The special love I have for you, my baby Blue

Babies, more than ten thousand of them, are born in this country every day. What’s the big deal?

Well, it’s a big deal, all right — probably the biggest deal — when it’s YOUR baby. Perhaps just as big a deal is when it’s your baby’s baby, and suddenly, you’re a grandparent!

My daughter, Emily, the talented singer/songwriter many of you know from YouTube and Spotify, had a seven-pound baby boy last week, and she and husband Mike have named him Blue. A colorful name, to be sure, and with a Joni Mitchell connection to boot! My wife Judy and I are so thrilled for them, of course, but also for ourselves, as we begin this exciting new chapter of life.

So for this week’s blog, I’ve assembled a collection of songs about babies. Most of these in the classic rock catalog were written about specific babies (their own or a relative’s baby) rather than babies in general. There are many hundreds of songs with “baby” in the title that are actually about girlfriends or boyfriends, so my list will instead focus on songs about real babies, or the children they grow into soon enough. There’s a Spotify playlist at the end, as usual.

Let’s celebrate the miracle of birth!

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“It’s a Boy,” The Who, 1969

At the beginning of The Who’s magnum opus “Tommy,” right after the “Overture,” there’s a brief track that announces the arrival of a baby son, which I felt was a fine way to kick off this set of songs. The rest of the story of Pete Townshend’s “Tommy” is full of traumas and setbacks that we needn’t go into here, but the album (and its single “Pinball Wizard”) proved to be huge commercial breakthroughs for The Who, reaching #4 on US charts and turning them into one of the top concert draws in their peak years.

“Lullaby Baby Blues,” Keb’ Mo’, 1996

Country blues singer/guitarist Kevin Moore adopted the ebonic stage name Keb’ Mo’ in 1990 and has won multiple Grammys for Best Contemporary Blues Album, including his third effort, “Just Like You,” in 1996. The closing track on that LP is this delicate blues ballad, written in honor of his nephew, then just a three-year-old: “Hush now, no need to talk, hear the ticking of the clock, /Stars that twinkle, stars that shine, dream and you’ll have wings to fly, /Goodnight baby blues, close your eyes, baby blues…”

“Beautiful Boy,” John Lennon, 1980

When Lennon’s son Sean was born in 1975, Lennon withdrew from the music business and public eye to spend full time raising the boy while his wife tended to business affairs. When the time came for John to return to the studio to record new songs, probably the best one he came up with was “Beautiful Boy,” sung to Sean to calm him after a nightmare. The lyrics profess his profound love for Sean, and contain the Allen Saunders quote, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”

“St. Judy’s Comet,” Paul Simon, 1973

Simon and first wife Peggy had a son named Harper in the autumn of 1972, just as Simon was writing the material that would comprise his hugely popular “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” LP (back cover shown). While “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock” received most of the airplay and attention, I’ve always been charmed by “St. Judy’s Comet,” a lovely song for his infant son, in which he whimsically sings, “If I can’t sing my boy to sleep, well it makes your famous daddy look so dumb, look so dumb…”

“Cry Baby Cry,” The Beatles, 1968

This is one of those expertly arranged tunes that makes The Beatles’ “White Album” so compelling. Lennon and McCartney (and Harrison too) wrote an engagingly diverse collection of songs while on retreat in India, and while Lennon said he thought “Cry Baby Cry” didn’t amount to much, I love the melody, chords and instrumentation, and John’s use of words from the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence” move the song along nicely.

“Too Busy Thinking ‘Bout My Baby,” Marvin Gaye, 1969

First recorded by The Temptations in 1966, this Motown classic by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong became a Top Five hit when Marvin Gaye recorded it in 1969. Although the song is actually about a woman rather than a baby, I’ve included it here because the lyrics work for both. The narrator doesn’t have time to think about money, or how flowers grow, or the weather, because “when it comes to thinkin’ about anything but my baby, I just don’t have the time…”

“Isn’t She Lovely,” Stevie Wonder, 1976

Among the most joyous songs Stevie Wonder ever wrote and recorded is this effervescent tribute to the birth of his daughter Aisha in 1976, whose first cry, captured at the time of birth, can be heard in the song’s introduction. He refused to edit the song’s six-minute running time, so it wasn’t released as a single, but it still received plenty of airplay: “Isn’t she lovely? Isn’t she wonderful? Isn’t she precious? Less than one minute old… I can’t believe what God has done, /Through us, He’s given life to one…”

