Outro #7: Let There Be Joys

David Crosby in the Hooks vault

Canton Goodfellows

Joy, by definition, differs from pleasure in being illimitable and sufficient. To speak of an infinite or sufficient joy is redundant. But I have a question. How could this be? How could we greedy little human beings ever get our hands on an infinite or sufficient gratification?

Evidently we have an important capacity without which our imagination and greed would run us ragged. It’s the capacity to stage infinity and sufficiency–to decide how joy will happen, and then welcome its happening. A good example is a honeymoon. Clearly it’s not the walks on the beach or the exotic cocktails, or whatever, that makes the honeymoon trip a fortunate sequence of joys; it’s the advance decision for joy that structures the whole experience.

When you go to a concert by a favorite band, you’ve decided for joy: there will be various infinitely treasurable components of the experience, starting with seeing the performers perform–barring a really bad night. The same goes for listening again to a favorite recording.

You enter into the experience having decided “This will be it.” “It,” however, cannot be an “it” but must be a person or something person-like that speaks to you. The infinity of a felt other life meeting your own life and affirming it makes the sufficiency of joy. You are totally claimed and supported.

Paraphrasing Martin Buber:  nothing beats a meeting.[1]

What makes a hook a joy is that you’ve decided you’ll be meeting another congenial life that has been shared with you unreservedly, a life that graciously will always show up in this song. You’re meeting this life at the sharp point of “that thing you do” that makes “you” especially present and recognizable, unignorably speaking to you.

That thing George Harrison does all over All Things Must Pass (1970), most memorably perhaps in the principal guitar hook of “My Sweet Lord” (0:17 and 2:40 below)–which, like probably half the world, I’ve revisited after the 2021 Get Back documentary–is that he plays slide guitar in a new way.

The slide part is wonderfully person-like, I’ll say George-like, because it’s always moving, of course,  mobile in pitch, and personably shaping the melodic line; but further, those notes characteristically move down in a way that makes us feel up. They come down like an angel comes down to alight on the ground next to us. Like we’re meeting George after he left the Beatles, worked up his backlog of songs, and dropped them on us. (Note what has dropped around George in his cover image.) Well met! Well spoken!


[1] “All actual life is encounter.” Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Scribners, 1970), p. 62.

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Wandering: Liz Phair, “Support System” (1994)

Following the very nonstandard Exile in Guyville (1993), Liz Phair’s second album Whip-Smart (1994) is a fascinating project in that she is all in for pop hooks and pop hits – I cite “Supernova” and “Cinco de Mayo” – and yet within the firm pop structure she’s accepted she is still deviantly dislocated and finds ways of channeling her freedom into not-so-pop hooks, for which one great example is “Support System.”

She is up against the problem that the support system of popular song form is practically a straitjacket. Everyone knows implicitly how many measures there are going to be in verse and chorus, and what chords there might be, and when the changes might come. If there is any relief from predictability in a pop song, it won’t be achieved by wandering off this reservation; you must wander within the bounds.

But there is precedent in an old standard, “Stardust,” famous for its free-wandering quality. Stripped down to its essential chords, as it pretty much is in Willie Nelson’s version, it goes like this:

(In G) Sometimes I

IIm (A minor)
wonder why I spend the lonely

bVII9 (F ninth)
night, dreaming of a song – the

I (G)

IIIm (B minor)
haunts my reverie

IIm (A minor)
and I am once again with you, when our

V (D)
love was new and each kiss an inspi-

I (G)
ration – but

II7 (A seventh)
that was long ago, and now my consolation

V (D) bVI (Eb) V (D)
is in the stardust of a song

Mostly the tune stays in the supercommon cycle of II, V, and I chords. (The bVII9 chord in measures 3 and 4 is the spectacular exception; I think it strikes us as a transfiguration of a II, specifically a II minor ninth.) Harmony-wise the listener is comfortably taken care of throughout, with that one rare thrill of the bVII9 chord. Metrically the melody progresses in a normal 4/4 and runs a normal (but spacious) 16 measures. What gives the tune its magical wandering quality are little oddities, creative microaggressions, like:

1. After bringing in the intense bVII9 chord with the amazing high sharp-fourth note of “night,” the melody in “dreaming of a song” quite undramatically repeats the arpeggiating descent of “wonder how I spend” in the preceding line (one note altered to fit the new chord). The repetition is paradoxically nonconformist; it’s imaginative by being unimaginative.

