She’s a woman who understands

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about women.

Not my wife and daughters in particular, although I already think of them all the time. Not even female friends, necessarily. I’ve been thinking about women in terms of their position in society, their impact on life, the influence of their personalities.

I have been tardily immersing myself in the dystopian drama “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is brilliantly written and acted but oh so very bleak and pretty frightening. The subtle and not-so-subtle parallels between the subjugation of women in that story and the impact of the right-wing Supreme Court’s outrageous gutting of Roe v. Wade are more than a little disturbing.

I rarely address political issues in this rock music blog (except for occasional overviews of protest songs as a sub-genre), but this week, I am moved to explore songs that celebrate women — strong women, smart women, kind women, independent women. I have selected a dozen songs with “woman” in the title that go beyond the superficial or pejorative generalizations all too common in pop songs of the classic rock era.

In addition to these 12 songs, the Spotify playlist at the end includes several “honorable mentions” that have lyrics less relevant to my intended message but still worthy of inclusion because the music warrants it.

This Independence Day weekend, I shall be deep in thought about how our country is in trouble when it summarily removes established rights from half its people. This cannot be the way forward…

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“Woman in Chains,” Tears for Fears, 1989

For “Woman in Chains,” the leadoff track on the excellent “The Seeds of Love” LP, Tears For Fears singer/songwriter Roland Orzabal was inspired by two different lines of thought when he wrote it. “The song is about how men have traditionally played down the feminine side of their characters, and how both men and women suffer for it. I think men in a patriarchal society have been sold down the river. We’re told that we’re in control, but there are also a hell of a lot of things that we miss out on, which women are allowed to be.” He also revealed he was writing about his mother’s unhappy life as a nightclub stripper, and the abuse she took from her husband (Orzabal’s father): “Well, I feel deep in your heart there are wounds time can’t heal, /And I feel somebody somewhere is trying to breathe, /Well, you know what I mean, /It’s a world gone crazy keeps woman in chains…”

“She’s Always a Woman,” Billy Joel, 1977

I find this song to be one of Billy Joel’s most delightful, beautiful melodies, but the lyrics have always perplexed me. If she “steals like a thief” and “can ruin you faith with her casual lies,” why is she also the recipient of his love and affection? It’s actually autobiographical. In the ’70s, Joel was married to Elizabeth Weber, who managed his financial affairs and handled his contract negotiations with a toughness bordering on ruthlessness. Male business adversaries naturally labeled her as “unfeminine,” but Joel saw she was fighting for his interests, and he loved her for it: “Oh, she takes care of herself, she can wait if she wants, /She’s ahead of her time, /Oh, and she never gives out, and she never gives in, /She just changes her mind…” The marriage didn’t last, though, and he sees his part in the failure: “She’ll bring out the best and the worst you can be, /Blame it all on yourself ’cause she’s always a woman to me…”

“Kind Woman,” Buffalo Springfield, 1968

Buffalo Springfield didn’t last long because the two major talents in the lineup, Stephen Stills and Neil Young, were too competitive for their own good, both as songwriters and as performing guitarists and singers. Overshadowed in the mix was third singer-songwriter Richie Furay, a much gentler soul who later founded Poco and ultimately gave up the business for life in the clergy. One of his finest efforts in the Springfield was “Kind Woman,” a plaintive country-based tune in which the narrator sweetly asks the nice woman he has just met if she’ll keep him company: “Remember once before, you’re hearing the old folks say, ‘Love’s an ageless old rhyme,’ /But nowadays, you know the saying depends so much on the kind of woman that you find, /Kind woman, won’t you love me tonight? /The look in your eyes, kind woman, /Don’t leave me lonely tonight…”

“Just Like a Woman,” Bob Dylan, 1966

On the face of it, this classic tune from Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” double album appears to traffic in stereotypes, describing actions that are supposedly “just like a woman” would do. There is some of that in there, to be sure, but I interpret the lyrics to be more universal. We all ache, we all have pain, both men and women, especially the emotional variety from unsuccessful relationships, and we all break “just like a little girl” (or boy). He’s throwing in the towel: “Your long-time curse hurts, but what’s worse is this pain in here, /I can’t stay in here, ain’t it clear that I just can’t fit, /Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit…” Some observers think the song is about former lover Joan Baez, who was once a bigger star than he was: “When we meet again, introduced as friends, /Please don’t let on that you knew me when I was hungry, and it was your world…”

“American Woman,” The Guess Who, 1970

This #1 single by the Canadian band that has had the most success on US pop charts was widely misinterpreted at the time of its release in the spring of 1970. With American involvement in the Vietnam War at its fullest, many listeners saw the song as an anti-American slap by a foreign group, but that’s simply not the case, according to singer Burton Cummings. “The lyrics were written on the spot during an onstage jam after we’d returned from a U.S. tour,” he said in 2013. “What was on my mind was that girls in the States seemed to get older quicker than our girls, and that made them seem dangerous. When I sang, ‘American woman, stay away from me,’ I really meant, ‘Canadian woman, I prefer you.’ We weren’t used to strong, outspoken women.”