“Baby Blue,” Badfinger, 1972

Guitarist Pete Ham wrote this upbeat rocker about a woman he once cared for, not a baby, but based on the title, I don’t see how I could omit it from the list! Indeed, I’ve used one line of lyric as this blog’s title. It ended up as Badfinger’s final hit, reaching #14 in 1972, and appears on their “Straight Up” LP. More recently, it was played in the background of the final scene of the final episode of the landmark “Breaking Bad” TV series in 2013.

“Danny’s Song,” Loggins and Messina, 1971

When Kenny Loggins was still in high school in 1966, he was moved to write a song for his brother Danny to commemorate the birth of Kenny’s nephew, Colin: “People smile and tell me I’m the lucky one, and we’ve just begun, think I’m gonna have a son…” Five years later, Loggins resurrected it for use on his debut LP with Jim Messina, “Sittin’ In,” and it became one of his most beloved tunes. The following year, Canadian singer Anne Murray recorded a cover version that reached the Top Ten on the US pop charts.

“Hush a Bye,” Livingston Taylor, 1970

Thanks to James Taylor’s mother Trudy, all of the children in the family had musical talent. They used to have “kitchen concerts” growing up in North Carolina, with brother Livingston on banjo and harmonies. In 1970, he won his own recording contract with Capricorn, and his debut LP, produced by Jon Landau, included his minor hit “Carolina Day,” sort of a companion tune to James’s “Carolina In My Mind.” Among the nine Livingston originals was the touching lullaby, “Hush a Bye.”

“The Greatest Discovery,” Elton John, 1970

Lyricist Bernie Taupin came up with an inventive spin on the birth of a baby by seeing it through the eyes of a curious toddler brother who wants to know why there’s so much excitement in the household. “The Greatest Discovery,” from the 1970 “Elton John” album, captures the moment the youngster first hears and sees the infant: “His puzzled head tipped to one side, amazement swims in those bright green eyes, /Glancing down upon this thing that makes strange sounds, strange sounds that sing…”

“Child of Mine,” Carole King, 1970

King, with her former husband Gerry Goffin, wrote many hit singles for an array of different artists in the 1960s, and had one of the biggest selling albums of all time, “Tapestry,” in 1971. Just prior to that LP, though, her debut album (“Writer”) was largely ignored, except for the pretty ballad “Child of Mine,” a song of hope to her daughter Louise, then ten years old: “I don’t want to hold you back, I just want to watch you grow… /Oh yes, sweet darling, so glad you are a child of mine…”

“Baby Mine,” Bette Midler, 1988

Written in 1940 for the Walt Disney animated film “Dumbo,” this old-fashioned ballad about a mother’s unconditional love has been recorded by numerous artists in more recent years, including Kenny Loggins and Art Garfunkel. I’m partial to the version Bette Midler rendered for the soundtrack of the poignant 1988 film “Beaches”: “Baby mine, don’t you cry, /Baby mine, dry your eyes, /Rest your head close to my heart, /Never to part, baby of mine…”

“Sweet Baby James,” James Taylor, 1970

In 1969, Taylor’s older brother Alex had a baby and named it after younger brother James, inspiring the singer-songwriter to write what he described as “a cowboy lullaby.” He came up with the words to “Sweet Baby James” while he was driving from Massachusetts to North Carolina to visit the infant. It became the title track to the album that put Taylor on the map: “Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose, won’t you let me go down in my dreams, and rock-a-bye, sweet baby James…”

“The Things We’ve Handed Down,” Marc Cohn, 1993

Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” was a Song of the Year Grammy nominee in 1991, and his 1993 sophomore LP, “The Rainy Season,” showed he was no flash in the pan, with 11 great original songs. The album closer perfectly captures the loving speculation of how a not-yet-born baby might turn out: “Will you laugh just like your mother? Will you sigh like your old man? Will some things skip a generation like I’ve heard they often can?  Are you a poet or a dancer, a devil or a clown, or a strange new combination of the things we’ve handed down?…” 

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For the coup-de-gras, they’re outrageous

It’s no secret among readers of this blog that I absolutely love Steely Dan. The seven albums Donald Fagen and Walter Becker put together during their initial run (1972-1980) are so consistently excellent as to defy comparison with any other artist of the same period, or maybe any period.

