Must be the season of the witch

Anyone who knows the Hackett family knows that Halloween is our favorite holiday.  We hosted the “Hackett Haunted House” for 12 out of 13 years from 1998-2010 at our Stilson Circle home in the Peachtree Corners area of Atlanta, Georgia, and it makes me smile, with a certain ghoulish delight, that so many people mention our haunted houses as among their fondest memories of Halloween during those years.

featWe always worked to frighten people as best we could, emulating horror movie themes and time-honored scary creatures — Texas Chain Saw Massacre guys, mad scientists, Frankensteins, evil clowns, Samarra from “The Ring,” Gollem from “Lord of the Rings,” The Wicked Witch of the West on the roof, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, scary pirates, guillotines, electric chairs, and on and on and on.  You needed courage to make it through our maze of scares and freaky surprises.

Sad to say, I think popular music has been kind of lame in their attempts to give us Halloween soundtrack music.  The more popular examples — Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “The Monster Mash” (1962), Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” (1978) and Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” (1984) — just don’t quite light my fire as anthems of Halloween.

(The best music for this holiday has always been instrumental movie music:  The shrieking violins of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” soundtrack; the haunting piano-based theme from John Carpenter’s 1978 film “Halloween”; the creepy strains that carry TV’s “The X-Files” theme; the first four minutes of the epic Mike Oldfield opus “Tubular Bells” from “The Exorcist” soundtrack.  We used all these and more in the background of our haunted houses.)

As I see it, my job here this week at Hack’s Back Pages is to remind you all of great rock music tracks, popular or obscure, that might make an appropriate setlist for a Halloween get-together.  Here, for better or worse, are 15 selections.  Have a Spooktacular weekend!!!!

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772133f55d9150bf904570535f618196-500x500x1“Black Magic Woman,” Santana, 1970

Written by the great blues guitarist Peter Green and released as a single with his band Fleetwood Mac back in 1968, this song became a huge #4 hit for Carlos Santana and his band in 1970, from “Abraxas.”  It was combined in a medley with the 1966 track “Gypsy Queen,” and used congas, timbales and Latin polyrhythms to give the whole thing a distinct voodoo feel:  “Got your spell on me baby, yes, you got your spell on me baby, you’re turning my heart into stone, I need you so bad, magic woman, I can’t leave you alone…”

deadmansparty“Dead Man’s Party,” Oingo Boingo, 1985

This ska/reggae song by one of The Eighties’ quirkier bands is a perfect fit for any Halloween costume party where the crowd is keen to dance.  Songwriter/leader Danny Elfman, now one of most celebrated film soundtrack guys of the past 30 years, came up with this infectious tune, plus “Weird Science,” “Don’t Look in the Basement” and other Halloween-appropriate material.  “I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go, walkin’ with a dead man over my shoulder, waiting for an invitation to arrive, goin’ to a party where no one’s still alive, it’s a dead man’s party, who could ask for more, everybody’s comin’, leave your body at the door…”  

picture-41“I Put a Spell on You,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, 1956

Well before Alice Cooper and other “shock rock” rock acts was Jay Hawkins, a blues singer who found his niche with the wild, mesmerizing 1956 recording of his titanic “I Put a Spell on You.” “I was just a normal blues singer,” said Hawkins, “but this version just fell into place one weird night in the studio.  I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death.”  His stage shows began with him in a cape, rising out of a coffin amidst smoke and fog, as he sang this chiller.  Numerous cover versions followed, by the likes of Creedence, Bryan Ferry, Nina Simone, Marilyn Manson, Annie Lennox, Jeff Beck and Joss Stone.  A true classic.   “I just can’t stand it, the way you always put me down, I put a spell on you, because you’re mine…”

rockwell-somebodys-watching-me_thelavalizard1“Somebody’s Watching Me,” Rockwell, 1984

