“I Think I’m Going Back…” Five pieces of music that moved me in 2022

Son Little / Like Neptune
It’s as if Shuggie Otis walked into a recording studio in the middle of a nodded-out Sly Stone session and found Bruce Langhorne in the corner making his sound tapestries for Dennis Hopper’s The Hired Hand. It sounds like the 60s, now, as modern as tomorrow, as old as yesterday. I bought ten copies to give to friends I thought might like it. It’s that good.

Aimee Mann / Queens of the Summer Hotel 
Asked by Barbara Broccoli to write a musical based on Suzanne Keyser’s astonishing memoir, Girl Interrupted, Mann delivered something that was simultaneously beautiful, funny and heartbreaking. The music didn’t lose Mann’s very particular melodic sensibility while still convincing as being Off-Broadway bound. Powered by piano and double bass and Paul Bryan’s glorious string arrangements, the songs swirl and swoon and spotlight the deeper, creepy undercurrents of the story. The lyrics were non-pareil, conjuring episodes and anecdotes into smart verses and punchy choruses. One song, “Suicide is Murder”, contains the greatest lyrics I heard this year. If it doesn’t reach The Great White Way, then no matter. It’s 40 minutes of shimmering perfection, doing justice to a unique book.

Alison Russell / Outside Child [May 2021, sent to me by T.C. this year]
Awful subject matter exorcised through sublime French Americana, with her clarinet and banjo as a thread that draws the narrative on. Written by Russell and JT Nero, her partner, it’s recorded [mostly] live in Nashville and beautifully produced and mixed by Dan Knobler. Her fluid and beautiful voice takes the listener from childhood in Montreal to motherhood in Nashville. I can’t improve on Joe Henry’s words: “Outside Child draws water from the dark well of a violent past. Though iron-hard in their concerns, the songs themselves are exultant: exercising haunted dreamlike clean bedsheets snapped and hung out into broad daylight, and with the romantic poet’s lust for living and audacity of endurance. This music, no less –– no less –– is a triumph: a courageous work, burnished and bright; unspeakably beautiful as she sings the unspeakable.”

Harry Styles / “As it Was”
My favourite working music was, hands down, Harry’s House. It’s light and free, full of affection and glide. Plentiful earworms and, like bronze-dye pasta’s way with a sauce, just enough roughness to delicately catch your ear without fully distracting. Top of the pops was the single “As it Was”, which I must have played 200 times and still love. It filled the same place in the summer as Lorde’s Solar [“Lead the boys and girls onto the beaches / Come one, come all, I’ll tell you my secrets / I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus…”] did last year. I originally listened to Harry because I was intrigued that he’d hired Sarah Jones as his live drummer — I figured that showed he had good taste. I had seen her playing with Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip at the RFH, where he supported Lonnie Holley and was hypnotised by her drumming. While his acting appearances have been all-around awful, his way with a pop tune and his choice of collaborators has been impeccable.

Bryan Ferry / “Where or When” [As Time Goes By, 1999]
Found in a junkshop, Ferry’s Jazz Age album uses a fine group of musicians arranged by pianist Colin Good. I don’t remember hearing Rodgers and Hart’s beautiful song before I put this CD on, which seems mad, as it’s one of the most-covered songs in the GAS. It’s a gorgeous meditation on Deja Vu from Babes in Arms, a 1937 musical which also gave the crooners of the day “Lady is a Tramp”, “I Wish I Were in Love Again”, and My Funny Valentine. Some hit rate… I obviously went and listened to 25 versions, including the hit by Dion and the Belmonts’ (written about as the last chapter of Bob’s bizarre Philosophy of Modern Song), but none of them touched me like Ferry’s. It creeps in on the back of an ondes martenot played by the brilliant Cynthia Millar; as Bob says, “the swirling dreamlike quality of Rodgers’ tune gives the listener a feeling of time as mysterious and complex as anything by Stephen Hawking”.The ondes, somewhat like a keyboard-based theremin, give an uncanny and sensual air to the melody. Ferry takes the song gently in his cupped hands and sings it in a bruised whisper, hushingly alighting on the melody, encapsulating the gauzy reverie of the lyric. Beautiful.

* The ondes Martenot [“Martenot waves”] is an early electronic musical instrument. It is played with a keyboard or by moving a ring along a wire, creating “wavering” sounds similar to a theremin. It was invented in 1928 by the French inventor Maurice Martenot. Martenot was inspired by the accidental overlaps of tones between military radio oscillators and wanted to create an instrument with the expressiveness of the cello.

Christmas Song/2022

This year’s offering is a version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane in 1943 for the film, Meet Me in St. Louis.