2. In its rhythm, on the other hand, “dreaming of a song” is almost dramatically a fast tumble compared with the stately “wonder how I spend”; it’s like falling down the stairs. Then we slow way down at “melody,” pausing to get our bearings.

3. It seems desultory to come down from the IIIm chord back to the IIm for “And I am once again with you.” After what happened to the IIm at the beginning with the stretch to bVII9, which is not going to repeat here, it feels completely open-minded, allowing even the yo-yoing notes in “once again with you.” OK! Whatever! Now what?

4. “When our love was new” – by this point we realize that many phrase rhythms have been used with none allowed to dominate. When you recollect “Stardust” you might think of it with the signature feel of its first line, but as you go through it there is a confusing multiplicity of feels.

5. See how “consolation” doesn’t line up metrically with “inspiration” before it? The lyric does rhyme but doesn’t march to the beat of the usual rhyming drum.

So “Stardust” shows us some of the moves that can generate a beautiful wandering quality in a mass-market song. Now, jumping decades and styles, what does Liz Phair do in “Support System” to generate her deviantly beautiful feeling?

Hook #1 is heard from the start. It consists of inflecting a D chord with a bass line ascending E-F-G-A. The D is the I chord in the key of D. You’re sort of hearing the blues progression I-bIII-IV (D-F-G), with the F and G chords blurred into the D as the higher D-chord notes are repeated. I’ll call this whole progression D*.

I don’t need a support system

Lifting me into prop position

What I need is a man of action

Then there’s a variation, D**, where the bass line under the ineffaceable D chord snakes down from a high D. In this variation you sort of hear the standard cadence IV-V-I (G-A-D), signaling the end of a unit.

I need my attraction to you

This sounds like a wrap-up at 8 measures. But D** oddly repeats, the verse now wandering two measures further.

Driving me down all those dangerous avenues

And then it repeats again! but with an unpredictable variation on D**, and only a half-measure for “tigers”:

Lions and tigers tearing up their food

Restoring order, now Hook #2, the Bold Pop Hook, a Chorus, arrives – a short whistling line repeated 4 times.

To sum up so far: Phair gets a wandering quality partly with mild chord surprises – not certain juicy chords jumping out at you, as in “Stardust,” but a blurring of other chords with the D – and with a striking prolongation of an 8-measure verse to 12 1/2. More importantly, she varies her meter, as “Stardust” did – note the shift to triplets in “need my attraction to you/Driving me down all those dangerous . . . /Lions and tigers.”

Those are her musical ingredients for wandering. (We’re not even talking about her lyrics going to the zoo.) Now observe how the second verse mixes this up. Yes, there are walking bass lines under a D chord and a shift to triplets in Hook #1, and Hook #1 is prolonged again (to 24 1/2 measures!), and Hook #2 does come again, with words this time; but if you lay a chart of Verse/Chorus 1 over Verse/Chorus 2, you won’t find a close fit among the component structures. The variation strengthens the wandering signature of the song. Verse/Chorus 2 is the freedom of Verse/Chorus 1, moreso.

I know the gossip flies around at breakfast
One of them rings is in your hand

Where do you get the fuck off thinking
I was there at the party – cause
All of my friends feed me the evil reasons
Why you and I should not be friends
Let’s think this whole thing through
Tell me, just what the hell is a lover supposed to do
I got the wrong reaction, a slap in the face from you
This is such a stupid picture
Wrap me in a steak
Why don’t you throw me in the panther cage
And maybe then I’ll like you better

Verse 3 sounds more straight-ahead, selling the song as a pop experience. It’s 12 1/2 measures long again. The tune is slowly being regularized. Is this untrue to its inspiration?

I don’t need a support system
Lifting me into prop position
What they make is a separation

Of beauty from attitude
What satisfaction is left when all you do
Tells everyone you’re acting untrue?

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Riding Your Life: Rickie Lee Jones, “The Horses” (1989)

Do I want to ride a bicycle? Yes! Fun! Do I want to ride an elephant? Yes, if the elephant is OK with it. That would be awesome!

When you ride, you get to move with more speed and power, subject to interesting strict conditions. You have a favorable working relationship with something or someone. You can attend to your ride’s powers, to your own riding power, to your changed relations with things around you; you can revel in the whole action.