Just as Motown mogul Berry Gordy’s impressive career was winding down, his son, Kennedy Gordy, burst on the scene as Rockwell, and rocketed to #2 with the stalker classic, “Somebody’s Watching Me,” which featured Michael Jackson on background vocals.  The song’s music video utilized a haunted house theme, complete with zombies, ghosts, ravens, graveyards, and references to the famous shower scene from the film “Psycho.” “All I want is to be left alone in my average home, but why do I always feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone, and I always feel like somebody’s watching me, and I have no privacy…”  

esq_rockyhorror“Time Warp,” from “Rocky Horror Picture Show” soundtrack, 1975

A clever blend of parody and kitsch, of horror B-movies and ’50s rock and roll, “The Rocky Horror Show” was a sensation when it debuted on the London stage in 1973, and its 1975 film version, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” remains a midnight movie cult classic 40 years after its release.  The whole soundtrack is appropriate for Halloween, but “Time Warp,” with its dance-instruction lyrics and singalong chorus, is ideal for any Halloween party.  “Drinking those moments when the blackness would hit me, and the void would be calling, let’s do the time warp again…”  

3-thriller-michael-jackson“Thriller,” Michael Jackson, 1982

Jackson’s trailblazing 13-minute music video of his title track “Thriller” broke new ground as a short story, fully choreographed with gory zombie makeup, and the first to be preserved in the National Film Registry…and for the finale, horror movie legend Vincent Price recites the spoken section that ends with his maniacal laugh.  It has become a Halloween classic, and rightly so:  “It’s close to midnight, and something evil’s lurking in the dark, under the moonlight, you see a sight that almost stops your heart, you try to scream, but terror takes the sound before you make it, you start to freeze as horror looks you right between the eyes, you’re paralyzed…”

414146680_1280x720“Black Sabbath,” Black Sabbath, 1970

Death metal, Goth, Satanic rock — the bands who revel in these genres have plenty of disturbing, macabre lyrics that could certainly be deserving of space on a Halloween setlist, but frankly, I don’t claim to know much about them.  I do, however, recall the spooky chill that ran up my spine the first time I heard the song “Black Sabbath,” the leadoff track from Black Sabbath’s debut LP (and check out that creepy album cover).  An ominous tolling bell, a rainstorm with distant thunder, then huge power chords in a minor key, and Ozzy Osbourne demanding to know, “What is this that stands before me?”  Brrrrr.  If this isn’t Halloween music, I don’t know what is.

hqdefault-1“Psycho Killer,” Talking Heads, 1977

On their 1977 debut LP and again as the opening song of their brilliant concert film “Stop Making Sense” in 1984, new wave giants The Talking Heads offered up this chilling portrait of an unhinged loner.  Another character in a morbid Halloween gallery:  “I can’t seem to face up to the facts, I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax, I can’t sleep ’cause my bed’s on fire, don’t touch me, I’m a real live wire, psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?…”

mainwitch“Witchy Woman,” Eagles, 1972

Don Henley has said the inspiration for this early Eagles single was the wild, bewitching Zelda Fitzgerald, who haunted novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald all his life.  “I was also reading the works of Carlos Castaneda, and dating a girl who was into the occult,” he said. “All of those things came together to create the witchy woman.”  Nothing more Halloween-like than that:  “Raven hair and ruby lips, sparks fly from her fingertips, echoed voices in the night, she’s a restless spirit on an endless flight, woo hoo, witchy woman, she how high she flies, woo hoo, witchy woman, she got the moon in her eye…”

dont_fear_the_reaper“Don’t Fear the Reaper,” Blue Oyster Cult, 1976

Out of Long Island, New York, in 1971 came Blue Oyster Cult, in the hard rock/heavy metal genre.  BOC guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser wrote this 1976 hit single in his early 20s, imagining an early death for himself.  “I wasn’t suicidal,” he said, “just thinking cosmically about eternal love and premature death.”  Seems spooky enough to me to be perfect for a Halloween mix…   “Then the door was opened and the wind appeared, the candles blew and then disappeared, the curtains flew and then he appeared, saying, ‘don’t be afraid, come on baby, don’t fear the reaper’…”

