‘Cause when we kiss, ooh, fire!

Each week, I ask my readers to suggest ideas for this blog — topics to write about, artists I should feature, and subjects that might make entertaining playlists.

A few months ago, a friend suggested “songs about fire,” but here in California, where wildfires have decimated thousands of acres in recent months, I decided it was “too soon” for that.

vinyl-record-on-fire-a-background-of-musical-vector-7843201But now it’s mid-February, the whole country is freezing their collective asses off, and sitting by a cozy fire sounds awfully nice.  So let’s proceed.

Fire brings us light, and warmth, and is often used as a metaphor for passion and desire.  Yet it also can connote rage, violence, destruction, and hellfire.

With all those possible meanings for the “fire” imagery, I wasn’t surprised to find nearly 100 classic rock songs with “fire” in the title, and still more that mention “burning” or “flame.”  Here at Hack’s Back Pages, I prefer to focus on tracks from the 1955-1990 period, so I’ve narrowed down the field to 20 titles that appear in the Spotify playlist referenced below.  I’ve relegated another 15 songs to “honorable mention” status.

Enjoy!

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TheDoors_LightMyFire_Digital_Cover“Light My Fire,” The Doors/Jose Feliciano (1967/68)

Guitarist Robby Krieger created the song’s musical structure, Jim Morrison added the lyrics, and keyboardist Ray Manzarek came up with the opening hook on Vox Continental organ, and the result was the one of the biggest songs of the infamous 61O72y7k1OL._SX355_Summer of Love in 1967.  Only a year later, Puerto Rican vocalist/guitarist Jose Feliciano re-recorded the song with a radically different tempo and arrangement, which reached #3.  The lyrics are all about passion and pushing a relationship to the limits:  “The time to hesitate is through, no time to wallow in the mire, try now, we can only lose, and our love become a funeral pyre, come on baby, light my fire, try to set the night on fire…”

“Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” David Bowie (1983)

quote-i-ve-been-putting-out-the-fire-with-gasoline-david-bowie-99-86-70This wickedly captivating song, co-written by Bowie and film score writer Giorgio Moroder, was recorded as the theme for the 1982 Nastassja Kinski film “Cat People.”  A six-minute version appeared in the film and reached #1 in several countries, and #16 in England.  It was later re-recorded by Bowie and included on his 1983 hit LP “Let’s Dance.”  The lyrics speak of the futility of making emotional matters worse:  “Well it’s been so long, so long, so long, and I’ve been putting out fire with gasoline…”

MI0002253248“Great Balls of Fire,” Jerry Lee Lewis (1957)

Lewis’s second international hit single of 1957 was R&B songwriting legend Otis Blackwell’s classic that uses the title phrase in two ways.  It was originally a biblical reference to fire raining down from the sky, but in this song, it takes on sexual meaning of a lustful man in need of being satisfied:  “You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain, too much love drives a man insane, you broke my will, oh what a thrill, goodness gracious, great balls of fire!…”

“Fire in the Hole,” Steely Dan (1972)

R-2204659-1325616749.jpegI’m hard pressed to choose my favorite Steely Dan album, but I often find myself favoring their fabulous debut LP, “Can’t Buy a Thrill.”  In addition to “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” and the FM favorite “Dirty Work,” every other song is pretty much irresistible, even a deep track like “Fire in the Hole.”  Although the phrase “fire in the hole” typically refers to an imminent detonation of explosives, that’s not the case here:  “Don’t you know there’s fire in the hole, and nothing left to burn, I’d like to run out now, there’s nowhere left to turn…”

the_crazy_world_of_arthur_brown-fire_s_10“Fire,” Crazy World of Arthur Brown (1968)

“I am the god of hellfire, and I bring you…Fire!!”  British musician Arthur Brown and his band were among the most popular bands in England in 1968, thanks in large part to this insistent rocker with the Satanic lyrics and attention-getting opening.  Brown was known for shocking performances in costume and makeup, predating Alice Cooper and Kiss at that game. They lasted barely a year, but Brown later formed Kingdom Come and worked with other prog-rock artists in the ’70s.

