Better get your coat, dear, looks like rain

I have zero interest in provoking a debate about climate change. It’s undeniable that damaging “weather events” have been occurring with much greater frequency and intensity nationwide and worldwide in recent years. All I know is, it has sparked my interest in identifying artists who have written about harsh weather in their song lyrics.

I’ve already examined songs about rain (there are hundreds), but I’m not talking about soft summer showers this time. I’m looking at really bad weather — everything from lightning storms to floods, from hurricanes to blizzards, from tornadoes to major wildfires.

I guess it’s good news to announce that there aren’t a lot of songs out there about disastrous weather. Maybe it’s too depressing a topic. Most who have tackled it have written about how storms (or stormy situations) eventually end, and there’s hope in the aftermath.

I’ve come up with a list of 15 weather-related songs I’d like my readers to become familiar with — great tunes with lyrics that focus, either literally or metaphorically, on the dread and the damage caused by storms of many kinds.

As is customary in this blog, I have included a Spotify playlist at the end, with some “honorable mentions” that just missed the list of featured songs.

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“Ridin’ the Storm Out,” R.E.O. Speedwagon, 1973

Before they became commercially successful as a more pop-oriented group with their “Hi-Infidelity” LP in 1981, R.E.O. Speedwagon was a hard-driving Midwestern rock band out of Illinois, playing clubs and small venues throughout the Great Lakes region and in pockets as far west as Colorado. Their first two albums in 1971 and 1972 stiffed, but their third just barely made the charts thanks to some FM radio airplay for its rollicking title track, “Ridin’ the Storm Out.” It was written early in ’73 when the band was snowbound near Boulder during a blizzard: “Ridin’ the storm out, waitin’ for the thaw out, on a full moon night in the Rocky Mountain winter…”

“The Blizzard,” Judy Collins, 1990

Collins made her name in the early-mid 1960s as part of the Greenwich Village folk music circuit, singing cover versions of classic and new acoustic songs, and had her breakthrough Top Ten hit in 1968 with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” She enjoyed periodic success throughout the ’70s, then slipped a bit in the ’80s until a superb return to form with 1990’s “Fires of Eden.” It opens with one of only a few original songs in Collins’s career, the dramatic story-song “The Blizzard,” which, coincidentally, was about the same Colorado mountain that R.E.O. sang about, where impassable snowstorms are evidently commonplace. She tells her account of her experience hunkering down in a diner with a couple of good-hearted strangers, and offers a reaffirming conclusion as well:

“Said the owner, ‘There’s a big storm on the mountain, good thing we’re open, we could be here for hours, /There’s nothing for miles and it’s too late to get to Denver, /Better not try for the summit tonight…’

“When the world leaves you shivering, and the blizzard blows, /When the snow flies and the night falls, /There’s a light in the window and a place called home at the end of the storm…”

“Electrical Storm,” U2, 2002

When U2 released their second greatest hits compilation, “The Best of 1990–2000,” they included two new tracks, one of which was “Electrical Storm.” It’s a solid U2 song and was rightly released as a single, but inexplicably, it stalled at #77 in the U.S. while it reached #1 in Canada and #5 in the UK. The band recorded two official versions of the tune, one labeled “band version” and one known as “William Orbit Mix,” which took a more toned-down approach. I find British producer Orbit’s take more aurally pleasing and have included it in the playlist. Bono wrote lyrics that effectively equated the tension of quarreling lovers with an impending thunderstorm: “Well, if the sky can crack, there must be someway back to love and only love, electrical storm, baby don’t cry…”