220px-too_much_blood_cover“Too Much Blood,” The Rolling Stones, 1983

Mick Jagger gets the lion’s share of songwriting credit for this strangely compelling dance track that protests gratuitous violence in 1980s films.  Sparked by a lurid murder in Paris that year involving dismemberment and cannibalism, the song’s lyrics devolved into rap in the middle section, specifically mentioning “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and bemoaning, “I can feel it everywhere, feel it up above, feel the tension in the air, there’s too much blood, yeah, too much blood…”

jethro_tull_rockisland“Old Ghosts,” Jethro Tull, 1979

Progressive rock bands have often written about strange creatures and happenings, and Tull songwriter Ian Anderson is no exception.  Minor chords and lyrics that lurk in furtive images are a prominent feature on the band’s 1979 album of nautical mystery, “Stormwatch,” which includes this spooky take of how ghosts have often threatened the well-being of sailors as they navigate the seas at night:   “Hair stands high on the cat’s back like a ridge of threatening hills, sheepdogs howl, make tracks and growl, their tails hanging low… I’ll be coming again, like an old dog in pain, blown through the eye of the hurricane, down to the stones where old ghosts play…”

 

url-7“Spooky,” Classics IV, 1968, Atlanta Rhythm Section, 1979

Written in 1967 as an instrumental featuring the saxophone riffs of Mike Shapiro, “Spooky” stalled at #57, but the next year, Mike Hirsch added lyrics about “a spooky little girl like you,” and the Classics IV took that version to #3.   James Cobb of the Classics IV went on to form The Atlanta Rhythm Section in the ’70s, and their re-recorded rendition in 1979 reached #17 on the charts.  Not really a very spooky tune at all, but still appropriate lyrically:  “Just like a ghost, you’ve been haunting my dreams, so now I know you’re not what you seem, love is kinda crazy with a spooky little girl like you…”

bloodrock_wide“D.O.A.,” Bloodrock, 1971

The two-note drone of a European emergency siren is the basic hook on which this gruesome song hangs, and embodies that feeling of dread you might feel as you approach a haunted house.  The lyrics graphically describe the thoughts of a plane crash survivor as he is brought into a hospital:  “I try to move my arm and there’s no feeling, and when I look, I see there’s nothing there…Life is flowing out my body, pain is flowing out with my blood, the sheets are red and moist where I’m lying, God in heaven, teach me how to die…”

Donovan Performs On Tv Show“Season of the Witch,” Donovan, 1966

It’s hard to decide which version of this classic song grabs me more:  Donovan’s 5-minute original, or the 11-minute track by Al Kooper, Stephen Stills and Co. on the legendary 1968 “Super Session” LP.  Donovan, the British mystical folkie responsible for “Sunshine Superman” and other flower-garden essays of the mid-to-supersessionlate ’60s, wrote it as a somewhat creepy ode to October.  Two years later, Stills & Kooper recorded a remarkable jam on Donovan’s chords that became something else entirely, also haunting and intriguing in its own way.  “When I look out my window, many sights to see, and when I look in my window, so many different people to be, and it’s strange, so strange…”

 

 

Honorable mention:

Miss Ghost,” Don Henley, 2000;  “Scared,” John Lennon, 1974;  “Gypsy Woman,” Tim Buckley, 1969;  “Pay in Blood,” Bob Dylan, 2012;  “The Ghost,” Fleetwood Mac, 1972;  “Evil Woman,” ELO, 1975;  “Murder By Numbers,” The Police, 1983;  “Everyday is Halloween,” Ministry;  “Ghost Town,” The Specials;  “Witch Queen of New Orleans,” Redbone, 1972;  “This is Halloween,” Marilyn Manson, 2006

 

 

What’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary body of work and a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I salute the man who recently was selected as the first songwriter to ever win a Nobel Prize for literature:  Bob Dylan.