“Ring of Fire,” Johnny Cash (1963)

czna10243_xlThe phrase sounds rather ominous but, as the lyrics explain, it’s actually about how love can feel inescapable:  “I fell into the burning ring of fire, and it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire…”  Cash wrote the song but gave credit to his second wife, June Carter Cash.  Cash’s first wife, Vivian Liberto, claims Cash “was drunk one night when he wrote it about a certain female body part.”  The recording topped the country charts for seven weeks, and reached #17 on the pop charts.

tullwoodfires“Fire at Midnight,” Jethro Tull (1977)

Ian Anderson claims to have always been a homebody, preferring an evening snuggling by the fireplace to a bustling night on the town.  Tull’s “Songs From the Wood” LP featured several acoustic-based tunes that evoked a sense of serenity and appreciation of what nature has to offer.  The album closes with “Fire at Midnight,” the perfect song to cue up in your den as night falls:  “Kindled by the dying embers of another working day, go upstairs, take off your makeup, fold your things neatly away, me, I’ll sit and write this love song, as I all too seldom do, build a little fire this midnight, it’s good to be back home with you…”

“The Fire Down Below,” Bob Seger (1976)

81w92iHhZ7L._SS500_Seger’s songs on his 1976 breakthrough LP “Night Moves” paint vivid pictures of the desperate characters that inhabit the cityscapes of mid-’70s America, notably on “Main Street” and the title track.  In “The Fire Down Below,” he writes about the shady desires of all types of men who stalk the night, looking for willing young women:  “There go the street lights, bringin’ on the night, here come the men, faces hidden from the light, all through the shadows, they come and they go, with only one thing in common, they got the fire down below…”

“Fire on the Mountain,” Marshall Tucker Band (1975)

s-l300-5During the California Gold Rush of 1859, prospectors dreaming of making it rich would often use the phrase “fire on the mountain” to connote the gold lying hidden in the hills.  The Marshall Tucker Band wrote and recorded “Fire in the Mountain” as a sad story-song about just such a family of Carolina dreamers:  “Six long months on a dust-covered trail, they say heaven’s at the end, but so far it’s been hell, and there’s fire on the mountain, and lightning in the air, gold in them hills and it’s waiting for me there…”

“We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel (1989)

220px-WeDidntStarttheFireAfter hearing a 21-year-old in 1988 complain that the problems of that period were worse than anything in history, Joel wrote this song about how the world has had problems since the beginning of time.  “Every decade, every century, has had problems, and I decided to rattle off the things I’d experienced during my lifetime (1949-1989),” Joel said, with each verse concluding, “We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning, since the world’s been turning, we didn’t start the fire, no, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it…”

220px-The_single_cover_of_Fire_and_Ice“Fire and Ice,” Pat Benatar (1981)

Inspired by an ex-lover who loved her and left her, Benatar co-wrote “Fire and Ice,” the hit single from her 1981 “Precious Time” album.  Both the music and the lyrics explore the wild swing of tempos and emotions that consume so many romantic relationships:  “Fire and ice, you come on like a flame, then you turn cold shoulder, fire and ice, I wanna give you my love, you’ll just take a little piece of my heart, please tear it apart…”

“The Unforgettable Fire,” U2 (1985)

600In 1984, Bono was deeply moved by an art museum exhibit by victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It inspired him to write what became the title track of U2’s compelling, transitional LP “The Unforgettable Fire,” which set the stage for 1987’s multi-platinum “The Joshua Tree.”  Bono’s lyrics speak darkly and cryptically about the effects of the most horrific use of fire in world history:  “Ice, your only rivers run cold, these city lights, they shine as silver and gold, dug from the night, your eyes as black as coal, walk on by, walk on through, walk ’til you run and don’t look back…” 