“Texas Flood,” Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1983

Blues music was much in vogue in the late ’60s and well into the ’70s but was no longer holding sway in the early ’80s. Still, there were always newcomers like Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Austin, Texas-based blues guitarist whose 1983 debut LP, “Texas Flood,” made stars like David Bowie take notice who featured Vaughan on his “Let’s Dance” album the same year. Tragically, Vaughan died in a 1990 helicopter crash just as he was achieving the fame he’d hoped for, but he left a superb recorded catalog as his legacy. The blues standard “Texas Flood,” written in 1958 by Larry Davis, became Vaughan’s first single. Davis wrote about how floods prevented him from reaching his girl: “Well, dark clouds are rollin’ in, man, I’m standin’ out in the rain, /Yeah, flood water keep a-rollin’, man, it’s about to drive poor me insane…”

“Bad Weather,” Emily Hackett, 2014

My daughter Emily was collaborating with fellow songwriters Adam James and (future husband) Mikey Reaves when they came up with the idea of drawing a parallel between bad weather and bad relationships. “Sometimes bad weather hits us when we’re not prepared for it, and that can happen with lovers who come back into our lives when they’re not wanted,” she said. The song appeared on her 2014 release “The Raw EP,” which adopts a certain vulnerability in its sound and lyrical themes. “Bad Weather” warns of the need to protect yourself if and when an old flame re-enters your life: “Just when I was healing, feeling good again, I shoulda known you’d come blowing back in, /Boarded all the windows, bolted all the doors, just to keep my heart far away from yours… Now I know, now I know you’re just bad weather…”

“American Storm,” Bob Seger, 1986

Let Seger himself tell the story behind this tune: “People who do drugs probably recognized it right away. That song isn’t from my experience, but from observing the experiences of those around me. I’m no saint, but I’ve never had a serious drug problem. I thought it was a bad thing 30 years ago, but it’s gotten worse. It’s a world problem now.” He said that he would hear coke users talk about “a snowstorm in my nose” and thought he’d use the storm metaphor to describe the struggles of drug addiction. As the lead single from his “Like a Rock” album, it was his 15th Top 20 single, reaching #13: “It’s like a full force gale, an American storm, /You’re buried beneath a mountain of cold, and you never get warm…”

“Before the Deluge,” Jackson Browne, 1974

Browne seemed wise beyond his years from the very beginning, writing world-weary classics like “These Days” when he was only 16. On his poignant third LP, “Late For the Sky,” he penned several sad songs about a friend who died, a relationship that ended too soon and a feeling of missed opportunities. Perhaps most notably, he wrote “Before the Deluge,” which used the Biblical story of the great flood to bemoan the future of Planet Earth and Man’s poor stewardship of it. It’s one of the earliest songs in popular music that warns of a coming apocalypse due to our own negligence: “On the brave and crazy wings of youth, they went flying around in the rain, /And their feathers, once so fine, grew torn and tattered, /And in the end, they traded their tired wings for the resignation that living brings, /And exchanged love’s bright and fragile glow for the glitter and the rouge, /And in the moment, they were swept before the deluge…”

“Avalanche,” Beth Neilsen Chapman, 1990

Chapman is one of my favorite singer-songwriters of the ’90s and since. Her well-crafted songs became hits for a broad range of country and pop singers over the years, from Trisha Yearwood and Willie Nelson to Bette Midler and Bonnie Raitt. Her eponymous debut album from 1990 includes some of her best work, as she writes tenderly and with firm resolve about relationships and life events: “Life Holds On,” “That’s the Easy Part,” “Years,” “Walk My Way” and “All I Have.” Also on that gorgeous LP is a tune called “Avalanche,” in which Chapman describes the heartbreak of a romantic breakup as an overwhelming avalanche of painful emotions: “I wasn’t ready for the avalanche when we let things slide, /I wasn’t ready for the words you chose when you said goodbye, or just how suddenly the roads could close between your life and mine…”

