped in folklore and wrapped in a sound and a voice that has the comfort of a bonfire. Earlier, I wrote that Hurt had a gravelly voice that was kept in check by the overall beauty of it—this performance best exemplifies this description I think. Hurt’s voice is a treasure, a joy to listen to. When he sings “This is the hammer that killed John Henry/But it won’t kill me” it is not boastful or brash. Instead, it’s sung with the care that the song, and the legend, requires. (The ballad of John Henry is believed to be one of the first of the popular work songs that was sung slowly; a cautionary tale set to music about people who work too fast or recklessly.)
The music of this song, like most of Hurt’s catalog, starts with up-tempo picking and rarely deviates from the melody it begins with. Like all great music it is evocative: this music evokes images of anything relating to the summertime (drinking beer on a porch, a baseball game, fireworks), a bonfire, trains (obviously), driving through farmland, a road story, warmth. There are a million images in this song that have nothing to do with folklore.
Mississippi John Hurt is one of the great country blues singers that ever lived. The world becomes a profoundly better place when his music is playing.
 If you think I’ve chosen an obscure performance here, this song appears on the documentary and accompanying box set of the PBS series American Roots Music.
Two hundred or three hundred years from now, pop culture anthropologists will look at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards—which, of course, aired on 9/9/99 and that number string will probably Mean Something generations from now—and see it as the moment when boy bands and tweener music and hip hop officially became a Thing. They will look at the show and see that Britney and ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys performed, which dramatically altered the marketing and empire-making of tweens (before 1999, it was almost exclusively girls who bought this music and its accompanying accessories and accoutrements). They will look at Dre and Eminem and Snoop performing together, and Jay-Z, and Kid Rock, and TLC as being a totem of the shifting tide from rock to hip hop (Nine Inch Nails was the lone rock act that night). And as a bonus they will see Ricky Martin’s performance as the meaningful thrust of international music laying claims to spots on US charts. As a side note they will probably see that Lauryn Hill won the most awards that night and performed too, which will probably cause them to do a cursory search for her because that name won’t ring any bells and they’ll probably move on after hearing her sing “Killing Me Softly” with the Fugees (“What a great song that is,” many of them will think).
What these anthropologists won’t realize is that Lauryn Hill was the one out of all of them that night who was on the fast track to a legacy. She was going to be the one to usher in the ’00s with a run of albums that were critically and publicly adored. She was the one who already began swinging the mainstream tide to hip hop.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, released the previous year was a towering masterpiece; a critically acclaimed album that was accessible and a no-brainer instant classic among casual fans. It debuted at #1 in the US, it broke (at the time) the all time first-week sales by a female artist, and within a year of its release it had sold nearly 10 million records worldwide (it would eventually sell 8 million in the US alone and 18 million worldwide). Eminem was destined to be a bigger star than Hill in terms of printed words and ticket sales, but Hill’s appeal was much broader; neo soul, like honey, does a better job of attracting disparity than Eminem’s vinegar.
And so Lauryn Hill took the stage at the VMAs and sang “Everything Is Everything” and its opening non-chorus lyrics “I wrote these words for everyone/Who struggles in their youth/Who won’t accept deception/Instead of what is truth”—lyrics that are to this day refreshingly honest (“After winter must come spring” is another poignant one too). And then she was, for all intents and purposes, gone. That we live in a world in which Lauryn Hill has only made one solo album is strange to me; that someone so talented disappeared by means other than tragic death or suicide. Maybe the recording industry ate her alive. Maybe her disappearance was self-inflicted, or chosen. Maybe it’s a lot of things (like it always is).
“Everything Is Everything” was the third single released from Miseducation and it is one of my favorite songs from the album, and of the ’90s in general. The first single “Doo Wop (That Thing),” though, is thoughtful and realistic about sex and is basically a perfect song. That some girls and some guys are about “That Thing” is nothing new but the way Hill weaves thoughtful lyrics such as “Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem” and “Money taking, heart breaking now you wonder why women hate men/The sneaky silent men, the punk domestic violence men” show her mastery of commentary and storytelling in song. And the music—my God, the music—is engaging and addictive and indelible.
