‘Cause you got to have friends

Valentine’s Day is generally considered a holiday to celebrate romantic love.  But this year, I’m making the suggestion that we also regard it as a day to celebrate the love of a good friend.

Friendships occur throughout our lives, sometimes waxing and waning as we age.  But some friendships last for decades, or even our entire lives.

 

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This weekend my wife invited several of her best friends from high school days in Cleveland, most of whom are turning 60 this year, to celebrate their milestone together here in Malibu and Santa Barbara.  A few of their daughters, who have been friends since they were toddlers, are attending as well.  I anticipate much hilarity, good-natured teasing, embarrassing old photos, plenty of wine and many sincere hugs of gratitude for the blessings of deep friendships.

My contribution to the celebration is this week’s post on “Hack’s Back Pages,” which singles out a dozen great classic songs about friends, and another ten songs designated as “honorable mention.”  I encourage the ladies, and all my readers, to use this Spotify playlist as a soundtrack for your weekend.

There’s nothing like friends, old and new!

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“You’re a Friend of Mine,” Clarence Clemons & Jackson Browne, 1985

Unknown-148As the sax player in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Clemons was pretty well known when he decided to do a solo project in 1985.  Songwriter/producer Michael Walden wrote this joyous song and gave it to Clemons to record on his “Hero” album.  Clemons invited Jackson Browne to sing it with him as a duet, and it reached #18 on the pop charts that year.  The lyrics underscore the importance of unconditional reliability among close friends:  “Oh, you can depend on me, over and over, over and over, know that I intend to be the one who always makes you laugh until you cry, and you can call on me until the day you die, years may come and go, here’s one thing I know, all my life, you’re a friend of mine…”

“You’ve Got a Friend,” James Taylor and Carole King, 1971

4b80a6e11ccb0309c04bc45047e467b7--photo-tapestry-carole-kingProbably the song about friends that tugs at most people’s emotional heartstrings is this heartwarming Carole King tune, which appears on her monumental 1971 album, “Tapestry.”  James Taylor was recording his “Mud Slide Slim” LP next door in the same L.A. studio, and they both played on each other’s recording sessions.  Once Taylor heard this song, he pleaded images-89with King to allow him to record his own version, and she agreed.  (Quite the friendly gesture, no?)  It went on to become Taylor’s only #1 single and one of his signature tunes.  The two friends reunited in 2010 to record and perform this song and many others from these fondly loved albums:  “You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I’ll come running to see you again, winter, spring, summer or fall, all you’ve got to do is call, and I’ll be there, hey ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend…”

“Friends,” Bette Midler, 1972

Unknown-149Actor/musician Buzzy Linhart was part of the Greenwich Village scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s as an instrumentalist and producer, working with everyone from Richie Havens and Phil Ochs to John Sebastian and Jimi Hendrix.  Bette Midler was also part of that scene, performing periodically in the Continental Baths.  Linhart and Mark “Moogy” Klingman came up with the loose, fun tune “(You Got to Have) Friends,” which Midler heard and immediately recorded in a campy arrangement that ended up entitled just “Friends” on her debut LP “The Divine Miss M.”  It was one of three singles released from the album, and became her unofficial theme song:  “Standing at the edge of the world, boys, waiting for my new friends to come, I don’t care if I’m hungry or poor, I’m gonna get some of them, ’cause you got to have friends, ’cause you got to have friends…”

“See My Friends,” The Kinks, 1965

Unknown-155Ray Davies has said this song is about the death of his older sister, Renée, who lived for a time in Ontario.  Upon her return to England, she gave Davies his first guitar for his 13th birthday.  She then fell ill, owing to an undiagnosed hole in her heart, and died while dancing at a night club.  The lyrics to “See My Friends” deal with mourning the loss of a loved one, and the need to have friends to lean on.  Released in July 1965, this Kinks single reached #10 in Britain but not at all in the US, which severely disappointed Davies:  “See my friends layin’ across the river, she is gone and now there’s no one else to take her place, she is gone and now there’s no one else to love, ‘cept my friends…”

“Be My Friend,” Free, 1970

Unknown-151Vocalist Paul Rodgers and bassist Andy Fraser co-wrote this somewhat serious track from Free’s third LP “Highway.”  It was written with vocalist Paul Kossoff in mind, who struggled with emotional insecurity made worse by the fame the band got from their huge 1970 single “All Right Now.”  Kossoff said he loved the song, but he nonetheless suffered a breakdown that led to the premature dissolution of the band.  The lyrics speak of how crucial it is to have a friend to help us through our struggles:  “All I need is a friend, someone to give a helping hand when I’m afraid in the night, someone to squeeze me and tell me it’s all right, you know I worry such a lot, and I would give all I’ve got just to have someone believe in me, just to do that and put me back on evenly, baby baby, be my friend…”