It first appeared in a scene in which a family is troubled by plans to move to New York City, leaving behind their beloved home in St. Louis. In a scene on Christmas Eve, Judy Garland’s character, Esther, sings the song to cheer up her despondent five-year-old sister, played by Margaret O’Brien. When presented with the original draft lyric, Garland, her co-star Tom Drake and director Vincente Minnelli criticized the song as depressing and asked Martin to change the lyrics. 

Though he initially resisted, Martin made several changes to make the song more upbeat. As Martin tells it, he initially baulked at changing the words. “They said, ‘It’s so dreadfully sad.’ I said, ‘I thought the girls were supposed to be sad in that scene.’ They said, ‘Well, not that sad.’ And Judy was saying, ‘If I sing that to that sweet little Margaret O’Brien, they’ll think I’m a monster!’ And she was quite right, but it took me a long time to get over my pride. Finally, Tom Drake [the young male lead], a friend, convinced me. He said, ‘You stupid son of a b—-! You’re gonna foul up your life if you don’t write another verse of that song!’”

In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked Martin to revise the line, “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” He told Martin, “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” Martin’s new line was “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

So, what I’ve done here is cast a pall over the Holiday Season. Sorry about that. However, it does have a more hopeful-sounding coda where I try to lift the gloom. On that note, all good Christmas wishes to all who follow Five Things, wherever you are in this world. In 2023, I’m going to post every two weeks. I won’t, however, be changing the name to Five Things I Saw and Heard this Fortnight…

Vagabond Shoes: New York Snapshots, August 3rd

There was music in the air during the five days we spent in New York at the beginning of July. But first, a visit to Manchester in 1964, courtesy of our friend Rick. He and Liney had taken us to a favourite dive bar (the 169 Bar) on the Lower East Side. It has a leopard-print pool table — that may be all you need to know. We had a great conversation with the bartender, Dakota, about Ross Macdonald, who he was re-reading and had decided was the apex of the knight errant-as-detective genre started by Hammett and carried on by Chandler. Macdonald’s a favourite of mine, so I was willing to entertain this point of view. Rick mentioned a favourite Dion song, “Your Own Back Yard”, about kicking booze and drugs. I say there was a great letter from Dion in the Lou Reed exhibition (see below) and note to listen to the track when I can. I find it on Born to Be with You and a nice live version from Dion’s post-doo-wop career as a Greenwich Village folkster, which I send to Rick. Here’s his story, featuring what may be Britain’s finest street name…

{ONE} A LEVEL BLUES. It’s getting late, but I’ve just listened to the 1971 Dion Bitter End album. Like a Proustian madeleine, it exploded memories. Specifically, Dion’s lovely version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin”: The Twisted Wheel, Brazennose Street, Manchester, maybe 1964, Saturday night; I’d climbed out of my bedroom window to hitchhike into the city centre for the Saturday-night all-nighter — Spencer Davis Group (with Stevie Winwood) and Sonny Boy Williamson. Around 2 a.m. I found myself randomly sitting at the bar (bar — cokes only, which I could hardly afford; when we were thirsty, we used to go across the street on pass-outs to a pub that stayed open all night and was flexible about age laws) next to Sonny Boy Williamson. He was hunched over a coke next to an impossibly glamorous girlfriend in a cheetah-style coat. What I noticed was his beautiful long graceful fingers, and I could hardly speak, awe-struck. We muttered for minutes, and he wandered off to the stage, unimpressed. Then he played (backed by the Spencer Davis Group), and somehow he’d got drunk (must have had his own bottle), so with those lovely long fingers, he beckoned my friend John Lancaster (a wonderful man I used to discuss TS Eliot with and who had the sweetest of all possible girlfriends who worked on a perfume counter in Lewis’s on Market Street, where, about that time, I saw Bobby Charlton buying furniture with his new wife) on stage to support him, and he proceeded to give us a lifetime memory. Those long fingers I shall never forget. And though those all-nighters screwed up my A levels, they made my life. As a friend of mine at the time said when we were rousted by the cops and asked what was going on after an Otis Redding concert: “Otis, man!”

Ricky, plaque, Evan on drums with Frank

{TWO} AS AMERICAN AS MUSIC GETS. We spent the day of July 4 at the best possible place in New York — the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona — on his birthday!* We were greeted by the irrepressible Ricky Riccardi (the Director of Research Collections), seen here holding his Grammy for best album liner notes (for an Armstrong release last year). He’s also holding some original photos of Louis playing a concert in New Orleans in 1952 that were sent to my dad when he edited the British jazz magazine Eureka, which I wanted to donate to the museum. The Armstrong House is about to get a beautiful contemporary museum building opposite so that it can properly display its collections. The big band of the brilliant Evan Sherman played, red beans and rice were served, and the garden concert ended with a pulsating version of “What’s Going On”, sung by trombonist Frank Lacy, in a style reminiscent of the great Ted Hawkins. The house is as it was when the Armstrongs lived in it, and Harvey gave us a brilliant tour. It’s a testament to Lucille’s extraordinary embrace of Louis and his talent — she found the house in the borough where she was raised and gave it to a man who had never had a real home, who had lived mostly in hotels. It was not just a place to rest his head with hers, but a whole community he became a fundamental part of. You can learn lessons about how to live from this modest house and, in Louis’ case, how to turn the love given to you by millions of people outwards, back into the world. It’s there, in Louis and Lucille’s voices as you walk around their house and in all of Louis’ music.