“When the Levee Breaks,” Led Zeppelin, 1971

In 1929, blues singer Lizzie “Memphis Minnie” Harris collaborated with Kansas Joe McCoy to write and record this song about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which devastated 25,000 square miles, killed hundreds and displaced several hundred thousand residents. It was written as an acoustic blues, but when Jimmy Page got a hold of it in 1971, he turned it into a thunderous stomp that more closely reflected the havoc created by the flood. Page’s riffs and Plant’s vocals and harmonica do justice to the song’s roots, but John Bonham’s drums in particular are positively cataclysmic on this track. Minnie’s lyrics spoke of the destruction and consequences in stark terms: “If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break, when the levee breaks, I’ll have no place to stay, /Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good, when the levee breaks, mama, you got to move…”

“Thunder and Lightning,” Chi Coltrane, 1972

Hailing from Racine, Wisconsin, Coltrane (no relation to jazz legend John) showed early promise as a pianist, singer and songwriter. She formed a jazz-blues band called Chicago Coltrane that attracted the attention of Columbia Records, who signed her to a contract in 1972. She found considerable success with her debut single, “Thunder and Lightning,” which reached #17 on US pop charts in the fall of ’72. When things dried up for her here, she moved to Europe and found success there on Teldec Records well into the ’80s. On her only US hit, she found the excitement of infatuation to be thrilling but scary, like a lightning storm: “I don’t know how to handle it, it’s more than I would dare, /I wouldn’t try to run from it, it reaches everywhere, /Thunder and lightning, ooh yeah, I tell you it’s frightening…”

“Like a Hurricane,” Neil Young, 1977

In 1975, Young was recuperating from vocal cord surgery and was told to refrain from singing for several months, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to write songs, including this simple but scorching rocker. “Like a Hurricane” was written in the back of a car during an evening of barhopping. According to a friend, Young met and became obsessed with a girl he met at one bar, and wrote this couplet about her: “You are like a hurricane, there’s calm in your eye.” When Young and his band returned to his ranch, they started jamming on the song, which started sounding like a metaphorical hurricane with plenty of furious guitar soloing. He eventually added more words about the woman and her effect on him: “I’m gettin’ blown away to somewhere safer where the feeling stays, /I want to love you but I’m getting blown away…” Two years later, the song was recorded for his “American Stars ‘n Bars” LP and became a concert favorite on every tour thereafter.

“Stormy Weather,” Etta James, 1960

Songwriting great Harold Arlen, the man behind the timeless music of “The Wizard of Oz,” combined forces with lyricist Ted Koehler in 1933 to compose “Stormy Weather,” one of the all-time best torch songs. First performed and recorded in 1933, it was later popularized by Lena Horne and then Billie Holiday. My favorite version is the one by Etta James, recorded in 1960 for her “At Last” album. A broad range of artists from Frank Sinatra to Joni Mitchell have also taken a shot at it in more recent decades. In the lyrics, a woman bemoans the loss of her lover, pining for his return, and dealing with miserable weather (literally and figuratively) in his absence: “Life is bare, gloom and misery everywhere, /Stormy weather, just can’t get my poor self together, /I’m weary all the time…”

“Here Comes the Flood,” Peter Gabriel, 1977

The former front man of British prog rock heroes Genesis began his solo career in 1977 with a strong album of mesmerizing music and enigmatic lyrical themes. The sprightly “Solsbury Hill” received most of the attention as the hit single in the UK and on FM radio here. Gabriel has always said he is most fond of “Here Comes the Flood” from this album, although he regretted that he allowed its soundscape-like passages to be overproduced. Lyrically, it is more direct, with Gabriel offering words that speak bluntly about what happens when flood waters arrive: “When the flood calls, you have no home, you have no walls, /In the thunder crash, you’re a thousand minds within a flash, /Don’t be afraid to cry at what you see…”

“Weather in My Head,” Donald Fagen, 2012

In contrast to the more cryptic lyrics he was known for when writing the Steely Dan catalog with partner Walter Becker, Fagen’s words on some of his solo albums are more obvious. On his 2012 LP “Sunken Condos,” there’s a very catchy tune called “Weather in My Head” that makes excellent use of nasty weather motifs to depict a relationship that has ended and how it has messed with his emotional balance: “Girl, when you hurt me, when you told those lies, it’s like a typhoon exploded behind my eyes… The air is boiling, sun on my back, inside I’m frozen, girl, I’m about to crack, /They may fix the weather in the world just like Mr. Gore said, /But tell me, what’s to be done
Lord, ’bout the weather in my head…”

