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4 Old, Dreamy Songs

Growing up in the early '70s, the radio provided solace from heart break.

by
P. David Hornik

Bio

March 10, 2013 - 7:00 am
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My main solace and support during an unhappy adolescence was my radio. I remember it as good-sized and rectangular with a wood finish. It sat on the little night table by my bed, and was always set to the same channel — WRPI, the station (still in existence) of the nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, staffed and run by college students.

WRPI played what was then called progressive rock — rock songs that were outside the Top 40 hits that the commercial stations played. These could be songs, available only on albums, by performers who had Top 40 hits, or songs by performers considered esoteric or “experimental” enough that they were outside the Top 40 sphere altogether. Among other things, “progressive rock” offered me more introspective, poetic music that knew something about the deeper world of my feelings.

Since then my tastes have expanded, from ultra-introspective Mahler and Bruckner to wildly joyous Sonny Rollins and much in between (I also attempt my own contribution). The advent of YouTube some years back led me, in a sort of hushed curiosity, to search and find songs that in some cases I hadn’t heard since those distant days of adolescence. And in some striking cases I discovered that a song had not lost—or had even gained—power over me compared to back then.

All of the four songs I’ve picked below use only voice and acoustic guitar. All are from the late sixties; my WRPI-listening years were 1969-1972.

I was never, even back then, a particular fan of Pink Floyd—except for the Roger Waters number “Grantchester Meadows.” It was considered experimental because it uses taped background noises of a skylark, a goose, and a fly. In fact, gimmicky though it may seem, it works well; the nature sounds fuse beautifully with the pensive guitar chords and idyllic lyrics.

For me this song was a refuge, an induction into a dreamy realm where serenity and even eternity —

Laughing as it passes through the endless summer making for the sea….

flickered. I was also struck by the lyrics:

Basking in the sunshine of a bygone afternoon,
Bringing sounds of yesterday into this city room…

They added a nostalgic overlay, saying the tranquil scene was not happening in the present but, rather, a recollection, weaving its enchantment out of the past.

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As to Steve Noonan’s “Buy for Me the Rain,” I seem to have a genetic affinity for it even though I’ve never met a single person who’s aware of this original version and none of the few people I’ve played it for were too impressed. That the song does have broad appeal is proved by the success of the 1967 cover by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which was a big hit.

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Yet to me this version—lost in obscurity like Noonan himself—is infinitely more delicate and affecting. Love, time, loss—all here in a simple, haunting, melancholy tune with starkly poetic lyrics as in a centuries-old English folksong. True, the last chorus slides into the maudlin-morbid; I wish it could somehow be rewritten.

We’re back to the idyllic-nostalgic with Joni Mitchell’s “Sisotowbell Lane.” Here the opening guitar chords are caressingly gentle, the mood at once lovely and dreamy. The song is from her first album Song to a Seagull, which is full of gems; but again, other Mitchell songs from that era like “Both Sides Now,” “A Case of You,” and “Big Yellow Taxi” won far more fame even though, for this listener, “Sisotowbell” surpasses all of them.

Although Mitchell herself said Sisotowbell was an invented name, the song seems to me to evoke a very real place:

Go to the city you’ll come back again

To wade through the grain

You always do…
Come back to the stars

Sweet well water and pickling jars

We’ll lend you the car

We always do

Yes sometimes we do…

It sounds a lot like Mitchell, while venturing out to Calgary and then Toronto in her late teens and early twenties, going back to visit her parents’ quaint, pastoral home in Saskatchewan. The song, in any case, is magic, pure as the prairie stars and the well water and drawn from the same essence.

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And then there’s “Guinevere”; I consider it the best song in the rock context that I’ve ever heard. As David Crosby, who wrote it as part of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, said about it himself:

That is a very unusual song, it’s in a very strange tuning with strange time signatures. It’s about three women that I loved. One of who was Christine Hinton, the girl who got killed who was my girlfriend, and one of who was Joni Mitchell and the other one is somebody that I can’t tell. It might be my best song.

“Guinevere” is brooding and hypnotic, tinged with tragedy and, finally, hope. It particularly came back to haunt me in 2003 after a failed romance that was conducted largely on the Tel Aviv shoreline. Its unique, almost indescribable mood frames the present within receding mirrors of the past.

So these were some of the songs that helped me through an adolescence experienced as bleak and disappointing. They told me that, beneath the abject surface of my life, there was another realm; sadness and loss were there too, but also beauty and mystery. I don’t know if such songs are being written today, but if so, I don’t hear them anywhere. I wouldn’t have wanted to face the world without them.

****

Image courtesy shutterstock / Bruce Rolff

P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Beersheva and author of the new book Choosing Life in Israel. He blogs at http://pdavidhornik.typepad.com/

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All Comments   (23)
All Comments   (23)
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I preferred Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair." It spoke to me of the dark reality of "freak" as opposed to the sunny fantasy of "hippie." Attempted hit-and-run while hitchhiking by a car full of cowboys just cuz I had long hair will do that. My two friends ran away. I stayed. They came round the block again. Didn't cut my hair, not for a long time. I finally did when it wasn't an issue any more. For those of you not around, that song was true.

Did get down into some sunny southern weather.