Actually and marvelously, human life is full of riding. You ride the bus, and you ride the city; you ride in your car and you ride a whole continent. You ride light and sound, the air and the ground; you ride your own body, and–such is self-consciousness–you even ride your mind. You ride language and (careful!) you ride your relationships.

Riding music can be fun, like with a bicycle (“What I Like About You”), or awesome, like with an elephant (Mahler’s Ninth Symphony), but it’s always a stimulating way of riding your life. You can hardly not enjoy your own actions while clasping the music’s movement.

Any expression that unspools in time is a ride. If it’s artistic, it’s meant to be a great ride. However, there is normally a balance between enjoying the ride of a musical experience and listening to it as expression, submitting to the command of someone’s voice and meaning. To pay all your attention to the ride would be . . . gross. If riding were the main thing, “Slow Ride” (Foghat, 1975) might be our main song.

The most beautiful riding song is Rickie Lee Jones’s “The Horses” (1989). A mother imagines for a little daughter how to overcome separation: We’ll be riding on the horses . . . way up in the sky. The voice and meaning are enchanting. And horses are amazingly supportive. What’s great about the actual ride of the song is partly the surging rhythm of the early-arriving chord changes in the chorus (surging like when you have to let a horse pick its own way up a slope) but even more its program of smooth little hitches between the song’s main segments (at 0:39, 0:50, and 1:10 the first time through), kind of like smoothly getting up on your ride. It gives you an optimism about the whole life of riding.

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Power Notebook: The Honeydogs, “Sour Grapes” (2001)

You know the phenomenon of notebook dumping. A songwriter has obviously been jotting down lines in a notebook, ideas and phrases with random charms, and then one day decides on a chord progression and dumps a bunch of the lines into it, producing a song. (In hip hop we would say, gets a beat and then dumps.)

The result is not necessarily great. It depends on whether the lines conspire to form a pattern that means anything, and whether there’s a strong musical gesture that combines with something salient in the words. It depends on whether salient phrases are in a sweet spot between the cliché and the merely odd.

Adam Levy of the Honeydogs is not a naive notebook dumper (far from it, check him out online, he’s a songwriting guru), but he skillfully creates the impression of a heap of dumped lines–and many of his lines are wonderful. A Honeydogs song that consists entirely of lines each of which is a hook, and all of which enrich an affecting theme, is “Sour Grapes”:

[Verse 2] Grease is covering up the lens
It’s hard to see
Sitting in the nosebleeds
Found your bag of fishing lures
Never found the one that got away
Are you missing what you never had?

[Chorus] Sour grapes here
Yeah, we’ve got ’em
Don’t need rain
Just a glass of water
Yeah, it’s lonely at the bottom
It takes everything I got
From sinking like a stone

[Verse 3] Never knew there were two
Ten o’clocks in the same day
Lying on your back
You’re tired of staring at the ceiling
When are we leaving?

The lines in the chorus, with their well-placed “yeahs,” we want to belt out lustily and piteously. We feel cool leaving out two words between the last two lines: “It takes everything I got [to keep] from sinking like a stone.”

This song is particularly well served by the verse-to-chorus energy shift. In the verse we are picking our way forward line by line, not knowing where the lines are leading us. If this kept up too long, we would lose interest and bail. But then in the chorus we’re suddenly roaring down the highway and although we still don’t know where we’re heading, thanks to sheer conviction in the phrases (“Don’t need rain/Just a glass of water”) and the sheer singability of rain and stone we know our direction well enough. (One thing’s sure, it ain’t a direction home.)


Now I have stumbled onto another topic, that of the most singable words.

Consider “stone”: the explosive release from st-, the sensuous vowel journey of the slightly diphthongized -o- , the firm but yielding -n sound to land on like a good mattress. Rain, boom, come, home.

Or do the deep diphthong of “stay,” almost chewy like taffy.

Consider also “like a”: the invigorating bounce off the terminal closed consonant (on which we go to town in “shakalakalaka”). Note how “little bit of” turns into “litta bitta.”

Or consider “free,” which squirts bumptiously out of the fr- gate and prolongs its -ee as long as you want. Plus there’s an excellent option to add “-dom,” one of those -n/-m syllables.

You can actually bounce off an -r- in “(te) quiero.”