“Fire,” Bruce Springsteen (1978), The Pointer Sisters (1979)

fire_1978-12-16_sin-nl-6503817The Boss wrote the smoldering, passionate “Fire” with Elvis Presley in mind, but Presley died before he had a chance to record it.  Still, Springsteen often performed “Fire” in concert, and it became an audience favorite, although he never released his studio version until “The Promise” in 2010.  The R&B vocal R-544776-1445203454-5934.jpeggroup The Pointer Sisters recorded their own version in 1979, changing the lyrics to the female point of view, and had a #2 hit.  Either way, the lyrics are about a will-she-or-won’t-she standoff between boy and girl:  “I’m riding in your car, you turn on the radio, you’re pulling me close, I just say no, I say I don’t like it, but you know Im a liar, ’cause when we kiss, oooh, fire!…”

“Rooms on Fire,” Stevie Nicks (1989)

rooms2When Nicks made her fourth solo LP, “The Other Side of the Mirror,” she worked with British producer/musician Rupert Hine, recording and mixing in an historic castle outside London, and they ended up in a stormy relationship. “Whenever Rupert walked into one of those old dark castle rooms, it seemed that the room was on fire,” she said.  “It was a little spooky.”  Her song about that experience reached #16 on the charts:  “Well, maybe I’m just thinking that the rooms are all on fire every time that you walk in the room, well, there is magic all around you, if I do say so myself, I have known this much longer than I’ve known you…”

“Jump Into the Fire,” Nilsson (1971)

41+S7AzuYnLHarry Nilsson is best known for melodic acoustic songs, but this hard rock track from his hit LP “Nilsson Schmilsson” became a favorite for its frenetic, relentless beat and Nilsson’s screaming vocals.  It was used in 1990’s Martin Scorsese film “Goodfellas” to accompany a pivotal scene depicting Ray Liotta’s cocaine-induced paranoia:  “You can climb a mountain, you can swim the sea, you can jump into the fire, but you’ll never be free…”

“Serpentine Fire,” Earth, Wind and Fire (1977)

220px-Serpentine_FireMaurice White, the leader of EW&F, was a big believer in spiritual enlightenment and yoga practices.  “A person’s spiritual energy is often referred to as a serpentine fire,” he said.  “It’s the fire in your spine, the forced that guides your vitality and makes you unique.”  “Serpentine Fire” became a #13 hit for the group in 1977:  “I want to see your face in the morning, sun, ignite my energy, the cause and effect of you has brought new meaning in my life to me, gonna tell the story, morning glory, all about the serpentine fire…”

“Play With Fire,” The Rolling Stones (1965)

R-371816-1487701622-2641.jpegThe maxim “If you play with fire, you’ll get burned” is the inspiration for this early Stones song.  The Jagger-Richards songwriting team composed several songs that disparaged the temptress-like behavior of certain wealthy British women, and warned that they might regret it one day:  “Well, you’ve got your diamonds and you’ve got your pretty clothes, and the chauffeur drives your car, you let everybody know, but don’t play with me, ’cause you’re playing with fire…”

“Keep the Fire,” Kenny Loggins (1980)

Keep_the_FireOne of the earliest examples of a vocoder in a hit pop song can be found on this lush, uplifting track by Kenny Loggins, on the 1980 album of the same name.  He and his then-wife Eva Ein collaborated on the lyrics, which use the metaphor of fire to urge perseverance when things become challenging:  “Where’s your vision if the embers flicker out, don’t let it slip from view, the horizons are waiting, so keep the fire burning tonight, for tonight, just keep the fire burning bright…” 

“Fire,” Jimi Hendrix (1967)

51BKqE3eqHLNo one was ready for the jolt that Jimi Hendrix brought to the rock/pop music scene when he released his psychedelic “Are You Experienced?” debut LP in the summer of 1967.  The album is full of milestone recordings (“Purple Haze,” “The Wind Cries Mary” “Foxy Lady”), but let’s not forget “Fire,” his red-hot rocker about sexual desire and burning love:  “You say your mum ain’t home, it ain’t my concern, just play with me and you won’t get burned, I have only one itching desire, let me stand next to your fire…”

