Right now all I got’s this lonesome day

On September 14, 2001, three days after the 9/11 attacks, Bruce Springsteen was walking down the street in New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan.  A man driving by slowed down next to him, opened his window, stared at Springsteen and said, “Man, we really need you now.”

Springsteen had been out of the limelight for several years at that point.  His last album of new music had been 1995’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a critical favorite but a relative c121852__bruce_lommercial dud.  He and the E Street Band had parted ways in the late ’80s, and The Boss and his wife had turned their attentions to raising a family.

“That guy really stopped me in my tracks,” Springsteen recalled.  “The events of 9/11 had affected me profoundly, as it had so many others, but I’d been caught in a daze, wandering around those first couple of days, worried for my kids, worried for my country, not sure what to think.  When he said ‘We need you now,’ it snapped me back into focus.  I thought, ‘It’s time to get busy doing what I can do.'”

One of rock’s most prolific songwriters got busy, all right.  Over the next few weeks, he wrote nearly 50 songs in a burst of creativity, determined to come up with music that might help in the healing process.  He made a call to the boys in the E Street Band and said, “Guys, it’s time.  Let’s get back together and make a record.”  They eagerly agreed, and the result was “The Rising,” a triumphant rejuvenation of Springsteen’s career and a 220px-Springsteen_The_Risingmuch-needed shot in the arm for his legions of fans, many of whom were still grieving huge personal loss.

This week, as we marked another anniversary of that dark day in the nation’s history, I revisited “The Rising,” and also did some research to look for other noteworthy songs that were written in the aftermath of 9/11.  I found it challenging to immerse myself in these difficult emotions and painful memories, but ultimately, I came out the other end feeling stronger, as we often do when we face our fears.

Critics were nearly unanimous in their praise for “The Rising.”  Thom Jurek of AllMusic called the album “one of the very best examples in recent history of how popular art can evoke a time period and all of its confusing and often contradictory notions, feelings and impulses.” The British magazine Uncut called the LP “a brave and beautiful album of humanity, hurt and hope from the songwriter best qualified to speak to and for his country … A towering achievement.”

In particular, the lyrics to seven tracks dealt with the emotions felt in the aftermath:  the sadness for the loss of life, the gratitude for the first responders, the dark desire for revenge, the despair for the loss of innocence, the craving for closeness and community, the need to keep hope alive.

Some of these songs specifically address the events of 9/11.  “Into the Fire,” for instance, pays tribute to the firemen who headed into the towers as everyone else was evacuating:   “It was dark, too dark to see, you held me in the light you gave, you lay your hand on me, then walked into the darkness of your smoky grave, somewhere up the stairs into the fire, somewhere up the stairs into the fire, I need your kiss, but love and duty called MV5BMzY1ZThmYmUtZjZhYi00MTA1LTg3YTktMjk1Nzg4MzdjYWFlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTc5MDI5NjE@._V1_you someplace higher, somewhere up the stairs into the fire…”

The leadoff track, “Lonesome Day,” ranks among Springsteen’s finest efforts, a musically robust rocker that also warns about how a demand for justice needs to be tempered by a sense of collective calm that doesn’t escalate matters:  “Hell’s brewin’, dark sun’s on the rise, this storm’ll blow through by and by, house is on fire, viper’s in the grass, a little revenge and this too shall pass, this too shall pass, I’m gonna pray, right now all I got’s this lonesome day…”

Other album tracks demonstrate Springsteen’s deft ability at writing words that deal with emotions in a more general, universal way that could apply to other kinds of loss.  “You’re Missing” delicately speaks to the void that families felt when their loved ones didn’t return home that day, but it could just as easily refer to soldiers who died on the battlefield, or victims of mass shootings:  “Pictures on the nightstand, TV’s on in the den, your house is waiting for you to walk in, but you’re missing, when I shut out the lights, you’re missing, when I close my eyes, you’re missing, when I see the sun rise, you’re missing…”

The title song, “The Rising,” is a magnificent song of resolve and hope, with lyrics that apply in any situation when the chips are down and all seems lost:  “I make my way through this darkness, I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me, lost track of how far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed… a dream of life comes to me like a catfish dancing on the end of my line, come on up for the rising, come on up, lay your hands in mine, come on up for the rising, come on up for the rising tonight…”

*************

In the wake of 9/11, several dozen songs surfaced, written and released by a wide range of artists.  I’ve selected a dozen that I found sufficiently moving to share with you on my blog this week.  I hope you absorb them in the spirit in which they were proffered to us.