Perhaps surprisingly, “reason” is really good, combining a ree- and a -zunn. “It’s time/To listen to REE-ZUN” . . .

I am shocked and I guess humbled to think that other listeners have favored different word-types. It seems that in the 1930s there were as many Americans who loved hearing Dick Powell sing the word “melody” as there are in my generation who love hearing Bob Dylan or Adam Levy sing “stone.” While I suspect that some formerly popular song words like “melody” and “avenue” were preferred more for their rhyming or metrical convenience than for their own phonetic power, there’s no denying that an older mainstream singing style valued smooth gliding more than fierceness or plaintiveness.

Here is a discussion of the most beautiful words to SAY in English.

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A Platonic Soul: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Our House” (1970) and “Chicago” (1971)

For his ideal society, Plato needs virtuous rulers, and these rulers must be educated so that they have stable souls. Their exposure to the arts, including music, must be carefully controlled. Most popular music is excluded.

“The man who makes the finest mixture of gymnastic with music and brings them to his soul in the most proper measure is the one of whom we would most correctly say that he is the most perfectly musical and well harmonized” (Republic 412a).[1]

For us, I suppose it’s axiomatic that all possibilities of musical experience must be explored, and that intensity of any sort (if not fatal) is worth experiencing sometimes, even often. For us, rock music stomps all over Plato’s notorious restrictions on the arts. But there is a distinct question, I would say a valid Platonic question, about the ideal “soundtrack of our lives” – the reference music, as you might call it, that would properly have a strong influence on our orientation to the best life.

There can’t be just one right reference music, because we have different basic soul needs, at least these two main ones: we need to be capable of being harmonized with our fellow beings and our circumstances fairly easily, and we need to be capable of being roused to fight when necessary. One of Plato’s ways of putting the point is to say that the rulers of his republic must be tame to their friends and hostile to their enemies, as good dogs are (375-376).

Fifty years ago, Graham Nash effectively addressed both of our soul needs in two massively popular songs: “Our House” for the harmonious and “Chicago” for the militant.

You might pick something different for your tame song or your militant song if you thought about them separately, but Nash is remarkable as a source for both kinds of song – and for producing them very similarly, as the demo of “Our House” reveals. He sat down to the piano and pumped them out in pretty much the same left hand-right hand alternation, with much the same verse-chorus shifting of gears (except that the “Our House” chorus doesn’t have the lively phase two that the “Chicago” chorus has: “It’s dying”!). “Our House” is in the key of A major, “Chicago” in A minor.[2] What is great about this, I think, is that we can feel the unifying Nashiness of the diversely pointed songs. We can hear how the two needs of the soul are being met by one stable soul.[3] Relatively stable for 1971, anyway.[4]

Which do you think matters more, the songs or the soul?


[1] Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968).

[2] The demo of “Our House” is in C major–too high.

[3] The “stable soul” as a Platonic value has to be put on a different level than the utterly un-Platonic sentiments and opinions expressed in Nash’s two songs. In the Republic, private domesticity and public unruliness are banned for the guardian class.

[4] Barney Hoskyns’ take on this is much more negative:  “God knows what Neil [Young] made of ‘Our House,’ Graham Nash’s trite ditty about his Laurel Canyon love-nest: the journey from ‘Ohio’ back to ‘Our House’ seemed to sum up a general failure of nerve in the LA music scene.” Waiting for the Sun: A Rock ‘n’ Roll History of Los Angeles (Milwaukee: Backbeat Books, 2009), p. 204.

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The Greatest Rock Musical Number: Elvis Presley, “Jailhouse Rock” (1957)

I’m late to the party as usual, but can I nominate “Jailhouse Rock” for another distinction besides having the greatest first two seconds?

What impresses me about the “Jailhouse Rock” number in the context of a movie musical, the performance on a prison set, is how it captures a master metaphor of rock music, adolescent yet universal: that music beguiles the time while we’re in captivity, that life’s sweet opportunity is surrounded by life’s cruel constraint. So what’s great about music with really loud snare hits is that it’s knocking with bravado on a prison door that won’t open for us; what’s great about a stomping four-beat is that it’s making the most of a confined space in lockdown; what’s great about a vocal tenaciously wailing on the blue third note is that it’s a free roar that knows it’s stuck.