“Man Smart, Woman Smarter,” Harry Belafonte, 1956

This provocative song’s authorship is somewhat unclear, but the prevailing opinion is that it was written by Norman Span, a popular calypso musician who first recorded it back in 1936. Belafonte made it popular as an album track on his #1 LP “Calypso” in 1956, and artists including Chubby Checker, Roseanne Cash, The Grateful Dead, Robert Palmer and The Carpenters all recorded it over the years. It was featured on an episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy put a band together to outfox Ricky and show him he wasn’t the only one with talent. The lyrics advance a theory regarding superior intellect: “Ah, ever since the world began, woman was always teaching man, /And if you listen to my bid attentively, I goin’ tell you how she smarter than he, /And not me, but the people, they say that the men are leading the women astray, /But I say, that the women of today, smarter than the man in every way…”

“Woman’s Gotta Have It,” James Taylor, 1976

Taylor wrote so many great songs but also loved recording cover versions of R&B-flavored numbers like Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You” and The Drifters’ “Up on the Roof.” On his underrated 1976 LP “In the Pocket,” Taylor did a spectacular job with Bobby Womack’s 1972 song “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” a funky soul tune written by Womack and his stepdaughter Linda Womack. The lyrics, which center on a woman they knew who was thinking of going elsewhere for intimacy because her husband had grown neglectful, serve as a warning to pay attention: “Do the things that keep a smile on her face, say the words that make her feel better every day… /Woman’s got to have it, I believe that I should know, she’s got to know that she’s needed around, /When you kiss her, you got to make her feel it everyday, boy, /She’s got to know that she’s not walking on shaky ground, /Think it over…”

“(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” Aretha Franklin, 1967

One day in 1967, Atlantic Records producer/mogul Jerry Wexler stopped Carole King on the street and said he needed her to write a song for his new artist Franklin, to be entitled “Natural Woman.” King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin collaborated that very evening, and you would think the lyrics would’ve been written by a woman, but in fact, King wrote the music while Goffin came up with the words. It became one of Franklin’s signature songs, a song of gratitude to a man who offers so much devotion and kindness, from a woman whose “soul was in the lost and found”: “Before the day I met you, life was so unkind, but your love was the key to my peace of mind, /’Cause you make me feel, you make me feel, /You make me feel like a natural woman…” King ended up recording the song herself four years later on her multi-platinum “Tapestry” LP.

“Woman,” John Lennon, 1980

The former Beatle, abandoned by his mother (and father) at a young age, developed an unhealthy defense that included berating and even physically abusing women who he felt had done him wrong. Therapy and Eastern philosophy helped quiet Lennon’s demons, such that, by 1980, he was able to acknowledge the huge importance of women in not only his life but in the universe. “Women make up half the sky, half the world, half of everything,” he noted. He wrote a mea culpa song like “Woman” to try to make amends for past behavior: “Woman, I can hardly express my mixed emotion at my thoughtlessness, /After all, I’m forever in your debt, /And woman, I will try to express my inner feelings and thankfulness for showing me the meaning of success… /Woman, I know you understand the little child inside the man, please remember my life is in your hands…”

“Woman,” Peter and Gordon, 1966

I couldn’t resist putting this song in the mix, which credits Bernard Webb as the songwriter, but that was a pseudonym for Paul McCartney, who wanted to see if a song he wrote could be successful if no one knew he wrote it. Peter Asher, as the brother of McCartney’s then-girlfriend Jane Asher, had benefited greatly from Lennon-McCartney songs the duo had given to Peter & Gordon — “A World Without Love,” “I Don’t Want To See You Again” — but “Woman” also did well for them (even though it wasn’t long before we learned who really wrote it). A line like “be my woman” may seem rather possessive these days, but it was well-intentioned for its day, and he’s hoping for mutual love, need and want: “Woman, do you love me? /Woman, if you need me, then believe me, I need you to be my woman…”

“No, Woman, No Cry,” Bob Marley and The Wailers, 1974

Following the success of “Burnin’,” The Wailers’ 1973 LP with future reggae classics such as “Get Up Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sheriff,” Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer left to pursue solo careers, and Bob Marley assumed the mantle of frontman of the group. “Natty Dread,” the first album by Bob Marley and The Wailers, included “No Woman, No Cry,” which became a huge favorite in concert and was a featured track on the group’s 1975 “Live!” album. Although some misinterpreted the title to mean “If there’s no woman, there’s no reason to cry,” Marley said he meant it in Jamaican lingo as, “No, woman, nuh cry (don’t cry).” He was offering comfort in times of sadness: “Good friends we have, oh, good friends we have lost along the way, yeah, /In this great future, you can’t forget your past, so dry your tears, I say, /No, woman, no cry…”