It might be weird to suggest that a Video Music Awards is a flashpoint in our culture, but remember that MTV has been desperately trying to replicate what it did in 1999. This will not be lost on the pop culture anthropologists in the future. In the meantime, the music world always needs some Lauryn Hills and it’s a shame that the original is, at this moment, nowhere to be found. If you think I’m inflating this point you obviously never listened to her unfortunately brief catalog of songs. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” is a high watermark of modern hip hop.
“I heard of a man
Who says words so beautifully
That if he only speaks their name
Women give themselves to him
If I am dumb beside your body
While silence blossoms like tumors on our lips
It is because I hear a man climb the stairs
And clear his throat outside our door”
“So you found a girl
Who thinks really deep thoughts?
What’s so amazing about really deep thoughts?
Boy you best pray that I bleed real soon
How’s that thought for you?
My scream got lost in a paper cup
You think there’s a heaven
Where some screams have gone?
I got 25 bucks and a cracker
Do you think it’s enough
To get us there?”
The song in this post will probably be the most obscure entry on this site so I’ll just get that out of the way right now. “Silent All These Years” originally appeared on Little Earthquakes, the debut album by Tori Amos. It was the second single released from the album. The studio version is powerful and affecting but the live version of “Silent All These Years” at KCRW is in an entirely different atmosphere.
A woman walks into an art museum and is affected by a Renoir painting and how the girl in it looks like her sister when she was growing up. An old man hears a street musician playing and it transports him back to being stationed in Portugal during the war. A girl indexes in her brain the song that was playing during her first kiss moments ago. A couple walks into a bar and is blown away by a local band playing—they tell their friends to check out the band, but it doesn’t matter anyway because that first night was Theirs and it can’t be repeated ever. A movie or TV show that makes you cry has more of a lasting effect on you than one that does not. Flip through any Life compilation book and you will probably come across at least five black and white photos that cause a powerful reaction.
One of the biggest fallacies in the opinion that pop culture produces too much bad art (or mediocre at best) is that it willfully disregards what it means to be human. By that I mean: of course an overwhelming majority of pop art is something you actively hate or are disaffected toward—if an overwhelming majority of pop art was great or epiphanic, words like “great” “masterpiece” and “awe-inspiring” would cease to have any meaning to you. Everything would be great, which really means that everything would be average. We as people want to connect to art in surprising and emotionally complex and meaningful ways but, counterintuitively, it’s a lot easier to do that when the odds are stacked against us. If art profoundly affects you only 2% of the time, then guess what? That 2% will make up for the remaining 98% for the rest of your life. Me, personally, I don’t care that the Twilight series made $740 trillion when The Orchid Thief and Anna Karenina exist.
KCRW is a public radio station that broadcasts out of Santa Monica College in Santa Monica, CA. In 1994 the station released a compilation called Rare on Air Volume 1 which included fifteen live performances from the station’s legendary Morning Becomes Eclectic program. At some point in 1996 I went into my favorite record store in south suburban Chicago and found this compilation on cassette tape. I had no idea what KCRW was, or that all the songs on it were live. I bought it because there was a John Cale song on it (I had just begun to be helplessly entranced by The Velvet Underground) and there was a Beck song, “Mexico,” on it that I had never heard of before. The first track on it is “Silent All These Years” by Tori Amos, with “Poem” by Leonard Cohen acting as the prelude. Whatever that is, I thought, and then bought the tape.
Tori Amos has a power about her. Her music is immensely personal, both in terms of what she writes and how her audience connects with her. (Mick Foley’s piece about how Tori Amos changed his life is definitely worth a read.) She was raped at knifepoint after performing a show when she was 21 and somehow not only wrote “Me and a Gun” about that night a few years later but is also a vocal and visible spokeswoman for RAINN and other organizations that deal with rape. Tori Amos isn’t the kind of artist you passively like across the board. You connect with her in powerful ways, either with all of her albums or with a few of her songs. She is mesmerizing, she will almost certainly make you cry.
So. This recording of “Silent All These Years” at KCRW.