Alex Romero’s choreography is apt. Though the jailbirds have been let out of their cells, everyone hops and twists within a cell-like tight space; there’s no dreamy balletic gliding or soaring, except in Elvis’s foray over the pitiful exercise equipment.[1]

Shifty Henry said to Bugs “For Heaven’s sake
No one’s lookin’, now’s our chance to make a break”
Bugsy turned to Shifty and he said, “Nix nix
I wanna stick around awhile and get my kicks”

You see, even if we could escape our prison (the social pressure, the economic pressure, the death sentence) we wouldn’t want to! The rhythm of our prison bash is so groovy that it sways the guards’ billy clubs.

Some might prefer a more optimistic view of music’s role in our existence–that it triumphantly proves that the rope of life can be twisted at any time toward joy and enrichment rather than toward fear and frustration. I’m fine with that, even as an interpretation of “Jailhouse Rock.” Let’s think that way too.[2]


[1] Come to think of it, isn’t this how the musicians and audience are stuck in their places in a normal show? Such a popular model of imprisonment-as-happy! Watch Prince’s exuberant club number “Baby, I’m A Star” with this idea in mind.

[2] A few more nominations:

FUNNIEST: “Dentist!,” Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

BEST PERSONATED: “Sweet Transvestite,” The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

MOST POSITIVE ENERGY: “Baby, I’m A Star,” Purple Rain (1984)

MOST POIGNANT: “Summer Love,” Grease (1978)

MOST INSPIRING: “Let The Sunshine In,” Hair (1969)

MOST UNEXPECTED: “You Were The Beat Of My Heart,” The Lure (2015)


A WEIRD 1957 COUNTERPOINT TO “JAILHOUSE ROCK”: “The Ritz Roll And Rock,” Fred Astaire in Silk Stockings (1957)

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Take Me Over: Dixie Dregs, “Punk Sandwich” (1979)

In the constant musical back-and-forth of satisfying and defying the listener’s expectations, there are moments of relatively muscular takeover where the composer/player is saying, in effect, “I’ve been carrying you where you want to go, but now I’m going to do something else.” Every explosion of virtuosity is a time of You-couldn’t-do-this. Every real solo, virtuosic or not, is a time of It’s-up-to-me. So is every inflection of funk or personal phrasing.

I got to thinking about another form of takeover while listening in my usual rapture to some Dixie Dregs numbers. It doesn’t involve special virtuosity or funk or personal style, or not in a foregrounded way. It’s in the design of the main thing we follow, the melody (always a notable strength in the Dregs version of progressive rock).[1] It’s as though when Steve Morse built the road of the melody he put some twists in it that would dizzy us slightly so that we would have an ambiguous experience of yes, we’re still following along okay, but no, we couldn’t hum this, don’t ask us to say what’s happening.

I find this dizziness delicious. It’s an appetite whetter and a curiosity provoker. Can we go through that again? Hook!

I’d like to introduce the effect with a very mild but characteristic example, and then turn to the stronger one that moved me to write. Listen to “Take It Off the Top” (What If, 1978) from 0:45 to 1:05. There’s a repeated sequence of two melodic guitar figures (doubled with violin). On the first time through (0:45 to 0:51), the first figure is a hummable normal rock lick. The second is not abnormal, but you don’t quite see it coming because the chord, or key, has changed to an unexpected major VI, i.e. from D to B. I can hum this lick too if I concentrate. On the second time through (0:58 to 1:05), however, there are multiple lines on different pitches so that you can no longer capture the first figure very well by humming – the band has taken over the melody polyphonically. Then the second figure hits three times on its first note and one note later comes right back and does it again, in a way that totally thwarts humming; to perform this, you have to pretend to be a guitarist going back and forth between alternate frettings of that note. Which means you have to concentrate in a different way.

But as an enraptured listener I’m not trying to learn the lick, I’m just dizzily going along with it, perhaps imagining a vaguely vocal djah-djah-djah on the repeated notes to add my own accents to being spun around in that place.

Even more impressive for this effect, I think, is “Punk Sandwich” (Night of the Living Dregs, 1979), in the first instance from 0:19 to 0:25. Once again a normal rock lick is followed by an anti-hummer.

Now, I’ve got my guitar on my knee and I could figure this out – in an A scale we’re going back and forth between lower E and higher D and C and . . . whoa! I don’t want to take it over myself, I just want to be taken over! The dizzy is so fine!


