Take these broken wings and learn to fly

On our patio in the Pacific Palisades, we have a small fountain and pond that seem to attract a wide variety of feathered friends.  I’ve never been much of a bird watcher before, but now that I’m observing them often and in close proximity, it occurred to me that it was time for me to examine a selection of classic rock songs about birds.

I came up with about four dozen songs that focus on birds in general or specific types of birds, and my job was to whittle that list down to 15 for my blog post, and another dozen or so as “honorable mention” designees.  There’s a Spotify playlist at the end so you can listen as you read.

Wings up — here we go:

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“Blackbird,” The Beatles, 1968

paul acoustic shirtless 68One of McCartney’s simplest melodies and prettiest acoustic guitar playing features lyrics with a serious yet uplifting message.  He said the words were inspired by his hearing the call of a blackbird while on retreat in Rishikesh, India in early 1968 with the other Beatles and, alternatively, by the unfortunate state of race relations in the United States in the 1960s.  “It wasn’t really about a blackbird whose wings are broken.  It’s symbolic of  black people’s struggle in the southern states,” said McCartney years later.  “You were only waiting for this moment to be free, blackbird fly, black bird fly into the light of the dark black night, blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly, all your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise…”

“Canary in a Coalmine,” The Police, 1980

ob_516a8f_canari-mineurIn a primitive attempt to monitor how lethal the air quality was becoming in their working environment, coal miners routinely took a caged canary with them.  When it keeled over, they knew the time had come to exit for a while.  Police songwriter Sting found that an intriguing subject for a song, comparing the canary to a timid woman who became afraid at the first sign of trouble.  Their track appeared on their 1980 LP “Zenyatta Mondatta,” which reached #5 in the US and #1 in their native UK:  “First to fall over when the atmosphere is less than perfect, your sensibilities are shaken by the slightest defect, you live your life like a canary in a coalmine, you get so dizzy even walking in a straight line…”

“White Bird,” It’s a Beautiful Day, 1969

cover_2827152752018_rIt’s a shame we never got to hear more from this San Francisco-based group, but their manager chose to squirrel them away in a Seattle apartment to write songs and play small clubs there.  By the time they’d returned, they had grown tired of each other and split up, but not before writing and recording this stunning tune, which was an FM radio favorite of the era.  “We were like caged birds in that attic — no money, no transportation, and the weather was miserable,” said singer-songwriter David LaFlamme.  “We were just barely getting by.  It was quite an experience, but it was very creative in a way.”  “White bird in a golden cage on a winter’s day in the rain, white bird in a golden cage alone, white bird dreams of the aspen trees with their dying leaves turning gold, but the white bird just sits in her cage growing old, white bird must fly or she will die…” (I can’t seem to find the original version of “White Bird” on Spotify, so my playlist has a live rendition that isn’t as good…)

“Hummingbird,” Seals and Crofts, 1972

Hummingbirds 2011

Jim Seals and Dash Crofts, in addition to being talented singers and musicians, were devoted followers of Baha’i, a monotheistic faith founded in the 19th Century that teaches the essential worth of all religions.  The hummingbird is a metaphor for the Persian named Baha’u’llah, who founded Baha’i.  The follow-up single to to Seals & Crofts’ Top Ten hit “Summer Breeze” was this inspirational ode to Baha’i’s founder, which reached #20 in 1973:  “Oh hummingbird, lend us your wings, let us soar in the atmosphere of Abha, lift us up to the heaven of holiness, oh source of our being, oh hummingbird…”