“Good Friends,” Joni Mitchell and Michael McDonald, 1985

Unknown-152By the mid-’80s, Mitchell had developed a bitterness about the music business as well as conservative government policies, and it showed up in her work, especially on her 1985 LP “Dog Eat Dog.”  But there were exceptions, especially the leadoff track “Good Friends,” a marvelous duet with singer Michael McDonald.  The adjacent photo is from a compelling music video of the song that’s worth watching.  The lyrics describes her complicated relationship with her then-husband Larry Klein, who she said was more a friend and fellow musician than a spouse:   “I have to come and see you maybe once or twice a year, I think nothing would suit me better (right now) than some downtown atmosphere in the dance halls and the galleries, or betting in the OTB, synchronized, like magic, good friends, you and me…”

“Friends,” Elton John, 1971

elton-john-and-songwriter-bernie-taupin-attend-a-private-party-at-universal-studios-on-july-10-1973-in-universal-city-california-photo-by-ed-caraeffgetty-imagesEarly in their career, Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin were eager to get their songs exposed to audiences in as many ways as possible, so they accepted an invitation to write songs for the soundtrack of a quiet little French film called “Friends.”  It was released in early 1971 to little or no fanfare, but the accompanying “Friends” LP got attention because John had already scored his big hit “Your Song” by then, as well as his acclaimed “Tumbleweed Connection” album.  I have always had a soft spot for the John-Taupin songs on this neglected LP, particularly the title track, which I have adopted almost as a mantra for my life:  “Making friends for the world to see, let the people know that you got what you need, with a friend at hand, you will, see the light, if your friends are there, then everything’s all right…”

“You’re My Best Friend,” Queen, 1975

queen-youre-my-best-friend-1976-36While most of Queen’s voluminous song catalog was written by either vocalist Freddie Mercury or guitarist Brian May, a few were composed by bassist John Deacon.  One of his best efforts was “You’re My Best Friend,” a love song to his wife that appeared on Queen’s breakthrough LP “A Night at the Opera” in 1975.  As we all know by now, it was “Bohemian Rhapsody” that stole the show on that album, but “You’re My Best Friend” was no slouch, reaching #7 on the UK singles chart and #16 in the US:  “Oh, you’re the best friend that I ever had, I’ve been with you such a long time, you’re my sunshine and I want you to know that my feelings are true, I really love you, oh, you’re my best friend…”

“Old Friends/Bookends,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1968

Unknown-154How extraordinary that Simon wrote such worldly-wise songs as this one when he was only 27.  The first side of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends” album was an impressive song cycle that looks at several stages of life, including teenage angst, young married travelers, midlife divorce, and the declining years.  “Old Friends” and its followup track “Bookends” offer a sophisticated, poetic look at old age and the value of lifelong friendships and cherished memories:  “Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly, how terribly strange to be 70, old friends, melody brushes the same years, silently sharing the same fears…”

“Hello Old Friend,” James Taylor, 1974

Unknown-153A friend doesn’t always have to be a person.  It could be a pet, or even a favorite place that one continually returns to.  For Taylor, that place is Martha’s Vineyard, where he had spent many summers as a boy, and it’s where he built a home for himself and then-wife Carly Simon to start a family.  He wrote about it in “Hello Old Friend,” a track from his reflective 1974 LP “Walking Man.”  His constant touring during this phase of his life took its toll, and he was always very happy to return to his island home in the woods:  “Hello, old friend, welcome me home again, well, I’ve been away but that’s all over now, say I can stay for October now, stay a while and play, hello, old friend, isn’t it nice to be home again…”

“Can We Still Be Friends?” Todd Rundgren, 1978

Unknown-156Both as the leader of Utopia and as a solo artist, Rundgren has always been more about artistic statements than commercial concerns.  Consequently, his albums and singles have performed respectably but have never been huge hits, except perhaps his 1972 single “Hello It’s Me.”  In 1978, Rundgren enjoyed his third-biggest single “Can We Still Be Friends?” from his “Hermit at Mink Hollow” album.  He has said the song is autobiographical, with lyrics that describe how, despite numerous attempts to fix his relationship with longtime companion Bebe Buell, it wasn’t going to work…but he wanted things to remain amicable:  “Let’s admit we made a mistake, but can we still be friends?  Heartbreak’s never easy to take, but can we still be friends?  Can we still get together sometime?…”

