Thursday, April 28, 2011

Quote, unquote

"What d'you remember most about the sixties?"

Haynes didn't reply for several seconds. "The music," he said. "And, in retrospect, the innocence."


As memories, and sentiments, go, that's just about perfect.

(Ross Thomas, Twilight At Mac's Place, 1990, p. 53)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Janis Ian

I have been a fan since her first album (Janis Ian, 1967), which I bought, oddly enough, on the same day I got Blues Project Live at Town Hall (also 1967).[1] [Links from album titles are to the CD store on Ian's web site.] The song on that first album, of course, is "Society's Child," but, for me, it's maybe the fourth or fifth best song. "Hair of Spun Gold," "Tangles of My Mind," and "Janey's Blues" are all more memorable, better musically and lyrically. [Links to individual song titles are to video/audio recordings online.]

But beginning in 1974, and running through 1979, she released six albums in six years which make up one of the best sustained sets of music I have ever heard.

Stars, the first of the six, is bloody brilliant. The opening track ("Stars") opens : "I was never much for singing/what I really feel/But tonight I'm bringing/everything I know that's real..." And the chorus leaves me breathless: "Stars they come and go/They come fast or slow/They go like the last light/of the sun, all in a blaze/and all you see is glory." The real trick is that the album gets better from there. "Jesse" is probably the best known (and most-frequently covered--by Roberta Flack and Joan Baez, among many others), but "Dance With Me" ("I'm leaving by night/I'm leaving alone/I'm leaving it lie/When you waken I'll be gone/I would not beg for me/As I would not beg for you/Though I'd Like to be the one/To see you through") and "Applause" are also wonderful.

In 1975, we got Between the Lines, with (by my estimation) eight beautiful songs, starting with "When the Party's Over," followed by "At Seventeen," and running through the closer, "Lover's Lullaby." "At Seventeen" almost has to move anyone who was, in high school, far from being an insider, and remains young enough to remember it (and in 1975 I was only 10 years out). "Bright Lights and Promises" is a song about feeling lost, lonely, and somewhat shopworn by it all, but still manages an air of defiance. "Between the Lines" is the song on the album I remember most strongly ("So strike another match/We'll have another cup of wine/And dance until the evening's dead/Of too much song and too much time/There's never much to speak about/Or read between the lines/Of what we dream about/When we're apart/And no one's looking on/To say you're mine"). This is not a joyful set of music, but it is stunning.

Aftertones, in 1976, is not my favorite of these six albums (that's coming shortly), but it's still remarkable. "Love Is Blind" still blows me away, with an opening (and closing) so strong and so poignant ("Love is blind/love is only sorrow/love is no tomorrow/since you went away/Love is blind/how well I remember/in the heat of summer pleasure/winter fades"), the song so clearly written in the mind's winter. "Aftertones," which opens the album, with its reference to T.S. Eliot ("and measure out the time in coffee spoons") and its oddly uplifting chorus ("'Til all that's left are aftertones/I take them home/We live alone/But I remember chains of melody/It pleases me - this song's for free").

I love the title track on Miracle Row (1977). The lyrics, admittedly, aren't all that great, but, musically, the song is just about perfect, propelling you through the story with barely time to breathe. "Let Me Be Lonely," another song song about a strong person, moves me: "Ooo, let me be lonely/I'd rather be by myself/Than with you acting holy/I want to be the one/I want to be/or else I want to be free/Ooo, let me be lonely..." Maybe the best song, though, is "I'll Cry Tonight," which ends: "One day the rains will come/and wash away the years/Sunlight will fade the tears/Midnight comes too fast/and I don't want/the night to last..."

Then we get my personal favorite, from "That Grand Illusion," which opens the album, and from which I can't quote a line or two, it's all of nothing (and here are the lyrics), to the elegant, haunting closer, "Hopper Painting" ("I'm the one in the photograph/you painted yesterday'A high relief reflection/of your promises and pain/See me disappearing/like a shadow at high noon/I will follow when you want me to"), and everything in between. "Tonight Will Last Forever" may not read like a love song, but it sure sings like one, and I guess that's all that counts. "Streetlife Serenaders" is a hymn of praise to cities ("And I want to go back to the city, back to the city/Back to the city again..."); of course, "The Bridge" is, too ("I want to get back to the city/where the neon lights shine pretty/all day long..."). And the last words on the album are "Believe in me/before you throw it all away/Believe in me...I know the way." And that, my friends, is one of the greatest albums of all time, Janis Ian II.

Finally, in 1979, Night Rains. Clarence Clemmons shows up on a couple of tracks ("The Other Side of the Sun" and "Have Mercy Love), Ron Carter, the World's Greatest Bass Player (TM), plays on "Photographs," and Chick Corea and Janis play pianos on "Jenny (Iowa Sunrise)." "Night Rains" has, I think, the strongest lyric ("I have seen the starlight fading/into echoes on the floor/And I dreamed the star's parading/like tin soldiers on the shore/The city casts no shadow now/At midnight, and the whores/come out and dance with darkness/and the night rains pour"), and "Jenny" has the strongest music.

God, what a run.

There's much great music later. God and the FBI is a brilliant album, with a half a dozen or more wonderful songs; I'm particularly fond of "Murdering Stravinsky" and "The Last Comeback," and "Boots Like Emmy Lou's" always makes me smile. Breaking Silence and Revenge both give me chills (if you don't believe that, listen to "Take no Prisoners" on Revenge). And Billie's Bones is not exactly chopped liver.

But for sheer sustained brilliance, I'll take the six year run of Stars, Between the Lines, Aftertones, Miracle Row, Janis Ian II, and Night Rains. Do yourself a favor. Listen.

[1] If you are not familiar with Blues Project, well, you should be. But that's another post, not this one.