Klein’s designs are top; the page-turning cleverness

{THREE} EINE KLEIN FOTOMUSIK. I always hear music when I look at William Klein’s photos, often something close to a Bernard Herrmann film soundtrack, or a particularly percussive opera, or, in the case of his Moscow photos, a bevy of cimbaloms… pleased to have been in NYC when such a good selection of his work was on show at the International Center of Photography on the Lower East Side. Klein wears his talent lightly, skipping between disciplines while keeping his vision of seething life intact. The show is beautifully staged, with wall-sized prints and clever digital page-turning video tables so you can see his books about cities (which he also designed).

Moscow Book; Fashion; Little Richard; self-portrait

{FOUR} LOU REED: CAUGHT BETWEEN THE TWISTED STARS. New York Public Library at Lincoln Centre. If you are a huge Lou Reed/VU fan, this exhibition of his Archive will blow your mind. As a moderate Lou-O-Phile, it was still stunning. Guitars, lyrics, letters, painting, videos, ephemera, and, just for the completist, a couple of pairs of Lou’s Views, a collaboration with an Italian spectacle designer — the lenses flip up, so Lou wouldn’t have to take his glasses off to read. I love that Mo Tucker called him “Honeybun”… It runs til March 2023. Highly recommended.

{FIVE} PJ CLARKE’S JUKEBOX. Another Rick and Liney pick, it’s an oasis of brick in a desert of glass and steel in midtown; this unreconstructed bar has a unique layout. The men’s restroom is four feet behind the patrons sitting at the counter. Some might call this lazy. Among its rather beautiful original fittings from the 1880s sits a 70s jukebox, with this playlist of the top hits from 1971.** Johnny Mercer wrote “One for My Baby” on a bar napkin here, and Buddy Holly proposed to María Elena Santiago at this 3rd Avenue watering hole five hours after they met. “The Lost Weekend” was written by a regular, Charles Jackson, and a young Frank Sinatra regularly closed the place down at Table #20. The bar wears its history lightly, and the food and the staff are fantastic. We didn’t notice how intense the sun was outside as we looked doorwards from our table, but as we left, we realised that we were witnessing Manhattanhenge, where the setting sun lines up with the crosstown grid, usually twice a summer. It was some walk back to our hotel drenched in this amazing light.

*According to Louis, he was born on July 4, 1900, but records located a couple of decades after his passing found that it was August 4, 1901.

** Three Dog Night were famous for picking great songs by hip songwriters and doing hit-parade-friendly versions (Nilsson’s “One”, Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come”, Laura Nyro’s “Eli’s Coming”, usually with a good dose of Wurlitzer electric piano). Van Dyke Parks gave them their name: on cold nights, Aboriginal Australians would customarily sleep in a hole in the ground while embracing a dingo, a native species of wild dog. On colder nights, they would sleep with two dogs, and if the night were freezing, it was a “three dog night”.

A Christmas Song for 2021

Rather late, a seasonal song. I record one most years, usually a version of a traditional Christmas song such as “In the Black Midwinter” or “Love Came Down at Christmas”. This year I decided to revisit my Pandemic Dirge™ from last summer, retooled as a Pandemic Christmas Dirge. Enjoy!

If you enjoy (!) this one, previous years’ songs can be found at martincolyer.com

A peal of bells
And north wind swells
Carry Christmas through the land
But a plague’s abroad
A threatened sword
Puts paid to all our plans

A grave new world
Its flag unfurled
And summoned on a storm
Makes Christmas bleak
Its promise weak,
wrapped in a wreath of thorns

A chill’s been here
But don’t you fear
We’ve made it through before
Kindness found
And duty bound
Will cause the frost to thaw

A peal of bells
And north wind swells
Carry Christmas through the land
But a plague’s abroad
A threatened sword
Puts paid to all our plans

So hold your friends
To family tend
And think of more clement climes
This too shall pass
So fill the glass
And toast to better times

Welcome back, friends…

Monday, August 30th

Tuesday, April 27th

Thursday, March 25th

Tuesday, February 23rd

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