It begins with Leonard Cohen saying his poem (which is brilliant) and segues into Amos playing the song, alone at the radio station with her piano. The studio version of this song has violins and the piano has a little more skip to it. The KCRW performance moves at exactly the right pace—which is to say a little bit slower—and the subtraction of the violins is preferred. The shift to chorus at the 00:57 mark is breathtaking here because it, like the whole performance really, is so intimate and natural. Amos’s vocals and piano playing here aren’t perfect but perfection isn’t the goal: everything about this song and its performance revolves around the power and the intimacy of it. A woman singing an emotionally personal in front of radio station employees sending the signal to her audience. There’s no audience in front of her and all she does is leave everything she has into the microphone and on the piano.
To me, this is one of the most powerful songs I have ever listened to. I truly believe that this is a song that everyone should listen to before they die; it’s on par with the great literature and movies and fine art that we’re all supposed to read, watch, and see in an attempt to be better cultured and expansive.
I mentioned earlier that this will probably be the most obscure track on this site. You can still buy Rare on Air Volume 1 online through individual sellers. It’ll probably cost you at least $30 used because it’s a somewhat prized CD or cassette to have. To this day it still surprises me that I ever came across the tape to begin with, what with me living far removed from Santa Monica and the record store near my house only ordering a handful of copies. The odds were overwhelmingly against me ever knowing about this album, especially considering that this was during the pre-Internet days. Somehow I found it, and a song that I had no interest in when I bought it wound up becoming one of the most affecting tracks I have ever heard.
So here I am writing about it for you, fairly certain that a majority of people will fall in love with it too, knowing that if I could sort out the other twenty five thousand words I want to say about it I would do it. I’ll take the short comments and the stuttered conversational replies, though, because I know we’re saying the same thing. Because, after all, how do you describe something that fundamentally affects you moments or hours or days after first connecting with it?
 Here is what Amos wrote about “Me and a Gun” in 1994:
“I’ll never talk about it at this level again but let me ask you. Why have I survived that kind of night, when other women didn’t?
“How am I alive to tell you this tale when he was ready to slice me up? In the song I say it was ‘Me and a Gun’ but it wasn’t a gun. It was a knife he had. And the idea was to take me to his friends and cut me up, and he kept telling me that, for hours. And if he hadn’t needed more drugs I would have been just one more news report, where you see the parents grieving for their daughter.
“And I was singing hymns, as I say in the song, because he told me to. I sang to stay alive. Yet I survived that torture, which left me urinating all over myself and left me paralysed for years. That’s what that night was all about, mutilation, more than violation through sex.
“I really do feel as though I was psychologically mutilated that night and that now I’m trying to put the pieces back together again. Through love, not hatred. And through my music. My strength has been to open again, to life, and my victory is the fact that, despite it all, I kept alive my vulnerability.”
Stereolab is a band that is influenced by krautrock and lounge pop, has an undying love of Moog synthesizers and Vox and Farfisa organs, released albums with titles that sound like spam subjects (Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night), and sing songs with lyrics—sometimes in French, as lead singer Lætitia Sadier is from France—that are oftentimes overtly political. If you ever read or hear anyone talking about the beginning of the post-rock genre Stereolab will probably be one of the first bands mentioned.
That Stereolab never sounds kitschy in spite of their influences and their instrument choices is kind of amazing considering how easy it is to assume that Moog-heavy lounge pop will sound like the soundtrack of a special hell reserved for bad suit-wearing cornball guys in a room at an exurban casino. Stereolab’s major label debut album Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements is more raw than you would probably expect; it feels like an indie release from the ’80s at times because the sound isn’t polished. Some of the songs (“Tone Burst” and “I’m Going Out of My Way” in particular) would be at home playing on a cassette in an art student’s dorm room. Everything changed with their next release Mars Audiac Quintet. It is polished beyond belief—the opening track, “Three-Dee Melodie,” evokes such a warm feeling that it is damn near an auditory equivalent of a fireplace—and acts as the de facto debut album in terms of how they would sound going forward.