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Honorable mention:

Into the Fire,” Bryan Adams, 1987;  “Fire and Rain,” James Taylor, 1970;  “Fight Fire With Fire,” Metallica, 1984;  “Wildfire,” Michael Murphy, 1975;  “Fire of Unknown Origin,” Blue Oyster Cult, 1974; “This Wheel’s on Fire,” Bob Dylan and The Band , 1967;  “Quest for Fire,” Iron Maiden, 1983;  “Hearts on Fire,” Steve Winwood, 1988;  “Fire,” Ohio Players, 1974;  “After the Fire,” Roger Daltrey, 1985;  “House of Fire,” Alice Cooper, 1989;  “Who in Fire,” Leonard Cohen, 1974; “She’s On Fire,” Aerosmith, 1985; “Fire Woman,” The Cult, 1989;  “I’m on Fire,” Bruce Springsteen, 1984.

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Pour myself a cup of ambition

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 50-year career of a woman who has managed to shine in multiple disciplines:  songwriting, singing, recording, films, television, entertainment businesses and philanthropic endeavors — Dolly Parton.

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“I’ve never been offended by all the dumb blonde jokes people tell about me.  You know why?  It’s because I know I’m not dumb… and I also know I’m not blonde.”

SDEEUR3US434LJWCR55D3OUGBEThis famous Dolly Parton quote succinctly captures her essence:  Keen self-awareness.  Honest humility.  Positive attitude.  A wonderful sense of humor.

If you’re looking for proof that Dolly Parton is not a “dim bulb,” as she might put it, there’s a revealing story about what happened — or what could have happened but didn’t — with one of her most famous songs.

In 1973, Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You,” which was meant as a fond tribute to her friend and singing partner, Porter Wagoner, with whom she was amicably ending a seven-year professional collaboration.  Dolly recorded it herself, and then watched as it soared to #1 on the Hot Country charts (although it didn’t even make the Pop charts).

Elvis Presley let it be known that he loved the song and wanted to do his own version.  He was all set to record it when Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, told Parton that it was customary for songwriters to give up half of the publishing rights to Presley for any song he recorded.  While others had gladly relented just to have Elvis sing their song, Parton politely declined.

Dolly recalls, “I said, ‘I’m really sorry, I just can’t do it,’ and I cried all night.  I mean, it was like the worst thing.  You know, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Elvis Presley.’  And other people were saying, ‘You’re nuts. It’s Elvis Presley.’  But I said, ‘I just can’t do that.’ Something in my heart said, ‘Don’t do that.’  And I just didn’t do it… Of course, he would MV5BOGIwZmIyOTctOWU1Mi00NzYwLWI4ZjQtNjAwZGQzZjBhZmU4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDQ5MDYzMTk@._V1_have done a killer rendition…but anyway, so he didn’t.  Then, when Whitney Houston’s version came out years later, I made so much money from it, I could’ve bought Graceland!”

Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” released in 1992 on the soundtrack for “The Bodyguard,” spent an incredible 14 weeks at #1 on the Pop charts, bringing the song to an exponentially wider mainstream audience than Parton’s original had achieved.  It played a large part in turning her into one of the wealthiest songwriters in music history (current estimates put her in the $500 million range).

And that’s merely the most famous of more than 3,000 (!) songs she has written since breaking into show business in 1967, earning her a much-deserved spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  “Songwriting is my way of channeling my feelings and my thoughts,” Parton has said.  “Not just mine, but the things I see, the people I care about. I think my head would explode if I didn’t get some of that stuff out.”

Full confession:  I’ve never been much of a country music fan myself.  Consequently, my knowledge of and appreciation for Parton’s recorded catalog has until recently been limited to her most well-known songs, particularly 1977’s “Here You Come Again” (the engaging Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil tune that marked her first appearance in the mainstream Top Ten), her perky 1981 #1 international hit “9 to 5” from the hit film comedy, and “Islands in the Stream,” the frankly icky 1983 chart-topping duet with Kenny Rogers.