“Let’s Roll,” Neil Young, 2001

Pegi-YoungYoung chose to focus on the amazing, harrowing story of the brave souls on United Flight 93 who stormed their hijacked cockpit and prevented the plane from reaching its intended target in Washington, D.C.:  “I know I said I love you, I know you know it’s true, I’ve got to put the phone down and do what we got to do, one’s standing in the aisle way, two more at the door, we’ve got to get inside there, before they kill some more, time is runnin’ out, let’s roll…”

“Tuesday Morning,” Melissa Etheridge, 2004

hqdefault-17Etheridge also addressed those on United Flight 93, with an added edge.  One of the heroes on board was a gay man who had faced injustices that prevented his ability to marry or be a school teacher.  Etheridge defiantly asked us to consider the freedoms and rights that are still denied to some of our citizens:  “He stood up on a Tuesday morning, in the terror, he was brave, and he made his choice and without a doubt, a hundred lives he must have saved, and the things you might take for granted, your inalienable rights, some might choose to deny him, even though he gave his life, stand up, America, wake up, America…”

“Prayer,” Disturbed, 2002

maxresdefault-28This Chicago-based heavy metal band found controversy when they filmed a riveting video for this song that appeared to be a re-creation of the Ground Zero area (view it on YouTube at your own risk).  The lyrics take Evil’s point of view:  “Another nightmare about to come true will manifest tomorrow, another love that I’ve taken from you, lost in time, on the edge of suffering, another taste of the evil I breed will level you completely, bring to life everything that you fear, live in the dark, and the world is threatening, let me enlighten you, this is the way I pray…”

“Hole in the World,” The Eagles, 2003

61cXDyMwScL._SY355_As part of the 2003 release of the 2-CD package “The Very Best of The Eagles,” Don Henley and Glenn Frey wrote this new track to weigh in with their thoughts on 9/11: “They say that anger is just love disappointed, they say that love is just a state of mind, but all this fighting over who will be anointed, oh, how can people be so blind?, there’s a hole in the world tonight, there’s a cloud of fear and sorrow, there’s a hole in the world tonight, don’t let there be a hole in the world tomorrow…”

“Sacrificed Sons,” Dream Theater, 2005

maxresdefault-26Influenced by British prog rock bands like Yes and Pink Floyd, the Boston-based Neo-progressive group Dream Theater turned a few heads with its 2005 release “Octavarium.”  Of particular interest was the 10-minute opus “Sacrificed Sons,” with lyrics by vocalist James LaBrie that recalled the 9/11 attacks:  “Heads all turning towards the sky, towers crumble, heroes die, who would wish this on our people and proclaim that His will be done, scriptures they heed have misled them, all praise their sacrificed sons…”

“Illume (9-11),” Fleetwood Mac, 2003 

500bf53780eead0482a1671f086520d5.800x800x1Stevie Nicks wrote this poignant piece less than two weeks after 9/11, but it didn’t see the light of day until Fleetwood Mac reconvened to record the 2003 LP “Say You Will.”  Nicks reflected on how difficult it can be to overcome deep heartbreak:  “What I saw on this journey, I saw history go down, I cannot pretend that the heartache falls away, it’s just like a river, ooh, it’s never ending, I cannot pretend that the heartache falls away, because it’s just like a river, it’s never ending…”

“Hey Ma,” James, 2008

HeyMaAlbumArtThe British band James offered another perspective, looking at 9/11 as a fork in the road where unfortunate choices with long-lasting global consequences were made:  “Now, the towers have fallen, so much dust in the air, it affected your vision, couldn’t see yourself clear, from the fall came such choices even worse than the fall, there’s this chain of consequences, within, without, action, cause and reaction never follows to plan… Please don’t preach me forgiveness, you’re hardwired for revenge, war is just about business, within, without…”

“When New York Had Her Heart Broke,” John Hiatt, 2011

john-hiattVeteran songwriter Hiatt came up with this tearjerker on his 2011 LP “Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns,” on which he ruefully recalled the mood of New Yorkers when their city became the focal point of the 9/11 attacks:  “And the daylight fell dark, F-16s over Central Park, when New York had her heart broke, we were dazed in the streets, from the blood and dust and heat, when New York had her heart broke…”

“Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” Alan Jackson, 2001

dam_asset_image-26864920180714-21667-10qsscyJackson found it hard to write a song about how he felt in the wake of 9/11, but he forged ahead and came up with this moving track.  After debuting it at the Country Music Awards less than eight weeks after 9/11, it was released as a single, topping the country charts for five weeks and reaching #28 on the pop charts.  The lyrics present a series of thought-provoking questions:  “Did you stand there in shock at the sight of that black smoke risin’ against that blue sky?  Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbor, or did you just sit down and cry?  Did you weep for the children who lost their dear loved ones, and pray for the ones who don’t know?  Did you rejoice for the people who walked from the rubble, and sob for the ones left below?…”

“Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American),” Toby Keith, 2002

Angry_American_Single_CD_CoverAlways a political conservative, Keith came up with this inflamed diatribe that stoked the rage amongst his audience and soared to #1 on the country charts upon its release in May 2002.  He has said it was written in support of the U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, but it was interpreted to reflect his generally hawkish views:   “Now this nation that I love has fallen under attack, a mighty sucker punch came flyin’ in from somewhere in the back, soon as we could see it clearly through our big black eye, man, we lit up your world like the 4th of July… Oh, justice will be served and the battle will rage, this big dog will fight when you rattle his cage, and you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A, ’cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way…”

Skylines and Turnstiles,” My Chemical Romance, 2002

GettyImages-85033606-1560026014-1500x1000Gerard Way was so saddened and outraged by the events of 9/11 that he was inspired to form the emo/post-hardcore punk group My Chemical Romance.  The debut LP “I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love” includes “Skylines and Turnstiles” with its brutally graphic lyrics:  “Steel corpses stretch out towards an ending sun, scorched and black, it reaches in and tears your flesh apart as ice cold hands rip into your heart, that’s if you’ve still got one that’s left inside that cave you call a chest, after seeing what we saw, can we still reclaim our innocence?…”

“Exodus Damage,” John Vanderslice, 2005

71KAl4fX77L._SX355_Indie rock singer/songwriter Vanderslice produced ten albums out of his San Francisco-based studio/record company.  His 2005 album “Pixel Revolts” had a decidedly political bent, with several tracks about 9/11 and the Iraq War, especially “Exodus Damage” with its highly provocative lyrics:  “So the second plane hit at 9:02, I saw it live on a hotel TV, talking on my cell with you, you said this would happen, and just like that, it did, wrong about the feeling, wrong about the sound, but right to say we would stand down, an hour went by without a fighter in the sky, you said there’’s a reason why, so tell me now, I must confess, I’’m not sick enough to guess…”

*****************

springsteen-the-rising-1-600x450

 

 

Advertisements

Seasons change and so did I

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 delve into the work of a group that is considered royalty in its native Canada, and revered among many U.S. fans as one of the best Top 40 hit bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s:  The Guess Who.

***************

Some of my readers will no doubt be scratching their heads as to why I would spend much time and space on a group that frankly isn’t in the same league as previous artists I have profiled (Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, Genesis, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd).

The answer is simple:  I have always loved the songs of The Guess Who, and the amazing rock vocals of Burton Cummings.  When tunes like “Undun” or “Hand Me Down World”

5872669

Clockwise from top:  Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman, Garry Peterson, Jim Kale

or “Albert Flasher” come on the radio, I am instantly transported to 1970-71, hanging with friends and driving with my girl around the east side suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.

To me, their records were perfect little pop songs, carried either by Cummings’ rollicking piano and distinctive voice or the stinging guitar riffs of Randy Bachman (at first) or Kurt Winter.  Between 1969 and 1974, The Guess Who was Canada’s biggest success story, scoring 10 Top 20 hits in the US and twice that number in their native country.  Their albums performed less well (only three reached Top 20 status in the US), which isn’t really all that surprising, as the group was, from the outset, a singles band.

“We had our eye on the Top 40 charts,” Cummings reflected.  “That was our goal, to have a hit single in the US.  Once we did that with ‘These Eyes’ in early 1969, Randy and I gained the confidence to write more in the same vein, and then they became hits too.”

Soon, recalls Bachman, “It was like we were finishing each other’s sentences.  I’d play Burton a whole song of mine, he’d play me a song of his, and we’d say,  ‘Let’s make mine the verse and make yours the chorus,’ and vice versa.  Sometimes we had heard songs we wanted to imitate, something by Lennon and McCartney, or Brian Wilson, or even Burt Bacharach and Hal David.  We liked to rock, but we enjoyed writing ballads too.”