They started out as staff songwriters for ABC/Dunhill Records, but their songs were so idiosyncratic and quirky that no one else would touch them, so they formed their own group and recorded the songs themselves. They had hit singles right out of the gate — “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” — but Steely Dan fairly quickly evolved into a two-man studio outfit, with Fagen and Becker bringing in dozens of seasoned session musicians to record individual tracks.

The songs offered some of the most literate, enigmatic lyrics in the business — puzzling, alluring, always entertaining wordplay often centering on strange characters engaged in nefarious activities.

In another installment of my Hack’s Back Pages Lyrics Quizzes, I have selected 20 Steely Dan song lyrics for you to mull over. See how many you can identify, and then scroll down to see how well you did, and read a little about the meaning or circumstances behind each one. There is, as always, a Spotify playlist at there end so you can listen to these tracks again, perhaps more closely than before.

Rock on!

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1 “When you need a bit of lovin’ ’cause your man is out of town, /That’s the time you get me runnin’, and you know I’ll be around…”

2 “Tonight when I chase the dragon, the water may change to cherry wine…”

3 “Got a case of dynamite, I could hold out here all night, /Yes, I crossed my old man back in Oregon…”

4 “She’s the raw flame, the live wire, /She prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire…”

5 “Are you crazy? Are you high? Or just an ordinary guy? /Have you done all you can do?…”

6 “On that train, all graphite and glitter, undersea by rail, /Ninety minutes from New York to Paris, well, by ’76 we’ll be A-OK…”

7 “I stepped up on the platform, the man gave me the news, /He said, ‘You must be joking, son — Where did you get those shoes?’…”

8 “Hush, brother, we cross the square, act natural like you don’t care, /Turn slowly and comb your hair, don’t trouble the midnight air…”

9 “The girls don’t seem to care what’s on, as long as they play till dawn, /Nothin’ but blues and Elvis…”

10 “California tumbles into the sea, /That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale…”

11 “Honey, how you’ve grown, like a rose, /Well, we used to play when we were three…”

12 “You been tellin’ me you’re a genius since you were seventeen, /In all the time I’ve known you, I still don’t know what you mean…”

13 “So useless to ask me why, throw a kiss and say goodbye, /I’ll make it this time, /I’m ready to cross that fine line…”

14 “An independent station, WJAZ, with jazz and conversation from the foot of Mt. Belzoni…”

15 “We hear you’re leaving, that’s OK, I thought our little wild time had just begun…”

16 “All those day-glo freaks who used to paint the face, they’ve joined the human race, /Some things will never change…”

17 “Attention all shoppers, it’s Cancellation Day, /Yes, the ‘big adios’ is just a few hours away…”

18 “She’s a charmer like you never seen, singing ‘Voulez voulez voulez vous?’…”

19 “Then you love a little wild one, and she brings you only sorrow, /All the time you know she’s smilin’, you’ll be on your knees tomorrow…”

20 “The Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian make tonight a wonderful thing…”

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1 “Dirty Work,” from “Can’t Buy a Thrill” (1972)

Most Steely Dan songs are too enigmatic and non-commercial for other bands to consider covering, so the fact that a half-dozen other artists (Ian Matthews, Melissa Manchester, The Pointer Sisters) took a stab at “Dirty Work” tells you how conventional its structure is. Fagen, describing an affair between a single man and a married woman, didn’t want to sing it himself and so had vocalist David Palmer handle it on the band’s recording.

2 “Time Out of Mind,” from “Gaucho” (1980)

This immaculate track from “Gaucho,” which features the great Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits guesting on guitar, is a thinly veiled song about a young man’s first experience with heroin, introduced to him by a quasi-hipster who talks of “chasing the dragon.” Three years in the making, “Gaucho” has been maligned as “a yacht rock masterpiece” but is also considered “a classic lost in the shadow of ‘Aja’ and the changing tides of music in 1980.”