“Seagull,” Bad Company, 1974

Bad-Company4Solid hard rock was the recipe for the bulk of Bad Company’s impressive debut LP, which reached #1 in 1974.  The sleeper tune on the album was “Seagull,” which used acoustic guitars in its comparatively gentle approach.  Said songwriter/vocalist Paul Rodgers, “‘Seagull’ was written sitting on the beach.  Music is about atmosphere, and an effective way to create the atmosphere you want is to actually be there.  You don’t have to imagine it — it’s right there.  You could see the horizon.”  The lyrics, penned by Rodgers, wax philosophically about the cosmos:  “Seagull, you fly across the horizon into the misty morning sun, nobody asks you where you are going, nobody knows where you’re from, here is a man asking the question, is this really the end of the world?  Seagull, you must have known for a long time the shape of things to come…”

“Bluebird,” Buffalo Springfield, 1967

R-3921624-1349306968-1112.jpegStephen Stills was entering his most remarkable, prolific songwriting period when he came up with this amazing song on the Springfield’s best album, “Buffalo Springfield Again.”  The original version (heard on my playlist ) uses a banjo in the final moments, but on the extended rendition found on a later collection album, Stills takes off on a soaring electric guitar solo that Joe Walsh tried to emulate on the cover version he recorded with The James Gang in 1969.  “Listen to my bluebird laugh, she can’t tell you why, deep within her heart, you see, she knows only crying, just crying, there she sits, a lofty perch, strangest color blue, flying is forgotten now, thinks only of you, just you…”

“Black Crow,” Joni Mitchell, 1976

2045Joni’s 1976 LP “Hejira” is a song cycle about traveling and searching, part of the ongoing self-analysis she has done throughout her extraordinary career.  “Black Crow,” with its superb acoustic guitar rhythms and soaring vocals, offers amazing imagery that equates her relentless search with that of the crow, looking for the next important morsel:  “In search of love and music, my whole life has been illumination, corruption, and diving, diving, diving, diving, diving down to pick up on every shiny thing, just like that black crow flying in a blue sky…”

“Vulture Culture,” Alan Parsons Project, 1985

Unknown-42The phrase “Vulture culture” is about a love and appreciation of the natural world and animals, and how vultures keep an animal’s spirit alive by keeping its bones and celebrating its beauty.  The Parsons Project album of that name, and its title track, twisted that reference to describe unworldly people steeped in the arts and the ever-increasing ruthlessness of mankind in a world of stark economic reality: “Vulture culture, use it or you lose it, vulture culture, choose it or refuse it, Hollywood is calling, won’t you join the dance, moving onto Wall Street, why not take a chance, it’s a vulture culture, never lend a loser a hand, just a vulture culture, living off the fat of the land…”

“High Flyin’ Bird,” Elton John, 1973

hqdefault-14One of my favorite deep tracks from the first and best phase of John’s extraordinary career is this final tune from his 1972 LP “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player.”  Bernie Taupin wrote it about a young woman he knew who had become involved in drugs and ended up committing suicide.  “My high-flying bird has flown from out my arms, I thought myself her keeper, she thought I meant her harm, she thought I was the archer, a weatherman of words, but I could never shoot down my high-flying bird…”

“Free as a Bird,” The Beatles, 1995

THE_BEATLES_FREE+AS+A+BIRD+-+DISPLAY+FLAT-56777In 1993, when the massive CD/DVD/book project “Beatles Anthology” was underway, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr convened in a home studio with producer Jeff Lynne to record the first new Beatles music in 25 years.  As a way of involving the spirit of John Lennon in their work, they used the rough demo of a song Lennon had written and recorded in 1977, and the result was a #6 hit in the US.  The additional lyrics they added to Lennon’s framework referenced their 1969 breakup:  “Where did we lose the touch that seemed to mean so much?  It always made me feel so free as a bird, like the next best thing to be…”

“Bird on the Wire,” Leonard Cohen, 1969

lc2-750x500Cohen had been an accomplished poet and writer who began composing songs at age 30.  He suffered from occasional bouts of depression, but his ladyfriend at the time, Marianne Ihlen, helped him by urging him to pick up his guitar as they sat in their apartment on the Greek island of Hydra.  Outside the window, telephone poles and wires were being installed, and a lone bird came to rest on a wire there, inspiring Cohen to write what became one of his signature songs, later covered by the likes of Judy Collins, Joe Cocker, Joe Bonamassa, Jennifer Warnes and k.d. lang:  “Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free….”