“Riders on the Storm,” The Doors, 1971

The sound of thunder reverberating, and of rain hitting pavement, are utilized throughout The Doors’ haunting swan song, the unforgettable “Riders on the Storm,” which closes their last album with Jim Morrison, 1971’s “L.A. Woman.” The song creeps along like a slowly approaching storm, with Ray Manzarek’s immediately identifiable keyboard and Morrison’s commanding vocals dominating the proceedings. The lyrics warn about picking up hitchhikers and staying safe when the weather turns vile: “If you give this man a ride, sweet memory will die, /Killer on the road… Into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown, /Like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan, /Riders on the storm…”

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Honorable mention:

Bad Weather,” Poco, 1971; “Lightnin’ Strikes,” Lou Christie, 1966; “Down in the Flood,” Bob Dylan and The Band, 1972; “Thunder and Lightning,” Phil Collins, 1981; “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” The Scorpions, 1984; “Shotgun Down the Avalanche,” Shawn Colvin, 1989; “Lost in the Flood,” Bruce Springsteen, 1973; “Thunder and Lightning,” Thin Lizzy, 1983; “Storms,” Fleetwood Mac, 1979; “I Feel the Earth Move,” Carole King, 1971; “Shelter From the Storm,” Bob Dylan, 1975; “Lightning Crashes,” Live, 1992.

Lord knows I’m a voodoo chile

(First published May 2016)

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to musical artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary body of work who made an enormous impact and have a compelling life story to tell.  Some have careers that span many decades; others rocketed to stardom and then left us far too soon.  In this essay, I take a closer look at a man who is perhaps the greatest instrumental genius in rock music history — Jimi Hendrix.

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In the late 1960s, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, John Lennon, Keith Richards — the recognized elite of British rock guitarists — all were at the peak of their game.  And they were all in agreement about one thing:  There was no one better than Jimi Hendrix.

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This visually arresting , flamboyantly dressed black man from the States had showed up in London in late 1966, playing the guitar left-handed, behind his back, with his teeth, with his feet, on the floor, but mostly producing an otherworldly yet beautiful sound, and nobody had ever seen or heard anything like him.  He was intriguing, shocking, even vaguely threatening.  He was, without a doubt, the real deal.

“The effect he had on English musicians – -not just guitarists, but all musicians — was just phenomenal,” said Townshend.  “I, for one, was completely floored the first time I heard him.  He was taking rock, blues, soul and jazz and mixing it with feedback and weird noises he seemed to pull out of the air.  It was completely different, so outrageous, so revolutionary…and it was spectacular.”

In the 60-year history of rock music, you can count on one hand the number of musicians who have had the earthshaking impact that Hendrix had during his all too brief time in the public spotlight.  He seemed to come out of nowhere to take first England and then the U.S. by storm, rewriting the book on what an electric guitar could sound like, both on record and in concert.  And then, four years after his arrival, he was gone, dead at 27 from a tragic “misadventure” with drugs.

Hendrix was an enigmatic figure in a number of ways.  His troubled upbringing and unstable family life in and around Seattle made it difficult for him to maintain the healthy relationships later in life he so desperately wanted.  His mother was absent for most of his childhood and died when he was 16; his father raised him halfheartedly and was a far cry from a solid role model.  Early run-ins with the law led him to enlist in the Army at 18 to avoid jail time.

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Throughout his adolescence and young adulthood, however, Hendrix developed and nurtured a passion for the guitar, practicing every spare moment, and performing alone and in combos at dances, parties, clubs, road houses, every available opportunity.  Upon discharge from the Army, he headed for Nashville and performed relentlessly on the “chitlin circuit” in bands fronted by Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, and Curtis Knight as part of R&B and blues revues that featured stars like Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and Solomon Burke.