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So many seismic lyrics.  So little space.

You might hate his voice.  Many people do.  You can find his public persona too prickly for your tastes.  You can certainly find fault with the lame songs, even whole albums, in his 50-year repertoire of recorded music.

74344665But, like the esteemed folks who each year select the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, you can’t deny that Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota, is an unparalleled master of poetic thought.  He possesses a rare command of the language that is brought to bear in epic storytelling, persuasive protest, angst-ridden idolatry, even throwaway singalongs.

He is supremely gifted in putting powerful and poignant phrases to all kinds of music — folk, rock and roll, blues, country, gospel.  From “Come gather ’round, people, wherever ye roam” in 1963 (“The Times They Are a-Changin'”) through “And I would not feel so all alone, everybody must get stoned” in 1966 (“Rainy Day Women #12 and #35”) to “And every one of them words rang true and glowed like burning coal…” in 1975 (“Tangled Up in Blue”) to “Freedom, just around the corner for you, but with truth so far off, what good will it do” in 1983 (“Jokerman”) and “You got the same eyes that your mother does, if only you could prove who your father was” in 2012 (“Pay in Blood”) — Bob Dylan has been writing lyrics that examine and reflect our lives for more than half a century now.

His lyrics are insightful, piercing, funny, scathing, heartbreaking, whimsical, bleak, fierce, enigmatic, profound.  On the occasion of Dylan’s 70th birthday in 2011, Rolling Stone published a special issue, in which seasoned writer Jon Pareles pointed out how Dylan’s songwriting draws “from the Bible and Shakespeare, from Celtic ballads and deep blues, from abstract poetry and street talk, from obscure movie dialogue and private lovers’ quarrels.”

bob-dylan-basement-1For me, it was a strange, disjointed journey to discover the wonders of Dylan.  Although I knew a few of his early radio hits — “I Want You,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Positively 4th Street” — I didn’t really click with his stuff until I was 14 and heard 1969’s “Lay Lady Lay” (which, by the way, was written for, but not used in, the soundtrack to “Midnight Cowboy”).  I loved that song, and bought the album it came from, “Nashville Skyline,” which happened to feature a sweet baritone voice (made possible by quitting cigarettes) far removed from the gravelly, nasal growl that marked everything he’d done up to that point.

And that was my problem with Dylan, mostly.  I have always much preferred a quality, trained singing voice like Sam Cooke, or David Crosby, or Joni Mitchell, instead of a gruff, untrained half-spoken delivery like James Brown, or Rod Stewart, or Janis Joplin.  Dylan certainly falls into that second category, and for many music lovers, it’s a deal breaker.  “I love his songs, but I really can’t handle his voice,” they say.

It’s an acquired taste, really.  When Dylan first arrived, he was vilified for being “a terrible singer of great songs,” as one critic put it in 1966.  Funny thing is, the voice on his masterpiece ’60s recordings is leaps and bounds better than the haggard, decrepit vocals we hear on any of his post-2000 albums, so it’s a matter of perspective.

Indeed, most of America learned of Dylan not through his own recordings but from cover versions with more conventional voices:  Peter Paul & Mary (“Blowin’ in the Wind”), The Turtles (“It Ain’t Me Babe”), Cher (“All I Really Want to Do”), The Byrds (“Mr. Tambourine Man”), even Jimi Hendrix (“All Along the Watchtower”).