“When Doves Cry,” Prince, 1984

096bfffa-5a23-41d9-b046-18c7b7656d27Prince wrote this song upon request from “Purple Rain” director Albert Magnoli, who wanted a tune to accompany a scene that intermingled parental difficulties and a love affair.  “When Doves Cry,” by the way, is almost an anagram for “When love dies”:  “How can you just leave me standing alone in a world that’s so cold, maybe I’m just too demanding, maybe I’m just like my father, too bold, maybe you’re just like my mother, she’s never satisfied, why do we scream at each other, this is what it sounds like when doves cry…”

“Three Little Birds,” Bob Marley, 1977

5df13f667a06699b49d6393b72493026Marley, like most songwriters, was inspired by the things he saw around him every day.  Outside his Jamaica home, three canaries made their nest and were regularly within earshot and eyeshot of Marley, so naturally, he wrote what became one of his trademark songs about them.  Three women who sang in concert with him claim the lyrics also refer to them, as he would ask, ‘What is my three little birds saying?”  “Rise up this mornin’, smile with the risin’ sun, three little birds pitch by my doorstep, singin’ sweet songs of melodies pure and true, sayin’, ‘This is my message to you-ou-ou,’ singin’, ‘Don’t worry ’bout a thing ’cause every little thing gonna be all right’…”

“Mockingbird,” Inez & Charlie Foxx, 1963

22900The brother-sister team of Inez and Charlie Foxx wrote and recorded this R&B track as a novelty song in 1963, playing on the nursery rhyme “Hush Little Baby,” and to their surprise, it reached #7 on the pop charts that year.  It was soon covered by Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin, among others, and finally by then-husband-and-wife James Taylor and Carly Simon, appearing on Simon’s 1974 LP “Hotcakes,” where it reached #5 on the pop. charts:  “Everybody have you heard, he’s gonna buy me a mockingbird, and if that mockingbird don’t sing, he’s gonna buy me a diamond ring, and if that diamond ring won’t shine, he’s gonna surely break this heart of mine…”

“Free Bird,” Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1973

4eece46a-0d69-44ea-a3b4-0c8053a54642_1.0e5fbc6f1c10d2547d672f8e5a6434bdLynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Allen Collins came up with the chords to this iconic power ballad and was searching for the right lyrics to accompany them.  One day his girlfriend Kathy, whom he later married, asked him, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” He was struck by her words and used it as the opening line to “Free Bird.”  Singer Ronnie Van Zant, who co-wrote the lyrics, said the song is “what it means to be free, in that a bird can fly wherever he wants to go.  Everyone wants to be free.  That’s what this country’s all about.” “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?  For I must be traveling on now ’cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see, but if I stayed here with you, girl, things just couldn’t be the same, ’cause I’m as free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change…”

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Honorable mention:

Songbird,” Fleetwood Mac, 1977;  “Skyline Pigeon,” Elton John, 1969;  “Bluebird,” Paul McCartney & Wings, 1973;  “Rockin’ Robin,” Bobby Day, 1958;  “Fly Robin Fly,” Silver Convention, 1975;  “Fly Like an Eagle,” Steve Miller Band, 1976;  Sparrow,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1964;  The Vultures Fly High,” Renaissance, 1975;  “And Your Bird Can Sing,” The Beatles, 1966;  “Sweet Bird,” Joni Mitchell, 1975;  “Albatross,” Judy Collins, 1968;  “Little Bird,” Annie Lennox, 1995.

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We walked off to look for America

On this long holiday weekend, as we haul out our red, white and blue outfits, raise the flags and bunting, and ooh and ahh over fireworks displays, we’re clearly going to need a patriotic-musicFourth of July soundtrack.  Once again, popular music is ready and waiting with multiple choices.