“I Am Woman,” Helen Reddy, 1972

In 1972, Australian singer Helen Reddy had grown so tired of the demeaning treatment she and other female artists had to endure in the music business that she was motivated to write some defiant lyrics about it.  She handed them off to songwriter Ray Burton, and the result was the multi-million-selling “I Am Woman,” a somewhat cheesy but game-changing song that Helen Reddy played on every TV variety show she could. For better or worse, it gave many women the confidence to defy the odds, to chase their dreams, to press harder for more favorable contracts, to resist men’s unwanted advances, and to go where only men had gone before: “You can bend but never break me ’cause it only serves to make me more determined to achieve my final goal… /Oh yes, I am wise but it’s wisdom born of pain, /Yes, I’ve paid the price, but look how much I gained, /If I have to, I can do anything, /I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman…”

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Honorable mentions:

More Than a Woman,” The Bee Gees, 1977; “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” Derek and the Dominos, 1970; “Gold Dust Woman,” Fleetwood Mac, 1977; “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Percy Sledge, 1966; “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman,” The Doobie Brothers, 1973; “Witchy Woman,” The Eagles, 1972; “Black Magic Woman,” Santana, 1970; “Long Cool Woman,” The Hollies, 1972; “Oh, Pretty Woman,” Roy Orbison; “L.A. Woman,” The Doors, 1971; “Evil Woman,” Electric Light Orchestra, 1975; “Kentucky Woman,” Neil Diamond, 1967; “Parachute Woman,” The Rolling Stones, 1968; “She’s a Woman,” The Beatles, 1964.

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Sisters are doing it for themselves

Revived (and slightly revised) from a column originally posted here in May 2015

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When rock ‘n roll arrived in 1955, it was heralded by its proponents as nothing short of a musical revolution.  Throw out all the old rules, they said, it’s a new morning, and the new guard is here to shake, rattle and roll things up. But this revolutionary “new guard” — guys like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many dozens of pretenders to the throne — was woefully lacking in one key area:  They were all men.

Where were all the women?

Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders

It’s curious, and more than a little maddening, to look back now and see what a boys club it was then, from the singer and drummer to the producer, the engineer, the label executive, even the record store owner and radio DJ.  As in most industries at the time, women in the music business faced discrimination, harassment and outright exclusion by a male power structure.  (“You sing great, sweet thing, now let us finish the record and I’ll see you in my dressing room later…”)  It seems a shame to me that, except for a few rare trailblazers, women were typically limited to supporting roles as mere background vocalists, even though sometimes it was the women who possessed the star power, the pipes, or the songwriting talent — or all three — that everyone loved.

Etta James

Thankfully, there were those willing and able to put themselves out there to blaze the trails.  Some came from the blues tradition (Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Billie Holiday), or from the Nashville circuit (Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, Tammy Wynette).  But the women who fared the best on the pop charts at first were a different kind of maverick:  the modern teenage torch singers (Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, Lesley Gore) and the so-called “girl groups” so prevalent in the early ’60s:  The Chiffons, the Ronettes, the Marvelettes, the Crystals, all populated by talented (but largely anonymous) singers.

Ronnie Spector (left) and The Ronettes

Most of the songs these female artists were singing during that period were about love and heartbreak, but it’s interesting to note that as early as 1964, one of the biggest hits of that period was Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” with lyrics that openly and proudly rebelled against male domination.

Lesley Gore

Not to be denied were the female artists singing more middle-of-the-road fare, Broadway show tunes and more traditional pop ballads. Barbra Streisand, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield and others played it pretty safe, but they dabbled in rock and roll and were every bit as successful on the charts as their male counterparts of that era.

Sonny and Cher

For a time, co-ed groups were in vogue, with Peter, Paul and Mary, Sonny and Cher, The Mamas and Papas, Ike & Tina Turner and The 5th Dimension leading the way.  The women in these acts seemed to gain at least the appearance of equality with the men.  A few, like Cass Elliot and Mary Travers, enjoyed modest solo careers afterwards. Tina Turner, in particular, cast off her ex-husband’s shackles and became a deserving superstar, and Cher ended up setting records for longevity, with Top Ten hits in six different decades.

Tina Turner

But rock music, as played by rock and roll bands, was men’s domain.  Electric guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, sax, even vocals — these positions were exclusively filled by men:  The Beatles, The Yardbirds, Creedence, Cream, The Rolling Stones, The Who…  Things started changing during the psychedelic rock era, when an upstart named Grace Slick became the lead singer and focal point of the Jefferson Airplane and their two iconic hits, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.”  