81bljjua7el-_sl1400_There are still plenty of people who never took to Dylan, which is crazy, because his songs simply can’t be ignored.  For those folks, I highly recommend a remarkable 4-CD collection called “Chimes of Freedom:  The Songs of Bob Dylan,” compiled in 2012 to commemorate Amnesty International’s 50th Anniversary.  It offers 72 Dylan compositions from throughout his storied career, interpreted by 72 different artists from a phenomenally broad range of musical styles.  Check out Seal and Jeff Beck teaming up on “Like a Rolling Stone,” or Diana Krall caressing “Simple Twist of Fate,” or Eric Burdon’s ferocious take on “Gotta Serve Somebody,” or Ziggy Marley’s reggae version of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” or Johnny Cash and the Avett Brothers nailing “One Too Many Mornings.”  And there’s Sting, and Michael Franti, and Lenny Kravitz, and the late Pete Seeger, and Bryan Ferry, and Tom Morello, and Pete Townshend, and Kris Kristofferson, and Miley Cyrus, and My Morning Jacket, and, of course, Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love” (most of you Adele fans didn’t even know that was a Dylan song, did you?).

My generation’s Bard came out of a tiny hamlet in the northern hinterlands, migrated to New York’s Greenwich Village in 1961, played coffeehouses and small clubs, and started writing astonishing songs at a torrid pace that never let up until late 1966 when he was hurt in a motorcycle accident that, he conceded years later, profoundly affected him.  He had a spiritual awakening that manifested itself in the tone and lyrical temper of his songs thereafter, sometimes subtly (1967’s “Drifter’s Escape,” 1975’s “Shelter From the Storm”), sometimes brazenly (1973’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” 1979’s “Property of Jesus”).

Dylan has always bristled when asked to discuss his songs, protesting, “If you have to explain ’em, then they weren’t any good in the first place.”  He has been an exasperating interview subject, even for sympathetic publications like Rolling Stone, although in recent years, he has proved to be surprisingly candid and forthcoming.  When asked where the monumental “Like a Rolling Stone” came frodylandontlookback-725916m, he conceded, “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that.  It gives you the song and then it goes away.  You don’t know what it means…except the ghost picked me to write the song.”  He concludes that many of
his best known songs come from his love for and immersion in folk, country and blues traditions during his formative years.  But he has blazed trails as well; the case can be made that his 1965 diatribe “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was the first rap song.

One of the most intriguing things about Dylan is his restlessness, his all-over-the-map interests and influences, his willingness to work anywhere with almost anybody and everybody in his search to put down on tape the sounds that are wandering through his head.

131203124717-07-bob-dylan-horizontal-large-gallery

British musician George Harrison (1943 – 2001) (at left) and American musician Bob Dylan perform in the Concert for Bangla Desh at Madison Square Garden, New York, August 1, 1971. (Photo by Bill Ray/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

He has recorded in New York, in Nashville, in LA, in Muscle Shoals.  He has performed and recorded multiple times with Robbie Robertson and The Band.  He has done duets with Johnny Cash.  He participated in George Harrison’s groundbreaking “Concert for Bangla Desh” charity shows.  He has enlisted guitar wizard Mark Knopfler and ex-Rolling Stone guitarist Mick Taylor.  He has recorded with Nashville greats like Charlie McCoy, Kenny Buttrey, Pete Drake and Charlie Daniels.  He has toured with the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty.  Blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield and keyboard legend Al Kooper are prominently featured on his mid-’60s albums.  More recently, Austin-based blues guitarist Denny Freeman, Los Lobos frontman David Hidalgo and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell have been at his side.

960In 1988, he even signed on to be a de facto member of The Traveling Wilburys, a tongue-in-cheek consortium comprised of Dylan, ELO maestro Jeff Lynne, Heartbreaker Tom Petty, ex-Beatle George Harrison and the late great Roy Orbison.  They all brought great songs to the sessions, but one of the best was Dylan’s self-parody track, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man.”