Elsewhere, no doubt, you’ll be hearing many of the same songs you hear every year on the Fourth of July:   Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” Neil Diamond’s “America,” Don McLean’s “American Pie,” John Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band,” The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” The Guess Who’s “American Woman,” and, of course, Kate Smith’s “God Bless America.”

american_flag_stratBut here at Hack’s Back Pages, I want to focus instead on some of the lesser known songs out there that pay homage to all things American — our country’s natural beauty, our freedoms and blessings, and our undying hope for better things to come.  We’re far from perfect, that’s for sure, but we keep on trying.

There’s a Spotify playlist at the bottom of this column for you to listen to as you read about these 15 featured tracks, plus another dozen “honorable mentions” to fill out the program for the holiday soundtrack.

A very happy Independence Day to you all!

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3ba436668a90c7520e4ac2d6a85240a0“Real American,” Rick Derringer, 1985

Ricky Zehringer was only 17 when his band, The McCoys, had a #1 hit with “Hang On Sloopy” in 1965.  He became Rick Derringer in the Seventies and went on to become a solo star (“Rock and Roll Hoochie-Koo”) as well as an in-demand guest guitarist for Steely Dan, Edgar Winter, Alice Cooper and Todd Rundgren.  He wrote and sang “Real American” in 1985 for the World Wrestling Federation, and specifically Hulk Hogan, to use as entrance music.  The music and lyrics, which capitalized on the Cold War patriotic jingoism prevalent at the time, were ideal for the bombastic showbiz of pro wrestling.  Sample lyric: ” I am a real American, fight for the rights of every man, I am a real American, fight for what’s right, fight for your life…”

600x600bf-1“American Baby,” Dave Matthews Band, 2005

When George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, Matthews felt despondent enough to write this song the following day.  Its lyrics urged us to remain hopeful and proud, despite the troubling changes in values apparent in the way the country was conducting its war in Iraq.  The track, which appears on The Dave Matthews Band’s fourth consecutive #1 album “Stand Up,” became the group’s highest charting single at #16.  Sample lyrics:  “I hold on to you, you bring me hope, I’ll see you soon, and if I don’t see you, I’m afraid we’ve lost the way, stay beautiful, baby, I hope you stay, American baby…”

james-brown-living-in-america-scotti-brothers-4“Living in America,” James Brown, 1986

The one-of-a-kind Godfather of Soul had ruled the R&B charts from the early ’60s through the mid-’70s, and had a half-dozen Top Ten pop hits as well (“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),””Cold Sweat,”), but fell out of favor during the disco and post-disco era.  He had one last commercial peak in 1986 with “Living in America,” which reached #4.  Written by singer-songwriter Dan Hartman and producer Charlie Midnight, the song was used prominently in the film “Rocky IV” in scenes when the over-the-top patriotic character Apollo Creed entered the boxing arena.  Sample lyrics:  “Living in America, eye to eye, station to station, living in America, hand to hand, across the nation, living in America, got to have a celebration…”

220px-Supertramp_-_Breakfast_in_America“Breakfast in America,” Supertramp, 1979

This intelligent British art-rock band had moved to the US in 1977 following their commercial success here that year, and their next batch of songs reflected a breezy American influence.  The “Breakfast in America” LP was an enormous hit for Supertramp — it was perched at #1 for six weeks in the summer of 1979.  The title track (which stalled at #62 compared to the other three Top Ten hits from the LP) is about a poor British boy who fantasizes about visiting the US but lacks the money to do so:  “Take a jumbo across the water, like to see America, see the girls in California, I’m hoping it’s going to come true, but there’s not a lot I can do…”

R-6931009-1429783951-2070.jpeg“This is Not America,” Pat Metheny Group with David Bowie, 1985