71-+fobEsRL._SX355_Now that my two daughters have become big fans of country artists, I’ve been compelled, somewhat grudgingly, to give the genre more attention.  Although I suspect I’ll always be a rock and roll guy at heart, I have broadened my horizons to examine and eventually embrace many country songs, including several of Dolly’s.

It was only last year that I first heard “Jolene,” an irresistible 1973 tune she wrote about a gorgeous woman who had been making eyes at her new husband.  “Please don’t take him just because you can,” the lyrics implore, and that sentiment rang true with millions of country fans who sent it to #1 on the country charts.  Even Rolling Stone ranked “Jolene” #214 on its list of “the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

Beyond her voluminous recorded catalog of more than 50 solo albums and another dozen LPs with Wagoner, Parton has also impressed me with her film appearances, especially her hilarious debut in “9 to 5” and her award-winning turn as the madam in the-best-little-whorehouse-in-texas“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”  As in nearly every television performance or interview you can find on YouTube, Parton absolutely lights ups the screen with her affable, cheery disposition.

No essay about Parton can omit mention of the breathtaking real estate Parton displays between her neck and her navel.  Even the normally discreet Johnny Carson was once moved to say to her, “I’d give up a year’s salary for one peek under your blouse!”

True to her self-deprecating nature, she has always taken such comments in stride, and now tells jokes of her own about her “substantial bosom,” as she calls it.  “I was one of the first women to burn my bra.  It took the fire department four days to put it out!”

Just like in the rock music business, the country music industry has many dozens of examples of singers whose light shone brightly for a few years and then petered out.  Parton is one of only a handful of country artists whose careers have lasted more than half a century.

While her biggest years of commercial success came in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she has been no slouch in the years since.  Since 1990, she has released 18 albums, all of which reached the Top Twenty on the country charts, and three of those — 1993’s “Slow Dancing With the Moon,” 2008’s “Backwoods Barbie” and 2014’s “Blue Smoke” — made the Top Ten on the Pop charts as well.

61st Annual GRAMMY Awards - Show

Katy Perry (left) and Kacey Musgraves with Parton at the 2019 Grammy Awards

Just last week, Parton was named the MusiCares Person of the Year, the first country artist to be so honored, and the Grammy Awards also paid tribute to her, with rousing performances by current stars Kacey Musgraves, Katy Perry and Maren Morris, and Parton’s goddaughter Miley Cyrus, and by Parton herself.

Still relevant today?  Damn right she is.

What a remarkable ride she has had — “from the back hills of Tennessee to the Hollywood Hills,” as she put it at the MusiCares ceremony.  She was one of 12 children born in a one-room cabin near the hardscrabble hamlet of Pittman Center in eastern Tennessee, where her father worked the land and her mother struggled to raise the

MV5BOTA4YjU4NGEtMDJkNS00NWQ0LThmNmQtYTZkYTc2MGRkNDA1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTEwODg2MDY@._V1_

Avie Lee, Dolly, and Robert Parton

family while instilling in Dolly her love of music and folklore.  Raised in the Church of God where her grandfather pastored, Parton first sang in church at age 6 and started playing guitar and writing songs at age 8.

Appearances on local radio and TV programs eventually caught the eye of industry folks, and upon graduation from high school, she moved to Nashville and signed with Combine Publishing.  Several of her earliest compositions (“Put It Off Until Tomorrow” and “Fuel to the Flame”) became Top Ten country hits, and still others were recorded by major country names like Kitty Wells and Hank Williams Jr.

Parton has always been reverential about these artists who so influenced her at an early age.  “Kitty Wells was the first and only Queen of Country Music, no matter what they call the rest of us now.  She was a great inspiration to me as well as every other female singer in the country music business.  In addition to being a wonderful asset to country music, she was a wonderful woman.”