Much like his contemporary Paul McCartney, he has gone through periods of laziness and fallow output (in Dylan’s case, 1970-1973, 1977-1982, 1990-1996) when it seemed he had lost enthusiasm for his craft.  But even then, every lackluster LP (“Shot of Love”) had at least one spectacular track (“Every Grain of Sand”) to keep our hopes up for a return to form.

blood-on-the-tracks-by-bob-dylanAnd he has always returned to form eventually.  Following his early ’70s trough, he came back with what some regard as his finest album, 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks.”  When he was counted out in the late ’80s, he startled us all with 1989’s smart “Oh Mercy,” produced by Daniel Lanois.  bob-dylan-oh-mercyIn the most recent 20 years, even though his voice has become virtually unlistenable on many tracks, Dylan has been remarkably consistent with quality songwriting on 1997’s “Time Out of Mind” (which won an Album of the Year Grammy),  the Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” from the “Wonder Boys” film, and 2001’s “Love and Theft” and 2007’s “Modern Times.”  Sure, he’s been coasting a bit lately with LPs of ’40s standards and even a Christmas album, but mark my words, we haven’t heard the last masterpiece from this cat.

There are also several excellent film treatments of Dylan, achieved both with and without his involvement:  D.A. Pennebaker’s quasi-documentary “Don’t Look Back” (1967) chronicling parts of his 1965 British tour; Martin Scorsese’s documentary “No Direction Home” (2005), focusing on Dylan’s explosive first five years (1961-1966); and “I’m Not There” (2009), Todd Hayne’s extraordinary biographical musical drama based on Dylan but with broad fictionalized elements and a half-dozen actors portraying Dylanesque characters.

Dylan often recorded many dozens of amazing songs that never saw the light of day at the time, but have since been released retrospectively, first as “The Basement Tapes” in 1975 and, more recently, as the multiple-volume “Bootleg Series” for the completists and countless Dylan worshippers out there.

If you’re going to be a student of Dylan’s lyrics, you’d better fasten your seat belt and get comfy, because he writes a LOT of words.  From his earliest records to his most recent releases, it’s not uncommon for him to compose songs with 15 or 20 verses that last more than ten minutes:  1963’s “Masters of War,” 1964’s “Motorpsycho Nightmare,” 1965’s “Desolation Row,” 1966’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” 1975’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” 1976’s “Joey,” 1983’s “Jokerman,” 1997’s “Highlands,” and 2012’s tempest-cover“Tin Angel” (with its 28 stanzas, all worthy of study)… And his longest song ever (13:54), his 45-verse ode to the ill-fated Titanic, “Tempest.”

 

Some purists in literary circles have expressed their displeasure that the coveted Nobel Prize has been awarded to “a singer.”  What nonsense.  Bob Dylan is a lyricist first, a composer second, a reluctant celebrity third, and then, well down the list after that, he’s a singer (and some say not much of one).  I mean, come ON.  What are lyrics, after all, but poetry set to music?  Poets and playwrights have been among the Nobel winners in years past, and it’s about time that a musical wordsmith as perceptive as Bob Dylan finally earned literature’s top prize.

120123152847-bob-dylan-jan-2012-exlarge-169So what does rock’s new poet laureate do for an encore?  Does he have to do anything at all?  Isn’t this the crowning achievement?  Who can say?  Certainly not Dylan himself, who has yet to say anything publicly since winning the prize October 13th.

In conclusion, let’s take a gander at some of the devastating phrases and couplets Dylan has come up with as he addresses life’s hurdles and blessings:

Life:  “He not busy being born is busy dying…”

Betrayal:  “I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind, you could’ve done better, but I don’t mind, you just sorta wasted my precious time, don’t think twice, it’s all right…”

Resignation:  “People tell me it’s a sin to know and feel too much within, I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring, she was born in spring, but I was born too late, blame it on a simple twist of fate…”

Accusation:  “You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books, you’re very well read, it’s well known, but something is happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?…”  

Carefree love:  “Throw my ticket out the window, throw my suitcase out there too, throw my troubles out the door, I don’t need them anymore, ’cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you…”

Fatalism:  “Every time you leave and go off someplace, things fall to pieces in my face, broken hands on broken plows, broken treaties, broken vows, broken pipes, broken tools, people bending broken rules, hound dog howling, bullfrog croaking, everything is broken…”

Aging and wisdom:  “‘Equality,’ I spoke the word, as if a wedding vow, ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now…”