In the 1985 spy film “The Falcon and the Snowman,” Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton play young Americans who sell secrets to the Soviets.  In one scene when they are beaten and tortured while in custody, they protest, “We are Americans!”  The response: “This is not America.”  The song, a collaborative effort by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and the late great David Bowie, examines how our rights and privileges are often taken for granted until they disappear when on foreign soil:  “There was a time, a wind that blew so young, this could be the biggest sky, and I could have the faintest idea, for this is not America, this is not America…”

R-12602770-1538415650-6818.jpeg“I Love American Music,” Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, 2013

This eclectic band from Eugene, Oregon, has specialized in swing and ska music since the early ’90s.  While they have reached the mainstream pop charts only once, with their “Zoot Suit Riot” single and album in 1997, the group has been one of the hardest working touring bands in the nation for many years.  From their 2013 LP “White Teeth, Black Thoughts” comes the single “I Love American Music,” which celebrates the diversity of musical styles you can hear as you travel around this country:  “When the lights go down and my scales stop showin’, I’ll smash my fingers down on the only truth that’s still worth knowin’, play it, play it again Sam, I want American music, play it, play it again Sam, I need American music…”

mary-chapin-carpenter-6“Goodnight America,” Mary Chapin Carpenter, 2004

Although she has escaped the attentions of mainstream music listeners, Chapin-Carpenter has been a consistent presence on country charts for 25 years, with three platinum albums and numerous Top Five singles there.  Her 2004 album, “Between Here and Gone,” contains the lovely ballad “Goodnight America,” which focuses on the gypsy lifestyle of being a musician on the road — “a weary traveler, but grateful to have the freedom to be one,” as she put it.  Sample lyric:  “I’m a stranger here, no one you would know, I’m from somewhere else, well isn’t everybody though, my ship has not come in, I don’t know where I’ll be when the sun comes up, until then, sweet dreams, goodnight America…”

jackson-browne-for-america-asylum“For America,” Jackson Browne, 1986

One of the premier singer-songwriters to emerge from Southern California in the 1970s, Browne has written dozens of articulately worded ballads and anthems to love and life (“For Everyman,” “Fountain of Sorrow,” “The Pretender”).  By the mid-’80s, the left-leaning Browne had grown disheartened with the actions the Reagan administration was taking abroad, and subsequently released the overtly political album, “Lives in the Balance,” which included the modest #30 single, “For America,” another song that wishes for better days ahead:  “I have prayed for America, I was made for America, I can’t let go ’til she’s comes ’round, until the land of the free is awake and can see, and until her conscience has been found…”

maxresdefault-7“(You Can Still) Rock in America,” Night Ranger, 1983  

This San Francisco-based hard rock band had a pretty good run in the 1980s MTV era with its singles, albums and videos.  Their commercial peak came in 1984 with the #5 power ballad “Sister Christian,” but another song from that “Midnight Madness” album was the hard rock anthem “(You Can Still) Rock in America,” which missed the Top 40 but clicked with the patriotic Sammy Hagar-Ted Nugent crowd that ate up the pro-USA lyrics: “Little brother’s got it ready to roll, tires burning as they head for the show, light it up and turn the music up loud, and rock it, rock it, rock it, you can still rock in America, yeah it’s all right…” 

299796“Living in America,” Aztec Two-Step, 1986

The duo of Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman formed the nucleus of Aztec Two-Step, a lighthearted, lively folk rock band out of Boston.  From their roots in 1971, they have continued to release music and perform live ever since, although without much chart success.  In 1986, they came up with this quirky, optimistic ditty in tribute to Americans everywhere:  “Here’s to the silver screen, ah-ah, the music scene in America, here’s to the arts and crafts, people who make us laugh in America, here’s to the songs, the dance, the true romance, all those who take a chance in America, and here’s to the people too, whose dreams have all come true in America…” 

3587-Dave-Stewart-And-His-Rock-Fabulous-Orchestra-American-Prayer-USA-Download-01“American Prayer,” Dave Stewart, 2008