His desire for the limelight and the chance to grow led him to New Jersey and New York, where he assembled his own bands — “Jimmy James and the Blue Flames” — but continued to struggle until Chas Chandler, former bass player in the British blues band The Animals now interested in managing, saw him perform at Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village.  “I was looking for someone to represent, and I thought, someone must’ve already signed this guy, because he was just stunning,” Chandler recalled.  “But no one was doing anything for him, so I persuaded him to come back to London with me to audition musicians for a new group.”

In short order, Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums were selected to be in the three-man band to be known as The Jimi Hendrix Experience.  “I always liked that idea,” Hendrix wrote in his journal, “that seeing us and hearing us would be an experience.”  Word quickly spread that there was an amazing new sensation making the rounds of the Soho clubs, and the trio’s debut single, “Hey Joe,” zoomed up the charts to #4, firmly establishing Hendrix as a force to be reckoned with.  Chandler, knowing that songwriting royalties were where the money was, urged Hendrix to write his own material, but little did he know how astonishing those songs would be.

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The release of the Experience’s debut album “Are You Experienced?” in May 1967 was, in its own way, as seismic an event as the release of The Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper” LP a month later.  Original material ranged from the cataclysmic “Purple Haze” and “Foxy Lady” to the tender “The Wind Cries Mary” and the psychedelic experiments of “Third Stone From the Sun” and the title song, and the overall effect was almost overwhelming.  You could make the case that Hendrix’s LP has more relevance today than “Pepper,” at least in terms of influence on the musical artists in the decades that have followed.

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Much has been written about Hendrix’s incendiary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, where the California musical elite and many thousands of concertgoers were present for America’s first Experience with Jimi.  In hindsight, the attention-getting gimmicks — humping his amplifier, setting his guitar on fire, bashing it to pieces as he walked off stage — would come back to haunt him, as fans continued to clamor for such silliness long after Hendrix had tired of these things.  Far more important was the fact that the debut album, and each subsequent LP released during his lifetime, went Top Five in the US and the UK, cementing his reputation as a genuine star.

I can’t write about Hendrix without mentioning one of the most bizarre moves in music promotion history. Following Monterey, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees had become so captivated with Hendrix that he pulled strings to get The Experience booked as the supporting act on a leg of The Monkees’ upcoming tour.  At the time, they were the most popular act in the country, selling more units than The Beatles and Stones combined, but their audience couldn’t have been more different from Hendrix’s followers.  “It was a lunatic idea, doomed from the start,” notes Mitchell.  “We typically attracted the rebels, the hippies, the runaways looking for something radical and new.  But these audiences were filled with inexperienced suburban 10-year-old girls and their parents, and they didn’t like us at all.  It was a disaster, and we were soon released from the contract.”

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Hendrix, meanwhile, was interested in stretching the boundaries, exploring new territory and melding different genres and elements in his music.  As he wrote in his journals, “I liked to experiment with different instrumentation, keeping the basic trio but adding other musicians.  I want to create new sounds, try to transmit my dreams to the audience.  Music must always continue to expand further out, further away.  Kids listen with open minds, and I don’t want to give them the same things all the time.”

Hendrix’s next LPs — “Axis: Bold as Love” and especially the double-album opus “Electric Ladyland” — were mind-benders of the first order, both musically and lyrically.  Some critics found some of it self-indulgent and excessive, which it probably was — the 13-minute exploratory track “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” comes to mind.  But he would soon evolve further, moving on to other avenues.

Engineer Eddie Kramer remembers Hendrix being captivated by the recording studio.  “He became much more involved in the mixing process.  I would show him about echo and compression, and panning and phasing, and he’d get so excited about the possibilities.  There was nothing he wouldn’t try.  To him, recording was fun.”

