Songs that stick, and the reasons why
ASPEN – It’s the late ’70s. I’m a junior high school kid in suburban New Jersey, and on Friday afternoons in winter, a busload of us head to Vernon Valley for a frigid, dark evening of skiing. The so-called mountain is small enough that the music, blasting from a single speaker mounted on a telephone pole at the bottom of the hill, can be heard from anywhere on the slopes.And to this day, as soon as I summon up a memory of those days, the soundtrack kicks in: Hall & Oates “She’s Gone,” and it’s as vivid as the pain from the ski boots, the feeling of utter exhaustion on the ride home, and the sight of Marla Fromkin in a ski sweater.Songs are insanely powerful things. Come up with one perfectly catchy, three-minute song, and you could be set for life. I’m sure the guys from Dexy’s Midnight Runners are still cashing checks for “Come On Eileen.” Bob Dylan could have hung it up after “Blowin’ in the Wind” and been considered immortal (though I understand he did make some subsequent contributions in the songwriting field).Here are some songs that have become happily stuck in my mind (as opposed to the ones that get torturously stuck there. Be gone already, “Silly Love Songs!”), along with picks from musicians performing at the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival (which runs through Saturday, April 2) and some other song-savvy people.• “Fruits of My Labor,” by Lucinda Williams. Sensual yearning, rendered so viscerally you can see, smell and taste it. Williams’ original is wonderful enough, but Ruthie Foster’s version is mind-blowing. (Foster performs tonight at 6 p.m. – and if I had one request … .)• “Polaroids,” by Shawn Colvin. A misty travelogue, an image-filled romance that ends in disappointment, and a killer scheme of rhymes and accents.• “Catholic Girls,” by Frank Zappa. Does humor belong in music? Oh yeah. Zappa is wicked, dirty, politically incorrect in the extreme here – and so damn funny. Some great singing by his band, too.• “Elko,” by Todd Sheaffer of Railroad Earth. Temptation defined: “Winners and losers, hookers and boozers/ Drawn like a bug to the light.” The lyrics lament man’s frailty but at the same time, the grooving fiddle and driving beat celebrate all those dark, dirty things waiting in the Nevada night. Above all, there’s an understanding of the inevitability of human nature: “Poor boy you’re bound to die.” • “Glory Bound,” by Martin Sexton. Soaring melody, sung beautifully by Sexton when he moves into falsetto voice for the chorus, “I’m taking a chance on the wind.” It always inspires me to try to hit those high notes. And I always fall short. Way short. Miserably, pathetically short. But I keep trying.• “Big Chief,” by Earl King. That rolling, rollicking piano line has enticed every New Orleans keyboardist to cover the song. For good reason. For me, this is the soundtrack to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Bonus: instead of a guitar solo, King gives us a whistling solo.• “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”: Forty-six years and hundreds of listens later, and you still hear Dylan’s urgency as he points out hypocrisy and commercialism, and his grim conclusion that they ain’t going nowhere: “It’s alright ma, it’s life and life only.” Brilliant guitar-strumming, too.• “Shine a Light,” by Jagger & Richards. Benjamin Franklin claimed that beer was proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. The Rolling Stones seem to counter that thought; music is God’s great gift: “May the good Lord shine a light on you/ Make every song your favorite tune.” Now wouldn’t that be nice?
• John Oates (musician, co-producer of the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival): Shawn Colvin’s “Shotgun Down the Avalanche.” I love this song in which the lyrics cleverly speak about relationships, slippery slopes and love out of control. It’s a unique metaphor and one that resonates with me living in the mountains. Shawn’s songwriting is of a very high order and her haunting vocal delivery is matched to the music perfectly.• Donavon Frankenreiter (singer-songwriter, performing Saturday, April 2, at 9:15 p.m.): “Rich Girl,” by Hall & Oates. Love the groove of this song. Every time I hear I can’t help but sing along. Plus I love Hall & Oates!!!Sam Bush (musician, performed Thursday, March 31, with Keb’ Mo’): “Morning Bugle,” by John Hartford. I first heard this song around Thanksgiving 1972. New Grass Revival was in Savannah, Ga. for a two-week engagement. It brought me comfort when I was lonesome and a long way from home. This song takes me back to a special time, the beginning years of NGR when we were young and all about the music.• Miles Zuniga (singer-songwriter, performing Friday, at 7:45 p.m.): “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” by Barry and Robin Gibb. The melody is beautiful and the lyrics address heartache better than any song in the past 40 years. Just … devastating.• Gordy Quist (of the Band of Heathens): “A Satisfied Mind,” by Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes. One of my all-time favorite songs that speaks a lifetime’s worth of wisdom in three minutes. Culturally, we tend to put a lot of emphasis on money, fame and the things you can buy. With “A Satisfied Mind,” Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes wrote a poignant reminder of what it’s really all about. I sure hope the song made them a lot of money!• Ed Jurdi (of the Band of Heathens): “Jamaica Say You Will,” by Jackson Browne. I was introduced to his music through my parents’ records and I’ve recently revisited a lot of his material. This is the first song on his debut album. Most people are lucky if they ever write a song this good and he basically opens his recorded career with it. Incredible lyric and narrative to go with a great melody.Dan Sheridan (singer-songwriter): “After the Gold Rush,” by Neil Young. The lyrics aren’t literal. Instead, they cast a dream-like spell. I’m not sure what it’s about. But with good art, the meaning is generated by the listener, and for me, this is very powerful.• Gram Slaton (executive director of the Wheeler Opera House): “Candy-O,” by the Cars, which I think is the angriest love song ever recorded. There’s a perfect symbiotic relationship between the calm delivery of the vocal and the raging instrumental going on behind it that perfectly communicates a sexual longing crashing and burning. Who hasn’t been in that place at least once in their lives where they wanted to put their head through a wall over an immovable, intractable relationship situation? You can actually hear the storm going on in the singer’s head. That’s genius.• Barry Smith (humorist and bluesman): “Holiday,” by the Kinks. This is a quaint little ditty sung from the standpoint of someone who has been forced to take bit of a vacation from life. Rehab, basically, or maybe an asylum – but neither of those words make for nearly as subtle a song title. I discovered this song (and the album, “Muswell Hillbillies”) on my own in high school, while everyone else was listening to “Thriller.” Not cool, not cool. It’s the Kinks’ take on Americana; it’s modern and old-timey, tragic and hilarious. Beautifully written and masterfully performed. God save The Kinks.• Jeff Murcko (communications director of the Aspen Art Museum, musician): “It Makes No Difference,” by The Band. Great songwriting is somehow always about empathy and so everyone has some affinity for heartbreak songs. For me, “It Makes No Difference” is about the most plaintive of those that come to mind. The verses are pure and plainspoken and the chorus a sort of hymn of high lonesomeness. The live performance in “The Last Waltz” is, largely due to Rick Danko’s amazing tenor, a bittersweet masterpiece that stops me in my tracks whenever I hear it.• Andre Salvail (Aspen Times reporter, musician): “Time for the Sun to Rise,” by Earl King. It’s from the album “Glazed.” The great New Orleans songwriter may be best known for Mardi Gras party songs like “Big Chief,” but the poignancy of “Sun to Rise” really resonates with me. I can picture Earl King walking along the streetcar line before dawn, scribbling down notes, lamenting the coming of the light and how it disturbs his dreams. I’ve walked in his footsteps with exactly that same feeling. “Sunrise … You don’t soothe me like the moon.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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