In 2002, Stewart, formerly with Annie Lennox and the Eurythmics, paired up with U2’s Bono to write this “paean to America based on the poetry of the Declaration of Independence and the taut truth in the Constitution.”  It was first performed during Bono’s Heart of America speaking tour that year to rally support for the fight against the AIDS crisis.  In 2008, Stewart altered some of the lyrics and recorded it “in honor of those working to make the world a better place.”  Sample lyrics:   “These are the hands, what are we gonna build with them, and this is the church you can’t see, and remember, give me your tired, your poor and huddled masses, you know they’re yearning to breathe free, this is my American prayer…”

Americandreamcsny“American Dream,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, 1988

Neil Young promised that he would reunite with Crosby, Stills and Nash if David Crosby successfully kicked his severe drug habit, which he did following a prison term in 1986.  The foursome recorded “American Dream” at Young’s ranch, and while the album reached #16 in early 1988, critics and many fans found it lacking somehow.  Young’s title track is a satire of 1980s-era sensational political scandals:  “Reporters crowd around your house, going through your garbage like a pack of hounds, speculating what they may find out, it don’t matter now, you’re all washed up, you tried to make a good thing last, how could something so good go bad so fast?, American dream, American dream…”

220px-SteppenwolfMonster“America,” Steppenwolf, 1969  

Singer John Kay and drummer Jerry Edmonton were among the key members of the ’60s Canadian-American band The Sparrows, who morphed into Steppenwolf, named for the Herman Hesse novel, and had several huge hits (“Born to Be Wild,” “Magic Carpet Ride”).  By the time of their fourth album in late 1969, Kay and Edmonton were writing more political lyrics, including a nine-minute suite entitled “Monster,” which recounted the history of the U.S. in mostly damning terms.  The suite’s final section, “America,” concluded on this uncertain note:  “America, where are you now, don’t you care about your sons and daughters, don’t you know we need you now, we can’t fight alone against the monster…”

Big-Wide-Grin-cover“America the Beautiful,” Keb’ Mo’, 2001 

There are dozens and dozens of versions of this stunning piece, which I’ve always felt would be a better National Anthem than “The Star Spangled Banner.”  It was first written as a poem by Katherine Lee Bates in 1893, then tweaked a bit with a few new lyrics in 1903 and again in 1911.  Samuel Ward wrote the music back in 1882 to an altogether different lyric, “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem.”  Ward’s hymn-like melody was first combined with Bates’s patriotic words in 1910 into the song we all know today.  In the Bi-Centennial year of 1976, two recordings received considerable airplay — Ray Charles’ stirring rendition on the R&B charts, and Charlie Rich’s commanding version on the country charts.  For something different but memorable, check out Keb’ Mo”s version from his “Big Wide Grin” album in 2001.

there-goes-rhymin-simon-55cb86e3971af“American Tune,” Paul Simon, 1973  

I’ve always felt that this song from Simon’s “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” LP is one of his best works.  The majestic melody is lifted from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” with poignant Simon lyrics that are simultaneously comforting and troubling.  Even 46 years ago, Simon was proud of his country, but concerned about its future:  “We come on the ship they call the Mayflower, we come on the ship that sailed the moon, we come in the age’s most uncertain hour, and sing an American tune, oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right, you can’t be forever blessed, still, tomorrow’s gonna be another working day, and I’m trying to get some rest…”

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And here’s my Honorable Mention list of other “American” songs that may have escaped your attention:  “America Street,” Edwin McCain;  “What Now America,” Lee Michaels, 1970;  “A Brand New America,” Keb’ Mo’;  “Lost in America,” Alice Cooper;  “Miss America,” David Byrne;  “American Dream Plan B,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers;   “American Beauty,” Bruce Springsteen;  “Miss America,” Styx;  “In America,” Charlie Daniels Band;  “Lost in America,” Edwin McCain;  “Miss America,” James Blunt;  “American Girls,” Counting Crows.