3 “Don’t Take Me Alive,” from “The Royal Scam” (1976)

Becker said this song was inspired by a series of news articles in Los Angeles about troubled people who barricaded themselves with a huge arsenal of weapons. The lyrics allude to the sense of fear and madness that the unhinged narrator feels (“A man of my mind can do anything,” “Here in this darkness, I know what I’ve done, I know all at once who I am“), creating one of the songwriters’ darkest vignettes on what is their most isolated, alienated album, “The Royal Scam.”

4 “Josie,” from “Aja” (1977)

Before they were signed to a recording contract, Becker and Fagen were hired as songwriters, and they cut demos of many of those tunes, some of which are available if you look for them. One is “Ida Lee,” with lyrics that resurfaced in a different way for “Josie,” which also focuses on a badass woman who returns to her old neighborhood with a few nefarious characters in tow. It ended up as an “Aja” single, reaching #26 in 1978.

5 “Doctor Wu,” from “Katy Lied” (1975)

Said Fagen about this irresistible song, “It’s about a love-and-drugs triangle. The girl meets somebody who leads another kind of life and she’s attracted to it. Then she comes under the spell of someone else, which ends or significantly alters the relationship. The someone else, in this case, is a drug habit, personified as Doctor Wu.” It’s probably the best track on “Katy Lied,” although there at least six others of similar worth competing with it.

6 “I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World),” from Donald Fagen’s “The Nightfly” (1982)

The International Geophysical Year (I.G.Y.) was an international scientific project in 1957-58 that promoted collaboration among the world’s scientists, presenting an optimistic vision of futuristic concepts such as solar powered cities, a transatlantic tunnel and permanent space stations. Fagen said he remembered being excited by the prospects of a “gleaming future,” and he wanted the song to offer an uplifting look back at that rosy promise.

7 “Pretzel Logic,” from “Pretzel Logic” (1974)

Fagen and Becker were both science fiction fans and fascinated by the idea of time travel. The lyrics of this superb blues shuffle mention different time periods that were of interest to the songwriters — the American South during the time of minstrel shows in the late 1800s, and the years when Napoleon ruled France before he lost his mind. The reference to “the platform” was the teleportation device that would send them off to other centuries.

8 “Chain Lightning,” from “Katy Lied” (1975)

I went bonkers for the “Katy Lied” album when it came out, and always loved the groove of this track even if I didn’t really know what the lyrics were getting at. Fagen and Becker rarely talked about their lyrics back then, but more recently, Fagen has been more forthcoming. Turns out it’s about two scenes, 40 years apart: The first verse describes a well-attended fascist rally during Hitler’s reign, while the second verse depicts a revisiting of the same site decades later for guilty reminiscence.

9 “FM (No Static at All),” from the soundtrack for the film “FM” (1978)

The film “FM” bombed, but its soundtrack album was a multi-platinum success, led by Fagen and Becker’s marvelous title track. The phrase “no static at all” served as an FM station slogan but also underscored how FM radio by then had become more predictable than in the freewheeling days when deejays wielded more control over what was aired. Some AM stations refused to play a song that touted FM radio, but it still managed to reach #22 on US pop charts.

10 “My Old School,” from “Countdown to Ecstasy” (1973)

Fagen and Becker met in college in 1968 at Bard College, and their experiences there proved to be rich fodder for “My Old School,” with its comical sarcasm about never going back to Annandale, the city on the Hudson River where Bard is located. The lyrics use both factual and fictionalized anecdotes about a campus drug bust and the ensuing fallout for the songwriters and some of their friends. It was released as a single but inexplicably stalled at #63 in 1973.

11 “Cousin Dupree,” from “Two Against Nature” (2000)

Twenty years after Steely Dan’s last album, “Gaucho,” the duo at last reconvened to produce “Two Against Nature,” which, while not as strong as their Seventies work, still won the Album of the Year Grammy in 2001. By far the best track is the lyrically creepy “Cousin Dupree,” which tells the tale of a deadbeat relative who harbors lust for his younger cousin, hoping she’ll reciprocate the feelings, to no avail. “How about a kiss for your cousin Dupree,” indeed…

12 “Reelin’ in the Years,” from “Can’t Buy a Thrill” (1972)

The lyrics to this iconic classic rocker amount to a conversation between a man and woman who were once a couple but the woman fell for someone else. The man belittles his ex (“You wouldn’t even known a diamond if you held it in your hand“) while she points out it was his ego that she couldn’t abide (“You’ve been telling me you were a genius since you were seventeen“). A sizzling Elliott Randall guitar solo and full-bodied chorus helped lift this song to #11 on the charts.