Went to a Shawn Phillips concert, maybe Nov. '72. Sold tabs of THC to the line wrapped around the block unmolested and successfully. Don't remember a thing about the concert. My completely hot girlfriend loved Phillips, who I didn't really care about. She wore a halter top and platform shoes. Her bell bottoms could only be worn with them cuz they brushed the ground. That was the style then. Minneapolis, Orpheum Theater. I was in fact a freak. Had lots of company.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I always thought, especially on later reflection that "almost cut my hair" was the most banal trite song in the history of popular music. That's just me.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Pink Floyd began to lose me at DARK SIDE OF THE MOON or ROGER WATER'S LAMENT as it and all that followed could be called. On UMMAGUMMA's studio disc each bandmate got his moment. There is a wonderful David Gilmour piece as well that is the only accoustic number the band did as far as I can remember. Yep, the radio was my refuge throughout high school as well. YouTube is one of the great music sources next ti iTunes...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
My seventies, songs that spoke into my dark world at the time were amongst others, "Doctor Wu" by Steely Dan, a brooding song with the hopeful line "you walked in and my life began again/just when I spent the last piaster I could borrow" . Another song, which was pretty much panned as top 40 pap by rock critics, was "Miracles" by Marty Balin of the Jefferson Starship. I needed a miracle to get free from addiction and the song at least presupposed that they exist. "Black Water" by the Doobie Brothers was like a musical happy pill. All of Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks' was a powerful evocation of emotional and cultural breakdown. Lot's of good music in the seventies (at least until disco)
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Treat yourself to some Lani Hall and Ricky Lee Jones from the same era.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The Butterfield/Better Days/Geoff Mudaur version of "Someone to Love" sticks in my head like superglue, and will not leave.
Ditto to Shawn Phillips but it's an aquired taste and a few of my freinds couldn't stand him.
An instrumental by Zappa "Watermelons in Easter Hay" is going to be played at my passing. Time, for me, Stops when this is playing.
Rev-up "Welcome" [the album] by Santana, et al, sometime.
"Love, Devotion and Surrender", vocals by Leon Thomas, is a knockout.......
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
To Reformed Trombonist--Bruckner 7:2 and 8:3 are among the most introspective music I've ever heard.

The popular songwriters of our parents' generation were more prolific and generally more musically sophisticated than those of the 60s and 70s, and they were wonderful. Gershwin, Porter, and Kern are my favorites. However, at their best the 60s and 70s songwriters had special things of their own to offer--more personal expression, and not necessarily with romance as the subject matter. Of the David Crosby songs I've heard, the only one that still matters to me is Guinevere. I think there are 10 or 12 gems on Joni Mitchell's early albums, and in a rural, personal, poetic vein, very different from what the Gershwin, Porter etc. songwriters have to offer, and to me no less valuable.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
How nice to meet another Bruckner fan. For a while, I thought I was the only one. Well -- actually, trombone players love Bruckner, but we can feel pretty alone sometimes. I guess it all depends on what we mean by the word 'introspective'. I was using it as a meter or measure for how inwardly-drawn the composer was when writing the piece. Naturally, that's a judgment call. But when someone brandishes his harmonic technique like a baton-twirler, I tend to think he's showing off, which (as I use the word) would be the opposite of introspective. But if you mean it to communicate how it makes the listener feel, perhaps you're onto something.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Thanks. I haven't heard these in a while (or not at all)
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I disagree with some of Mr. Trombonist's comments and will say more later.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Bruckner and Mahler are introspective? Ok, Mahler, I'll grant. But Bruckner? A bit pedantic, perhaps. I see Bruckner as a show-off. His harmonic technique, his voice-leading, his counterpoint skills were unsurpassed; he could take a simple-sounding melody and in the course of three minutes walk you through five different keys, and the unalert listener can barely tell. The last movement of his Fifth Symphony is slap in the face with chain-mailed fist against critics who had claimed he did not know the old styles and could not write counterpoint: it's a double-fugue into which, in the coda, he successfully weaves not just the two fugue themes (one of which is a purposely awkward two-bar modulating octave jump), but also the theme from the first movement. Bruckner was an introvert who wrote extroverted music.

When it comes to sentimental pop music, our parents' generation did it much better. I love a lot of the pop music from the Sixties and Seventies -- after all, I grew up with it -- but Cole Porter, Harry Warren, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Henry Mancini, Richard Rogers, Johnny Mercer, and dozens of others could compose rings around Joni Mitchell and David Crosby. Listen to "Autumn Leaves"... "Laura"... "I'll Be Seeing You"... "Blue Skies"... There's just no comparison.



1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I agree about the superiority of pop writers like Berlin, Mercer and Mancini. There is a treasure trove of pop music from before the Sixties, which will reward anyone who enjoys good music. I have nothing against Mr. Hornik's choices, and I admit to liking some of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, but I'd rather listen to an "Oldies" station which plays songs from 1900-1950.

Some more of my favorites from the "old" old days are Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael and Hank Williams. And Percy Faith did lots of great arrangements of songs in the 50's and 60's.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I love Rod Steward's albums of the American songbook. His version of "Thanks for the Memories" and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" are for the ages. Linda Ronstadt's version of "Someone to Watch Over Me" is another lovely song.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Rod Stewart's treatment of the great American songbook is stellar. Who'd a thunk it. Some rock artists just can't sing standards, he can. Natalie Cole also nails it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Beautiful, almost haunting songs, indeed, but missing that catchy tune that could get them on the top 40. I never understood the chirping birds, either.

It's nice to dust off the old songs but there is amazing new music coming out regularly. Every year some new artist blows me away.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"Every year some new artist blows me away."

Really? Who? I can't remember hearing anyone new and good in many years. Rap and its derivatives destroyed melody and the few pop artists I hear don't impress me at all. If you could list five or 10 really good new artists, I'd love to hear about them.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If this live performance doesn't get to you in some way you may have died and failed to rot.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V77lApssTdY
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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