“That’s What Friends Are For,” Dionne Warwick & Friends, 1985

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(Clockwise from upper left): Gladys Knight, Carole Bayer Sager, Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Elton John

Written by the great Burt Bacharach and his sometime writing partner Carole Bayer Sager, this hugely popular song was first recorded by Rod Stewart in 1982 for the soundtrack to the comedy film “Night Shift.”  Three years later, it was recorded by Dionne Warwick with help from Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Gladys Knight and released as a charity single for AIDS research and prevention, earning more than $3 million.  It not only spent four weeks at #1 in early 1986, it went on to win the Grammy for Song of the Year for the songwriters, and Best Pop Performance By a Duo or Group with Vocal for the performers.  It reminds those who are going through challenging times that their friends are always there to support them:  “Keep smiling, keep shining, knowing you can always count on me, for sure, that’s what friends are for, for good times and bad times, I’ll be on your side forever more, that’s what friends are for…” 

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Honorable Mention:

Friends,” The Beach Boys, 1968;  “Thank You for Being a Friend,” Andrew Gold, 1978;  “Friend of the Devil,” The Grateful Dead, 1970; “Waiting on a Friend,” The Rolling Stones, 1981;  “Snowblind Friend,” Steppenwolf, 1970;  “How Many Friends,” The Who, 1975;  “Good Friends,” Livingston Taylor, 1970;  “Thank You Friends,” Big Star, 1978;  “Hello Old Friend,” Eric Clapton, 1976;  “My Best Friend,” Jefferson Airplane, 1967.

Well, let me tell you that it hurts so bad

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I examine the woman who helped pioneer the marriage of country and rock, shone a light on the unrecognized works of struggling songwriters, proudly sang music that celebrates her Mexican roots, and was the first of the pop stars to revitalize interest in the jazz pop of the Great American Songbook:  Linda Ronstadt.

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I remember once reading a great line in the critique of a new album by some amazing singer (I think it was Annie Lennox), and the critic said this:  “Her pipes are so outstanding, I think she could sing me the New Jersey phone book and I’d still love it.”

linda-ronstadtLinda Ronstadt has recorded such a broad variety of music in her 40-year career, and done so in such convincing fashion, that I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if she had indeed attempted to sing the phone book, or a cookbook, or a history book.  Good grief, she has successfully wrapped her voice around so many genres — from country ballads to traditional Mexican rancheras, from New Wave rock to Sinatraesque torch songs, from Motown classics to Southern California folk rock — there’s no reason to think she couldn’t have found a way to make even textbooks sound melodious.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who has tried more different styles and nailed it than Linda has,” said her longtime musical collaborator Bonnie Raitt.  John David Souther, Ronstadt’s one-time paramour and cherished friend, added, “Her range is huge, and there’s not too many people who can pull it off the way she has.”  The great Dolly Parton put it this way:  “Linda can literally sing anything.”

Or, more accurately, she used to be able to sing anything.  In 2011, Ronstadt chose to retire from the business, and although she didn’t say so at first, it was because she was suffering from what was first diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease but is, in fact, a Unknown-147degenerative malady called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), which robbed her of, among other things, the ability to control her vocal cords.

She withdrew from any public appearances, but by 2018, when asked to participate in a documentary about her life and career, she relented, and the result, “Linda Ronstadt:  The Sound of My Voice,” is a thoroughly enthralling video journey, narrated largely by Linda herself.  I strongly recommend you seek it out to re-familiarize yourself with her and learn more about her remarkable life.

Ronstadt came from a Tucson, Arizona, family of music lovers.  “My father had a lovely baritone voice and loved Mexican love songs,” she recalled.  “My mother was big on Gilbert and Sullivan.  My brother was a soprano soloist in a church choir when he was a boy.  My sister was a Hank Williams fanatic.  My aunt preferred classical music and opera.  So I was fortunate to have all these different influences, and I soaked them up like a sponge.

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Linda at home, 1962

“We sang all the time.  We sang at the dinner table, we sang in the car, we sang with our hands in the dishwater.  It was kind of isolated living on a 10-acre ranch outside Tucson, so we had to make our own entertainment.  The radio was my best friend.  We picked up plenty of amazing music.  We got Louisiana Hayride. We got ’50s pop radio.  We got plenty of songs from south of the border.  I loved them all.”

At age 15, Ronstadt started a vocal group with her brother and sister they called The New Union Ramblers, performing at community get-togethers and school events.  But her sister married young and started a family, and her brother became a police officer, so Linda decided to head out on her own to pursue her musical dreams.