Few people would claim that The Guess Who catalog had a lot of emotional depth.  The lyrics were often quirky, sometimes even a bit lame, but when put to irresistible melodies as sung by Cummings, it didn’t seem to matter.  Consider, for instance, “Rain Dance.”  What are we to make of these words?  “Fifi said to Don the baker, ‘Can you show burton-cummings-in-1969me how to make another bun, Don?’, And I’m still standing with my next door neighbor saying, ‘Where’d you get the gun, John?’…”  Cummings fashioned such a memorable melody line that the song ended up at #19  (in Canada, it reached #3).

There were instances, though, when Cummings came up with lyrics that had substance, like on the melancholy piano ballad “Sour Suite,” a minor hit which touched on the sad feelings of an off night and depressing memories the next morning (“I don’t want to think about a runaway dad that took away the only thing that I’ve never had, don’t even miss him this morning, I don’t want to think about a cold goodbye, or a high school buddy got a little too high, I can’t help him out this morning…”)

So let’s answer the question many people have always been curious about:  Why “The Guess Who”?

Originally, Bachman (then only 16) had formed a group in 1962 with drummer Garry Peterson and bassist Jim Kale, with singer/guitarist Chad Allan as the front man.  Using the common naming format of many rock bands of that period, they called themselves Allan and The Silvertones.  They soon morphed into Chad Allan and The Reflections, and gained some notoriety in Canada, mostly in and around their home base of Winnipeg in the central Canadian province of Manitoba.  By 1965, they changed their name to Chad Allan and The Expressions because a US band called The Reflections had scored a Top 10 hit with “Just Like Romeo and Juliet.”

As Chad Allan and The Expressions, things started happening when they recorded a cover version of “Shakin’ All Over,” a 1960 hit in England by Johnny Kidd and The Pirates. R-5451335-1393701861-1746.jpegThe Expressions’ label, Quality Records, frustrated by the inability of Canadian groups to break into the American market, came up with an idea:  They chose to credit the record to (Guess Who?), hoping it would be better received if it was thought to be by a British Invasion act.  Sure enough, the song reached #22 in the US in early 1965 and went all the way to #1 in Canada.  The band’s real name was revealed a few months later, but disc jockeys continued to announce the group as The Guess Who, which effectively forced the official name change.

In 1966, Cummings was added on keyboards and backing vocals, but then Chad Allan chose to leave the band, which put Cummings at the forefront as lead singer.  This new lineup kept the momentum going in Canada with several Top 20 singles, including Neil Young’s “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” the eventual Carpenters’ hit “Hurting Each Other” and two Bachman compositions, “Believe Me” and “Clock on the Wall,” but they all stiffed in the US and elsewhere.

Once Bachman and Cummings put their songwriting talents together in 1968, something clicked.  “These Eyes” zoomed to #6 in the US, followed by “Laughing at #10 (a chart topper in Canada).  “Undun” did less well, stalling at #22, but “No Time” reached #5 in the US and was another #1 in Canada.  This was all in the space of 10 months.

(“No Time” had actually been first recorded in ’68 with a weird intro, a longer guitar break and an extended vocal section at the end.  This version rarely gets heard, but you’re in for a real treat — you can hear it on the Spotify playlist at the end of this essay.  Cummings’ vocals and Bachman’s guitar are both amazing here).

Then came the strange case of “American Woman.”  The band had returned to Canada after a long string of American shows, and at a small hall in Ontario, they were taking the stage after a brief break.   Bachman was tuning his guitar after replacing a broken

The-Guess-Who_1200-e1471556615154-800x449.jpg

(Clockwise from left):  Jim Kale, Greg Leskiw, Garry Peterson, Burton Cummings, Kurt Winter

string and realized he was playing a new riff.  The other members returned to the stage and joined in, creating a jam session in which Cummings improvised lyrics about how homegrown Canadian women were preferable to American girls.  A couple of lines (“I don’t need your war machine, I don’t need no ghetto scenes”) were interpreted as anti-American, but as Cummings said, “It was just a sentiment I ad libbed that night.  The Vietnam war was raging at the time, and we had a lot of draft dodgers in the audience.”

The band recorded the song a week later and, despite the apparent putdown (“American woman, stay away from me”), the song zoomed to #1 in the US and Canada, as did its flip side, “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature.”