13 “Deacon Blues,” from “Aja” (1977)

Fagen was watching football one fall afternoon and made an observation: “If a college football team like the University of Alabama could have a grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, then the nerds and losers should be entitled to a grandiose name as well.” Borrowing the name Deacon from Pro Bowl star Deacon Jones, he came up with the title character, who Becker said was “a broken man with a broken dream leading a broken life.”

14 “The Nightfly,” from Donald Fagen’s “The Nightfly” (1982)

As a kid, Fagen had always loved listening to jazz on late-night radio, and dreamed of becoming a deejay someday. He never did that gig, but this track from his solo album of the same name provides, as writer Arthur Phillips put it, “a portrait of a late-night D.J. in Baton Rouge, taking lunatic phone calls from listeners, smoking Chesterfield cigarettes and drinking coffee, all the while silently battling his own loneliness and regret.”

15 “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” from “Pretzel Logic” (1974)

Steely Dan’s highest-charting single (#4) is about a real person Fagen knew in college. Rikki Ducornet was a novelist and the pregnant wife of a member of the Bard faculty, and Fagen had a big enough crush on her that he gave her his phone number in the hopes that she would call. “He thought I was cute,” she recalled, “and I thought he was brilliant. I never did call him, though.” She moved to France, and upon her return to the US, she was stunned to hear Fagen’s voice singing her name on the radio.

16 “Kid Charlemagne,” from “The Royal Scam” (1976)

This arresting portrait of a Bay Area drug dealer is loosely based on infamous LSD manufacturer Augustus Owsley Stanley, with lyrics that make overt references to his reputation and how it can all come crashing down: “You were the best in town,” “Yours was kitchen clean,” “You are obsolete,” “You are still an outlaw in their eyes.” Jazz guitarist Larry Carlton takes this tune to another level with some of the finest soloing you’ll find anywhere in The Dan’s catalog.

17 “The Last Mall,” from “Everything Must Go” (2003)

Becker and Fagen had always been intrigued by stories involving the apocalypse having g grown up in the age of bomb shelters and air raid drills. How typical of them to write a song making light of the fact that people might prepare for the end of the world by making one last outing to the shopping mall. It’s arguably the best track on their lackluster 2003 follow-up to “Two Against Nature,” which brought the Steely Dan studio album collection to a close.

18 “Pearl of the Quarter,” from “Countdown to Ecstasy” (1973)

This charming tune from the underrated “Countdown to Ecstasy” album may be the only one in Steely Dan’s catalog that qualifies as a love song. The narrator confesses that the prostitute from New Orleans — the “pearl of the (French) Quarter” — has captured his heart, and he reassures her she’ll always have “a place to go” if she chooses to retire from her profession. It was written in the duo’s early days, passed over for the debut LP, then resurrected in 1973. Sweet pedal steel guitar by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.

19 “Do It Again,” from “Can’t Buy a Thrill” (1972)

Right from the get-go, for the song that introduced the world to Steely Dan, the lyrics of Fagen and Becker were populated with outlaws and malcontents. The central character is arrested for murder but is let off easy, only to “go back, Jack, do it again,” turning to gambling and sex addiction, showing himself to be unable to change his ways. The Latin-flavored song made it to #6 on US pop charts in the winter of 1972-73, setting the stage for a long line of outliers and mavericks in the group’s lyrics.

20 “Hey Nineteen,” from “Gaucho” (1980)

When Becker and Fagen wrote this catchy tune about an older man dating a much younger woman, they were in their early 30s, so a generation gap between themselves and a 19-year-old could still be felt: “She don’t remember the Queen of Soul,” “No, we got nothing in common,” “No, we can’t talk at all.” The age difference between the two characters makes you wonder whether the tequila and the cocaine that “make tonight a wonderful thing” were being used by the man alone after the woman ditched him…

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The Spotify playlist includes all 20 songs featured in the lyrics quiz, in order.