Emperor Tomato Ketchup was the next album released, in April of 1996. Emperor is probably their most accessible album to date and it is, to me, their best album start to finish. The album is chock full of gems like the bass-heavy “Les Yper-Sound” to the holy shit catchy track “The Noise of Carpet.” “Metronomic Underground,” “Anonymous Collective,” and “Olv 26″ provide the quota for experimental tracks. “Tomorrow Is Already Here” and “Motoroller Scalatron” are songs you will want to hug and never let go of if you like Sadier’s vocals. Stereolab’s future albums were mostly hit or miss overall: albums that included overlong or overly artsy tracks alongside really great and catchy standalone tunes. If you can make it all the way through Dots and Loops you are a stronger person than I am. At the end of the day, though, even Stereolab at their weirdest (or, sometimes, at their most boring) is something that doesn’t fundamentally bother you if you take them for what they are, which is a pretty fiercely independent band that sings Marxist lyrics over organs and synthesizers. One should expect some explorations of weird boundaries.
In 2004 the band released Margerine Eclipse [sic] and with it the third track on the album, “…Sudden Stars”—a song that I think best encapsulates the accessible, la-la-la, catchy-as-hell side of the band. “…Sudden Stars” starts out as one might assume: with a playful intro that feels like blinking stars, followed by Sadier’s ethereal vocals. This intro lasts almost a full minute before a gosh-wow perfect transition to a quicker sound, complete with a pulsing bass that is more heartbeat than booming or heavy. This transition is what will make or break Stereolab for you if you’ve never heard of them before. If you love that shift and the subsequent sound your ears will probably perk up and before you know it song searches on Youtube will be typed. This part of the song is like a nice space dream, or a great soundtrack to a space video game you’ve never played.
The final shift in the song at around the two minute mark is a little darker and rougher—if you’re still with me on the space or video game analogy, this is where something’s gone wrong; asteroids are in sight or communication has been dropped. What sound like distress signals appear briefly. This shift only lasts for about a half minute before rejoining the lush foundational melody. Calm is restored.
There are a number of outstanding songs to choose from out of Stereolab’s catalog. In addition to all of the other aforementioned songs there are also “People Do It All the Time” and “The Free Design.” But what seals “…Sudden Stars” for me is 1) it’s a gorgeous song on an album that was a eulogy for former guitarist Mary Hansen, who died 2 years prior and 2) I think it’s the best barometer by which to gauge the band if you’ve never heard of them. Post-rock bands with Marxist lyrics aren’t for everyone but Stereolab’s music has the power to enchant.
“…Sudden Stars” is an enchanting, otherworldly song. Long live Vox organs and Moog synthesizers.
 One of my biggest problems with ’80s albums, the production quality not being very polished on the whole.
When you’re somewhere near that midpoint between sorta high and almost baked–it might be one or two medium-sized hits from good product, or a few big hits from something of lesser quality–is when making out feels the best. Being near the midpoint is important, though, because you nor the other person can’t have cotton mouth or sudden, overwhelming lethargy. You have to have some energy while feeling those gentle ripples or waves move in your head when you close your eyes, in the dark, kissing that other person, touching their hair, feeling their legs move, feeling their tongue (and adjusting yours accordingly). Regardless of what the room you’re in looks like it can all feel like you’re being enveloped by deep cadmium oranges and reds.
I guess this is one way I’d describe Mazzy Star.
I know that somewhere an alternate universe exists in which lead singer Hope Sandoval is a household name. There has to be. Her voice is simply too surreally erotic and dreamy to be relegated to the overlooked status she currently holds. Mazzy Star’s most recent album Seasons of Your Day, which was just released a couple months ago and was the first album from the band in seventeen years, continues in the same dreamy, neopyschedelic vein that defines the band and at 47 years old Sandoval sounds as perfect and gorgeous as ever. If you were to play “Lay Myself Down” off of the new album for someone who has never heard of the band, they would probably assume that she was in her twenties. To say that Sandoval’s voice has aged gracefully is an understatement. She is a treasure, and her obscurity is frustrating for me as a fan (even though she probably prefers it that way as she is admittedly shy and has a degree of stage fright).