When Monument Records signed Dolly as a recording artist at age 20, it was initially as a bubblegum pop singer, but when that didn’t pan out, and her country songs achieved notoriety as covered by others, she was given the chance to record “Hello, I’m Dolly,” her debut as a country singer.  It didn’t take long for Wagoner, an established country star 170px-Porter_Wagoner_and_Dolly_Parton_1969with multiple #1 hits to his credit, to offer her a regular spot on his weekly syndicated TV gig “The Porter Wagoner Show,” which at its peak was reaching three million viewers in 100 markets.

As she and Wagoner scored big with a dozen collaboration albums during this period, Dolly aimed her ambitions higher, persevering in the face of reluctant record company people to record solo albums and establish a name for herself outside of her association with Wagoner.  To his credit, Wagoner supported her efforts, both financially and as a friend.

Her hard work paid off.  Between 1971 and 1991, Dolly Parton racked up a staggering total of 40 Top Ten country singles, including an incredible 22 chart-toppers!

Beginning in the 1990s, country music evolved from its purist roots to embrace a newer, more contemporary sound, one that utilized more rock arrangements, tempos and shutterstock_6498011a-46699850-e065-4bdb-a88c-afeaec0403cbinstruments.  Artists like Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus packed the arenas and topped the charts while more traditional artists like Parton were left by the wayside, at least for a while.

Rock music fans should take note that Parton has occasionally stuck her toe into non-country music genres, with varying degrees of success.  Her well-received collaborative albums “Trio” (1987) and “Trio II” (1999) with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris included tracks like Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” and she has also recorded startling covers of The Temptations’ “My Girl,” Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” The Four Tops “I Can’t Help Myself,” Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears.”  On the other hand, you might want to steer clear of her train-wreck renditions of Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover,” Fine Young Cannibals’ “Drives Me Crazy” and Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands on Me,” and (shudder) a bluegrass arrangement of Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

Beginning in the late ’80s, Parton began focusing most of her attentions on establishing Dollywood, the amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and the Dollywood Foundation, which supports and raises millions of dollars to help with educational and health-related charities, particularly in her home state of Tennessee.  “I always thought that if I became successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something dollyparton-bookcharity-480x270that would bring a lot of jobs into this area,” she said.

Particularly notable has been her literacy awareness program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, sparked by her devotion to her father, who couldn’t read nor write.  The program seeks to instill a love for books and a yearn to learn how to read at a young age by donating one book every month to each enrolled child.  The Imagination Library was recently honored by the Library of Congress for donating its 100 millionth book.

“Everywhere I go these days, the kids call me ‘the book lady,'” Parton said.  “The older I get, the more appreciative I am of the ‘book lady’ title.  It makes me feel more like a legitimate person, not just a singer or an entertainer.  It makes me feel like I’ve done something really worthwhile with my life and with my success.”

Dolly-Parton-Husband-1Parton and her husband of 52 years, Carl Dean, have never had children.  “I’ve never been fortunate enough to get pregnant, so I just feel God didn’t mean for me to have kids,” said Parton.  “So I guess I just look at everybody else’s children as mine, and I reach out to help kids in every way I can.”

Meanwhile, this glitzy, big-haired, 73-year-old ball of fun and enthusiasm (“I’m just a Backwoods Barbie in a pushup bra and heels”) intends to keep at it, on stage and in the studio.  “I don’t think I’ve ever been a natural beauty, so I try to make the best of everything.”  She knows people kid her about her cosmetic surgery, but she just doesn’t care.  “If I see something sagging, bagging or dragging, I’ll get it nipped, tucked or sucked!”

636689053099642487-kns-DollywoodExpansion-BP-13People say to her, “Why don’t you retire?” Her reply:  “And do what?  What does that even mean?  I always count my blessings more than I count my money.  For me, it’s about the art.  I love the job.  I love to work.”

Her voice has always been marked by a funny little wavering quality, and that vibrato has perhaps become more pronounced with age, at least in her lower vocal register (check out the songs on the recent “Dumplin'” soundtrack).  Nevertheless, she continues to command the respect and admiration of just about everyone who comes in contact with her.  Including me, apparently.

No doubt about it.  The woman is a living legend.