In the early ’60s, the place where everything seemed to be happening was Los Angeles, so she headed to the West Coast at 18, split the $80 rent with two roommates in a Santa Monica beach cottage, and started frequenting the various venues where people with similar interests hung out.  The beatnik dives.  The Ashgrove, famous for traditional folk artists.  The clubs on the Sunset Strip.  And, of course, the Troubadour.

At first she waited tables and washed dishes — “I had no problem with that, I’d been doing it my whole life” — and performed in The Stone Poneys, a trio with musician Kenny Edwards and songwriter Bobby Kimmel, just acoustic guitar, mandolin and three voices.  “We practiced every day and played out whenever we could,” she recalled, “and it was a pretty eclectic mix of songs we would try, even back then.”

In 1965, when The Byrds took Bob Dylan’s folk song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” added jangly electric guitars and a rock beat and made it the #1 song in the nation, “all the record labels scurried around looking for new acts,” Ronstadt said.  “Everyone wanted to try to define what it was going to be, this cross-pollination of country, pop and rock.”

The Stone Poneys had cut a couple of demos, including a charming country tune written

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Linda in Malibu, 1966

by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees called “Different Drum.”  Capitol Records heard it and liked the song but not the arrangement.  “They wanted to re-cut it,” she noted, “and we were thrilled, but then we showed up at the studio and everything changed.  They had an orchestra in there!  I’m thinking, ‘This is not the way I envisioned it,’ but it’s a good thing they didn’t listen to me because it became a big hit.”

Capitol offered a record deal, but not to The Stone Poneys.  The deal was for Linda as a solo singer.  “Kenny headed off for India, and years later played bass and guitar on several of my albums.  Bobby started McCabe’s, a combination guitar store and music venue that’s still a Santa Monica landmark.  Meanwhile, I was essentially a harmony singer with no material.  People thought I was brave…but I was nervous.”

It wasn’t long before Ronstadt was making appearances on “The Johnny Cash Show” and “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” and sat with Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson, despite the fact that her early albums didn’t sell well.  On her 1969 debut, “Hand Sown…Home Grown,” she leaned away from folk and more toward country and rock, and radio stations weren’t sure what to make of her.  Same goes for “Silk Purse” (1970) and “Linda Ronstadt” (1972), which had diverse song lists that ran the gamut from Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues” to the Goffin-King oldie “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and from Jackson Browne’s “Rock Me on the Water” to Livingston Tylor’s “In My Reply.”

Because she wasn’t a songwriter, Linda made it her business to keep her ear to the ground in order to discover the great new songs being played on Open Mic Night at The Troubadour.  “What a treasure trove that place was,” she recalled with a sigh.  “Kris Kristofferson.  James Taylor.  Tim Hardin.  Laura Nyro.  Neil Young.  JD Souther.  Joni.  Jackson.  Elton John!”

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Ronstadt performing at The Troubadour with Jackson Browne (left) and The Eagles’ original lineup

The Troubadour was also where she met the guys who would constitute her first touring band:  A drummer from the band Shiloh named Don Henley and a guitarist from Longbranch Pennywhistle named Glenn Frey.  The two bonded on that tour and ended up amicably parting ways with Ronstadt so they could start their own group you may have heard of:  The Eagles.

Ronstadt had strong opinions about the songs she wanted to record, even if the record label didn’t always agree.  “I loved singing upbeat R&B tunes like “Rescue Me,” but I also wanted there to be room for some of the superb young songwriters I was hearing, like Randy Newman (“Sail Away”) and Henley and Frey (“Desperado”),” Ronstadt said.  “And it took me until my fifth album before I could convince anyone to let me record Anna McGarrigle’s ‘Heart Like a Wheel.'”

Speaking of which, it was her 1974 LP “Heart Like a Wheel” that really put Ronstadt on Unknown-144the map.  As I see it, it was a perfect storm — the right singer at the right time, with the right songs and the right producer.  Peter Asher became her manager and regular producer, taking tunes like Clint Ballard’s “You’re No Good,” Lowell George’s “Willin’,” Phil Everly’s “When Will I Be Loved,” James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” and McGarrigle’s title cut and turn them into polished gems that radio program directors ate up.  “Heart Like a Wheel” reached #1 on both the Pop and Country charts.

This began a five-year string of chart-topping LPs (“Prisoner in Disguise,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Simple Dreams,” “Living in the USA”)  that made her the undisputed queen of country rock…or was it pop rock?…in the Unknown-143’70s.  On the singles charts, the songs that performed best for her were remakes of well-known hits (Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” and “It’s So Easy,” Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA,” Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears” and “Ooh Baby Baby”), but frankly, I always found myself more drawn to the gems by up-and-coming songwriters Ronstadt championed, like Karla Bonoff (“Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” “Lose Again”) and Warren Zevon (“Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Carmelita”).