Mazzy Star is basically Sandoval and guitarist David Roback. The band has and has had other musicians but Sandoval and Roback are essentially the face of the band; both are the primary musical, songwriting, mixing, and producing forces of the band. They are pictured above. Roback is also criminally overlooked: he played a large role in the mid ’80s “Paisley Underground” genre in Los Angeles with his band Rain Parade, then he later joined Rainy Day, and formed Opal with Dream Syndicate member Kendra Smith. When Smith left Opal it opened the door to Roback and Sandoval meeting and collaborating. Roback is an astute student of psychedelic music, whether it be mellow (which it usually gravitates toward, especially with Mazzy Star) or the more controlled chaos aspect of the genre that Roback loves so much from that ’60s garage rock variety of it (“Wasted” off of So Tonight That I Might See is a prime example).
So what you have here with Mazzy Star, from a bird’s eye view, is a guitarist who is a disciple of psychedelic music and a singer who can take that type of music to levels that exceed the inherent parameters of it. (Typically, it’s the sound itself that acts as the canvas for parameter-exceeding. See: “Interstellar Overdrive” by Pink Floyd, “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles.) As I wrote in the post about MGMT one of the most important characteristics that can define psychedelic music is providing an ocean of texture, or making the minimal feel like a lake. Mazzy Star fits into the lake part of that description. Songs like “Blue Light” or their breakthrough hit “Fade Into You” may not sound like psychedelic music if your conception of psychedelic music is Iron Butterfly but, by subtly playing with drum beat spacing and sparingly using things like oscillating organs and twangy riffs, they are using minimal elements to make lush psychedelic songs (even if dream pop is probably a more accurate description than psychedelic, but whatever they come from the same musical tree).
Normally, when it comes to picking a song from a band that has only one hit single, I go with that recognizable single. “Fade Into You” is their highest charting song and it is truly a gorgeous song; an unexpected radio hit that could stop one in their tracks with its polished sound. It sounds as if they took “Be My Angel” (from their debut album She Hangs Brightly) and slowed it down and stretched it out, but if you’re unfamiliar with that song or that album what “Fade Into You” did was slow down and stretch out the typical ballad in general and inject dream elements into it. It’s the kind of song that the people in Chagall paintings would slow dance to. The twangy slide riffs, the spare piano notes, the acoustic riffs, the tambourine, Sandoval’s voice: it all conspires to be the auditory equivalent of a home movie or a powerful dream. It comfortably resides near the top on the list of best songs of the ’90s.
And while “Fade Into You” is a remarkable song that is indicative of much of Mazzy Star’s catalog it is “Into Dust” that is the true show-stopper of their catalog and of the last twenty years of music in general. This song is so minimal as to be bare-bones or even deconstructed but it shows you without a shadow of a doubt how powerful Roback’s mellow guitar and Sandoval’s voice can be. Roback’s guitar plays like rain drops hitting a window, an intermittent cello renders a bass guitar and drums unnecessary, and Sandoval makes lyrics like “I could possibly be fading” sound like something to aspire to.
A misconception about psychedelic music is that it needs to chaotic and/or overlong (hello, thirty minute live version of “Dark Star”) but the early days of psychedelia, the days when Haight-Ashbury was just a coastal thing, was rooted in a kind of folksy sound. Jefferson Airplane brought Haight-Ashbury to the rest of America with Surrealistic Pillow, their groundbreaking album which included “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit.” That album also had “Today” and “Embryonic Journey” on it too—both mellower folksy sounding songs indicative of that era (the latter is a beautiful instrumental that leads up to “White Rabbit”). “Into Dust” borrows from that psychedelic sound.
You don’t have to be stoned to enjoy this song, obviously. Sometimes music has its own transformative power for the listener or the artist; Van Morrison getting stoned from water comes to mind for the latter. If you have never heard this song before you might listen to it and think of it as just another song, which is fine. But if you were to listen to this song while slow dancing with your significant other, or while kissing them with your eyes closed in a dark room, this song may in fact stone you.
Never underestimate the power of a mellow song, sung by a woman with a gorgeous voice.