On this theme, and connected with the contributions of Malcolm Cecil (1937-2021), I like what Timothy Crouse said about the groundbreaking 1971 synthesizer album Zero Time:

“After all, a Moog theoretically can produce any sound, and produce it instantly, so that a clarinet might scale three mellow ascending notes and then on the fourth note play the sound of the sea giving up her dead. Like taking acid and discovering that your mind has the power to stop your heart, the realization that this instrument can do all sorts of things to you, now that it has you, is unsettling.” — Timothy Crouse, Rolling Stone 88 (August 5, 1971)


[1] “Proggers . . . disdained the tune, which is the infinitely precious sound of the universe rhyming with one’s own brain.” James Parker, “The Whitest Music Ever,” The Atlantic 320/2 (Sept. 2017) 32-34, p. 34.

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The Voice that Pops: On Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder in Summer of Soul

When a voice comes out front clearly in a musical mix, it’s said to “pop.” In a pop mix you want lots of things to pop, especially lead parts. Of course, not everything can — there must be foreground-background relationships.

The popping of that which pops is itself a hook when what is popping is something you embrace.

We may hope that in heaven we’ll all pop.

By natural gift combined with intentional shaping and technical enhancement, Stevie Wonder’s voice pops more than anyone’s. Supposing I get to sing out who I am in heaven, I want to sing like — or better say, at the standard of — Mr. Wonder. (When it’s my turn? Are there turns?)

What makes Stevie Wonder’s voice so great?

The two parts of the question are (1) what would make any voice great, and (2) how Mr. Wonder is great.

As for (1), the voice needs to be strikingly different from everything else you hear, with its own timbre and unusual insistence (the attention-holding constant energy of a musical signal, reinforced in a song vocal by the maneuvers of language, boosted in a pop mix by compression), but also surprisingly compatible with everything you hear, which usually means tunefully concordant and resonant. All the energies of a Stevie Wonder vocal that are blaring out of his appropriated sector of acoustic possibility (that is, where his frequencies and amplitudes fall in relation to the other sounds, not letting any of them compete or muddy the mix) and musical possibility (where his articulations of time and harmony fall) are at the same time comfortable enough in a larger harness.

Another acoustical point is that his relatively “nasal” signature quality interestingly locates his sound production in a specific area of his body.[1] He sounds like he is making the most of a human voice-aptitude that combines an externally thin, cutting quality (yet not entirely lacking in a warm enfolding quality) with an internally closely contained booming quality (yet not at all clogged-sounding). There is a belting potential, a sense of always more that could be coming from there.

And his harmonica often has the same qualities. His harmonica parts enter musical space like his handsome brother.

As for (2) further, well, bring in some fitting adjectives to build a descriptive corral around Mr. Wonder’s unique persona, starting with these: bold yet not aggressive, and thus remarkably free of obnoxiousness; youthfully exuberant yet not childlike, and thus remarkably hard to patronize (isn’t there always something dismissive in our smiling at children?).

Similar considerations would be involved in appreciating Janis Joplin’s great voice, but her vocal quality is commanding in a vastly different way. Stevie Wonder’s sound waves are full of musical coherence, but Joplin’s voice is the next thing to noise, just possible to hear as a musical signal, and impressive for that reason. She musicalizes the scratchy, irritating quality of the squalling infant who cannot be ignored. It’s a powerfully overriding vocal quality without being a popping-out-front quality like Stevie Wonder’s. It’s a relentless interruption by a neglected victim in contrast to the confident self-projection of everyone’s favorite. The vocal personae are so strong that you have to make an effort to think of Janis Joplin as happy or Stevie Wonder as unhappy.


[1] See Ken Tamplin on the nasal quality. Here is a comprehensive expert analysis of Stevie Wonder’s voice, amusingly reminiscent of a beer review.

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The What’s-Going-On Hook: Laura Nyro, “Save The Country” (1968)

I Never Expected to Protest the Vietnam War While on Active Duty - The New  York Times

Speaker, speaker on the wall, how could a song be the greatest of all? One can only admit humbly which song has the most profound effect upon oneself. I admit this about Laura Nyro’s “Save The Country,” which in recent years always slays me, destroys me, wrecks me (cue Tom Petty’s wonderfully straightforward “You Wreck Me”), rattles my soul, quakes my foundations. It makes me cry with hope while I look up amazed at nuclear exploding religious images of salvation. She sings of a precious king — we have a precious king? We have a dove to ride? She sings so very brightly, “We’re gonna lay that devil down!”