Festering underneath this success, though, was increased tension between Bachman and Cummings.  Bachman had chosen to avoid drink and drugs and had even converted to Mormonism, while Cummings was more of a wild child (as were Kale and Peterson). cshf_05_randy_bachman-1According to “Bachman,” the recently released documentary, “I had become the group’s de facto manager.  I was handling our business affairs, counting the money, constantly up in the morning, going to the bank when it opened, coming back, and then getting [the other band members] out of bed, nursing their hangovers and driving them to the next gig.  When you do that 300 days a year, it takes its toll.”

Bachman had been suffering painful gallbladder problems and needed surgery, but the touring prevented him from getting the care he needed.  Things came to a head in May 1970, when Bachman played his last show with The Guess Who at New York City’s Fillmore East. “We hit No. 1 with the American Woman album and single, and now we’re suddenly headlining. I said, ‘Okay, guys, I need to go home for two weeks.  I have an operation scheduled.’  They said, ‘Great, well, we’re gonna keep going.’  I said, ‘Am I coming back?’  They said, ‘No, we’re kind of glad you’re gone.’  They were into the drug culture, I wasn’t.  So I was glad to leave, but I was sad to leave.  This had been my life.  I had run this band.”

Bachman’s place was quickly filled by guitarist Kurt Winter, an old Winnipeg friend who offered not only great guitar work but wrote some memorable tunes like “Bus Rider” and “Hand Me Down World.”  Because The Guess Who’s radio hits kept on coming almost

guesswholivecropped

From their “Live at the Paramount” album cover, 1972

seamlessly, the casual listener took no notice of Bachman’s departure.  Winter became Cummings’ new songwriting collaborator, and they teamed up on “Hang On To Your Life,” “Rain Dance,” “Heartbroken Bopper” and “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon.”  Alone, Cummings came up with “Share the Land,” “Albert Flasher,” “Glamour Boy” and my personal favorite, 1974’s “Star Baby.”

I couldn’t help but feel sad that The Guess Who’s final chart success was the insipid “Clap for the Wolfman,” a tribute of sorts to the radio legend Wolfman Jack.  To my ears, it’s boring, and pales in comparison to almost any other track in The Guess Who’s repertoire.

By 1975, Cummings decided to give a solo career a try, effectively ending the band’s run.  Kale bought the rights to the name and continued assembling various Guess Who lineups to hit the road and even record albums over the ensuing years, but none could manage much success.

Cummings’ first attempts at going it alone did all right, with “Stand Tall” (#10 in the US), “I’m Scared,” “Break It to Them Gently” and “You Saved My Soul” all reaching the charts, but it didn’t last long.  Still, he stayed active in the business, writing and producing and occasionally performing.  He even participated in a few Guess Who reunion concerts,

bachman_and_cummings_at_grey_cup

Bachman and Cummings in the late ’80s

with and without Bachman in the lineup, which is fairly remarkable, considering the way they parted ways in 1970.  Naturally, those shows generated the most enthusiasm from the public.

 

Said Cummings in 1986, “Sometimes when you leave a well-known band, it’s almost immediate death.  Lots of people have tried it and fallen by the wayside.  I’m pleased that there are still people who like me or my songs or the way I sing them.  Some of them like me well enough to come see me perform.  And I do sing quite a few Guess Who tunes.  Hey, those were some great songs.  I was the band’s singer, and I wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, so why would I avoid performing them?  Certainly the audience wants to hear them.”

As for Bachman, he struggled upon leaving The Guess Who in 1970 because industry folks couldn’t understand why he would leave a group just as it had attained a #1 album and single.  But he soldiered on, first putting together a country rock band called Brave Belt with old colleague Chad Allan, and when that didn’t pan out, he recruited his brothers Tim and Robbie and bassist/vocalist Fred Turner to form Bachman-Turner

Guess-Who-Getty

The Guess Who, 1968

Overdrive in 1973.

BTO enjoyed a very successful run for a few years, churning out solid pop rock hits like “Takin’ Care of Business,” “Let It Ride,” “Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” and “Hey You.”  (Me, I always favored the sultry, jazz-inflected “Blue Collar” featuring Turner’s vocals.)

So… Is the story of The Guess Who compelling?  Perhaps not.  Is their body of work “extraordinary, influential or consistently excellent”?  Hmmm, not so much.  But nevertheless, I just go crazy when I hear “These eyes have seen a lot of loves but they’re never gonna see another one like I had with you” and “I was a workshop owner in the gulch for the people and I offered myself to the world,” dammit!  And I have a hunch that many of my readers share my affection for the songs of The Guess Who.  I hope the Spotify playlist I’ve assembled below (which includes a few solo Cummings and BTO selections) hits the spot for you this week.

*************