Hendrix often mentioned his frustration about the songs he had in his head that he couldn’t seem to translate to the guitar, and then to tape.  Nevertheless, his songwriting became more nuanced and compelling, as shown in songs like “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” “Room Full of Mirrors” and the beautiful “Little Wing,” which several people have recorded since, including Sting in 1987.  “Most people remember his guitar playing, which was unforgettable, but his songwriting was surprisingly adept.  I tried performing ‘Little Wing’ in a small club and it went really well, so I recorded it as a tribute to Jimi.”

Kathy Etchingham, Hendrix’s girlfriend at the time, recalls his admiration of and devotion to the music of Bob Dylan.  “He loved Dylan’s music and always wished he could write songs of that caliber.  He used to play them around the flat, and he thought about recording “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ from the ‘John Wesley Harding’ album, but he resisted, saying it was too personal a song.  I persuaded him to take a stab at ‘All Along the Watchtower’ instead, which he did.  And he totally enjoyed playing that one.”  Hendrix’s radically different arrangement ended up being his only appearance on the US Top 40 singles chart, peaking at #20 in the fall of 1968.

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The Experience toured the US and Europe relentlessly in 1968 and 1969, performing savage versions of blues songs like “Red House” and “Tax Free” and more concise tracks like “I Don’t Live Today” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”  In August of 1969, he was the highest paid rock star in the world when he appeared as the final act on the three-day extravaganza at Woodstock, where his apocalyptic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” became one of the iconic moments of the counterculture’s anti-war movement.

His restlessness led to the eventual dismissal of Redding and, later, Mitchell, replacing them with Billy Cox and Buddy Miles, known as his Band of Gypsys, who played gigs in 1969 and 1970, including a memorable New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden which was recorded for the live “Band of Gypsys” LP.

In between these tours, Hendrix literally lived in studios in New York and London, amassing hundreds and hundreds of hours of tapes of alternate takes, loose jam sessions, unfinished songs and, in a few instances, completed tracks that weren’t released until many years later.  Two albums of this material — “The Cry of Love” and “Rainbow Bridge” — were released the year after his death, and the ambitious double album he’d been working on in 1970, “First Rays of the New Rising Sun,” didn’t see the light of day until 1997.  Still more high-quality recordings have continued to trickle out posthumously, most notably “Valleys of Neptune” (2010) and “People, Hell and Angels” (2013).

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An interesting, articulate, intelligent guy, Hendrix was also too naive and trusting.  Although he appeared supremely confident on stage, he was often unsure of himself in relationships and business matters, which proved to be his undoing.  He was embroiled in a number of lawsuits over contract disputes and other matters that weighed heavily on him emotionally, and he sometimes self-medicated to escape.  Even worse, the sycophants, hangers-on and questionable lady friends he surrounded himself with took advantage of his innocent “free spirit” tendencies, pushing and pulling him in all directions, often working in conflict with his best interests.

Kramer added, “By the end, the recording studio had begun to lose its magic for him.  He wanted to be taken much more seriously as a musician.  He was growing as an artist and he felt his audience wasn’t growing along with him.  It was a source of great frustration for him.”

Suffice it to say his death from asphyxiation following an ill-advised dosage of sleeping pills in September 1970 was not only avoidable but a regrettable waste of monumental talent and potential.  His journals hint at his plans for the future:  “My initial success was a step in the right direction, but it was only a step.  Now I intend to get into many other things.  In five years, I want to write some plays and some books.  I want to write mythology stories set to music, based on a planetary thing and my own imagination.  It wouldn’t be like classical music, but I’d use strings and harps, with extreme and opposite musical textures, with great contrasts.”

Although he left us some incredible recordings to enjoy (check out my picks on the Spotify playlist below), it’s clear that Jimi Hendrix had only scratched the surface.  I can’t help but wonder what kind of music he would’ve been creating in the 1970s…or the 1980s…or beyond.  Of all the rock stars who left us too soon, I think I’m most saddened about Jimi.  Imagine what he might have accomplished…

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