She defied convention wisdom several times in her career.  The first time was in 1978 R-1473431-1338954045-8748.jpegwhen she covered newcomer Elvis Costello’s New Wave tune “Alison,” then recorded three more Costello songs on her first real departure, the rock album “Mad Love,” which featured lots of electric guitars and even a synthesizer.  Her gamble had mixed results; the album reached #3 on the pop charts but failed to chart at all on the country charts.  In fact, Ronstadt never made a dent in the country charts as a solo artist ever again.

But no matter, as she had other fish to fry.  First she turned heads by starring in the Broadway production and film version of “The Pirates of Penzance,” of all things, winning great reviews and a few award nominations.

Then came her boldest move.  Ronstadt had always admired the works of George and Ira Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael (cynically disrespected by young hipsters as “elevator Linda-Ronstadt-Whats-New-1983-music”) and wanted to do a whole album of that kind of material.  “She decided this was what she wanted to do, and more important, was authentic at doing,” said Souther.  “She was told, ‘No, don’t do this, it’ll ruin your career.’  But she did it anyway.”

To my ears, the trio of albums she recorded with Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra in the 1980s was possibly the finest singing Ronstadt ever committed to vinyl.  The way she curls her voice around “Someone to Watch Over Me” or belts out “What’s New” is simply magnificent, better, even, than her pop rock chart-toppers.  Millions of music lovers agreed with me; “What’s New” reached #3 in a year dominated by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Men at Work’s “Business as Usual.”  Time magazine calling it “one of the gutsiest, most unorthodox and unexpected albums of the year.”

Said Linda in 2005, “I was so focused on folk, rock and country that I got a bit bored and felt the need to branch out, and this would be the first of many hikes down roads not typically taken.  I now realize I was taking a tremendous risk, and that (label honcho) Joe Smith’s opposition was a matter of him looking out for the company, and for me.  But when it became apparent I wouldn’t change my mind, he gave in, adding, ‘I love Nelson images-86so much!  Can I please come to the sessions?’  When the albums became successful, Joe congratulated me.  I resisted the urge to tease him and say ‘I told you so.'”

Her handlers also attempted to dissuade her from her equally radical left turn toward the Latin music of her childhood in 1987.  It proved less popular, at least on the mainstream charts, but “Cancions de mi Padre” broke records in the Spanish-speaking markets and brought Ronstadt much inner happiness.  “That music is anchored in my blood, in my soul,” she said.

Next came “Trio,” a hit-and-miss collection of country tunes with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris that had been in the works since they first attempted recording together in the late ’70s.  As you might expect, it topped the country charts but also PartonRonstadtHarris,jpgreached #7 on the pop charts (which sparked “Trio II” seven years later).

In 1988, while attending a New Orleans concert by the great Aaron Neville, Ronstadt was singled out and invited to the stage to sing with him, and they both felt it went so well that they agreed to record four songs together, which proved to be the highlights of her next hit LP, “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind.”  Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s Grammy-winning “Don’t Know Much” rightly snared most of the attention but, as usual, Linda wisely saved space for several fine new songs by Jimmy Webb and Karla Bonoff.

Her popularity began to wane a bit in the 1990s.  She failed to match the chart success she’d achieved thus far (“Feels Like Home” fared best, stalling at #75), but the LPs featured a wide range of beautiful interpretations of forgotten or ignored gems such as Burt Bacharach’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” Goffin-King’s “Oh No Not My Baby,” Tom Petty’s “The Waiting,” Brian Wilson’s “In My Room,” Bruce Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”  Her final release, “Hummin’ to Myself” (2004), revisited the American Songbook catalog with subtle beauties like “Cry Me a River” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

images-88As she gradually lost her ability to sing, Souther said, “To have this marvelous instrument that could hold the notes, hit the notes, shape the notes, and then to no longer have it…it must have been quite a reckoning.”

But as Asher put it, “I know of no one who could handle that kind of difficult adjustment in a more logical and thoughtful and intelligent way than Linda.”

At first Ronstadt was despondent about it, but soon grew philosophical.  “I lost a lot of different colors in my voice  There’s a lot of things you do in singing, you turn your voice to different planes to make different sounds, and gradually I couldn’t do any of that anymore.  Singing is really complex, and I was made most aware of that by having it vanish.  I still sing in my mind, but I can’t do it physically.”

“You know, I’m grateful for the time I had.  I got to live a lot of my dreams, and I feel lucky about that.”