Grace Slick

Concurrently, whirlwind blues belter Janis Joplin took the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival by storm and showed emphatically how mesmerizing a woman could be fronting a hard rock band.  Still, it wasn’t an easy road, as Pat Benatar recalled recently of her beginnings in 1979.  “I was kind of a girly girl with this tough image, but I never thought about singing in a rock band.  Women fronting bands just seemed so vulnerable.”

Janis Joplin

Throughout the ’60s, Motown and soul music showed more gender diversity than rock did, offering a smorgasbord of male and female solo artists and groups.  Diana Ross and The Supremes reigned, well, supreme, and Mary Wells, Nancy Wilson, Gladys Knight and Martha Reeves held their own against The Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey & the Miracles, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Perhaps the most important soul artist of all, Aretha Franklin, continues to top polls of the Greatest Singers Ever, and it is her signature song, “Respect,” that marks a sort of “coming out” for the women’s movement:  “I get tired, I keep on tryin’, you’re running out of foolin’ and I ain’t lyin’, re-re-re-respect, when you come home, or you might walk in and find out I’m gone, I got to have a little respect…”

Cindy Birdsong, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross of The Supremes

And then came the era of confessional singer-songwriters, both male and female, who wrote heartfelt lyrics and sang their own songs.  Here, the women enjoyed an even keel; for every James Taylor and Jackson Browne, there was a Joni Mitchell and Carole King.  It was in fact a treasure trove of female artists who, collectively and individually, made inroads into the power structure in the music business:  Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Roberta Flack, Carly Simon, Judy Collins, Laura Nyro.

Joni Mitchell

Many of these women broke barriers in another important way — they played an instrument.  Until about 1970, women were singers.  Period.  Well, maybe they’d let her hit a tambourine.  But the musically talented women refused to sit still and continued to push the envelope.  Mitchell, King, Collins and Simon all accompanied themselves on piano and/or guitar.  Raitt mastered the electric slide guitar and fronted her own blues band.  Karen Carpenter, she of the pitch-perfect voice, happened to be a pretty great drummer, and she was bound and determined to keep playing drums on records and in concert even after reaching stardom with her impeccable vocals.

Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart

Electric guitar has always been the ultimate male instrument, but by 1975, pioneers like Raitt, Suzi Quatro, and Heart’s Ann & Nancy Wilson broke new ground.  And playing bass for the Talking Heads was a talented woman named Tina Weymouth.

A symbolic milestone occurred in 1972, when an Australian singer called Helen Reddy had grown so tired of the shabby treatment she and other female artists had to endure that she was motivated to write some lyrics about it.  She handed them off to songwriter Ray Burton, and the result was the multi-million-selling “I Am Woman,” a somewhat cheesy but game-changing song that Helen Reddy played on every TV variety show she could:  “You can bend but never break me ’cause it only serves to make me more determined to achieve my final goal…”  For better or worse, it gave many woman the confidence to defy the odds, to chase their dreams, to press harder for more favorable contracts, to go where only men had gone before.

Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac

By the second half of the ’70s, women were among the top acts in the world — the 1-2 punch of Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie in Fleetwood Mac, and the disco dominance of Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor and Natalie Cole.  And by the 1980s, the floodgates opened, and there was no looking back.   Women could get down and dirty and ROCK, dammit, and they were out to prove it:  Patti Smith, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, the Runaways’ Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, the Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox.  Since then, no one would dare question the right of any woman to play any role or any instrument she can in any band that she wants.

Joan Jett

For thirty years now, women have only gained in stature, success and opportunities, in virtually every genre.  From Madonna to Janet Jackson, from Tracy Chapman to Meg White, from Alanis Morissette to Adele, from Taylor Swift to Gwen Stefani, from Christina Aguilera to Brandi Carlile, the charts are brimming with female artists as never before.  Under the pop radar are dozens of all-female bands knocking ’em dead in clubs everywhere. Lady Gaga and new sensations like Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard are ample proof that the ladies are now clearly as influential as the guys and have long since shunned the supporting role.

Tracy Chapman

As Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin sang in an exuberant 1985 duet:  “Now there was a time when they used to say that behind every great man, there had to be a great woman, but in these times of change, you know that’s no longer true, so we’re coming out of the kitchen, ’cause there’s something we forgot to say to you, Sisters are Doing it for Themselves, standing on their own two feet and ringing on their own bells…”

Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox

Lastly, an anomaly:  You have read here numerous times about the sturdy gang of Los Angeles session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, the anonymous musicians whose substantial talents were employed in recording hundreds of Top Ten hits in the 1960s and 1970s for everyone from The Byrds and The Beach Boys to the Righteous Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel.  Membership in the Wrecking Crew was all men…except for bassist Carol Kaye, easily the most ubiquitous bass player in the history of recorded music.  That immediately identifiable bass line on “The Beat Goes On” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”?  That’s hers.

Carol Kaye, bassist with The Wrecking Crew

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