About that devil . . .

“Save The Country” is an inspired civic gospel song on any hearing, but for some it has extra meaning in its historical context. For Nyro wrote “Save The Country” right after Bobby Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968. She wrote it to hurl spiritual defiance at the dark powers rampaging in her world. She rose to the occasion. The song got its first recording by the end of the month.[1]

For a nice discussion of how the song unfolds read Cheryl Graham, who steered me to this compelling live performance:

There is a deep descent in the song corresponding to the deep darkness of the year of assassinations. It’s the simple structure of her going deep that wrecks me. She starts out with a cheerful upreaching melody over I and IV chords:

Come on people, come on children

and then takes us

down to the glory river,

the river being physically a low place, lower than us in its stream bed, but here a sacred source of higher life for those who will be “washed.” To register that we are in this lower but deeply promising place, the chords are now switched around — IV to I — and the melodic figure starts from four steps lower than the song’s first note (your chin dips toward your chest when you sing it):

Gonna wash you up and wash you

Now we descend to the flat-VII chord —


which is not just serious-lower but sad-lower. There are two beats to feel this. Then we stroll thoughtfully for a couple of measures over some transition chords —

Gonna lay the devil down

followed by a feisty modulation to the ringing V chord:

gonna lay – that – devil – down!

That’s it. I’ve been drowned and resurrected — not in a grand opera way, rather in a brisk pop-song way. Oddly, the pop assurance is part of what slays me. It’s like brave little Jack dealing with the giant.

And what of my country? What about what’s going on? 1968 was a terrible year for America by some obvious measures, but I wasn’t grown up enough to feel that; personal discoveries were crowding my radar. “Save The Country” doesn’t remind me of that country’s plight — not consciously. What it references are some concerning years that have come later, always especially the current one.

Yet the history is worth thinking about. In 1968, after Nyro had sung so impressively

in my mind I can’t study war no more

Richard Nixon was elected, promising an honorable peace in Vietnam.


[1] The better version is on New York Tendaberry (1969).

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Here’s the Deal: Minutemen, “Maybe Partying Will Help” (1984)

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It’s a song structure the Minutemen use more than once, an inversion of the normal rise of energy and tunefulness in a song’s chorus: they start all pumped up and then go quiet and draw you in with a soft-spoken refrain.

Because a certain prominent politician (whom I support) constantly says “Here’s the deal,” which defeats the focusing effect of pointing to something really decisive by saying “Here’s the deal,” I’ve been looking for an authentic “Here’s the deal” moment, and . . . (pause for effect) . . . here it is in a Minutemen refrain.

It’s such a well-known thing, the paradoxical high impact of shifting to a whisper. It’s such a good way of getting attention for whatever you’re presenting. Why is it not all over pop music? Perhaps because pop music experience is not generally a search for some decisive thing to pay attention to, but on the contrary an avoidance of any such thing? All those verse bombardments, all those buoyant choruses, all those nifty bridges a long holiday, a vast distraction.

Wait, that can’t be right. It contradicts the Hooks premise that we love moments of special interest in music. We are paying attention. We’re just not normally listening for a clear-out for a thought.

In this case, what an engaging thought in context! The words realistic, not rhythmic, but not a rhythmic stumble either. The thought meandering, conflicted, yet pointed and easily relatable. The gentle musical setting a hook in its own right.

As I look over this beautiful land
I can’t help but realize
That I am alone
Why am I able to waste my energy
To notice life being so beautiful?
Maybe partying will help

What of the people who don’t have
What I ain’t got?
Are they victims of my leisure?
To fail is to be a victim
To be a victim of my choice
Maybe partying will help

Take it lightly as satire or take it to heart — be that person or that other.

You get a high-energy reward, some swell party music, for taking in the message – a long outro (if any part of a 1:58 song can be called long) containing one of the great rock riffs, one that Jimmy Page and Jack White could fight over. It sounds archetypal, confirming that the thought at the center of the song was really at The Center, really The Deal.

Posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock, Rock Aesthetics | Tagged , | 1 Comment