Last week Joshua and I wrote posts about our Top 5 songs at 16, and both posts highlighted our early, local show going. Joshua kept it high brow (or at least non-embarassing) with Laughing Colors and Kelly Bell Band shows, I lowered that brow considerably with Voodoo Blue shows, and we both talked about our mid-teens love for The Bridge. But there was one shared show-going experience that we left out: Going to Joshua’s shows.
I saw Joshua play a lot in high school and in college—at art school coffeehouses, in sweaty ballrooms at synagogues, at open mic nights. I saw him play at big parties and small parties, and one summer I saw him play once a week at these boozy balcony gigs. And he was good; not “Hey! Look at my friend with a guitar!” good, but genuinely good.
There’s a chapter in Nick Hornby’s “Songbook” where he talks about how much he respects Rod Stewart’s early work (a surprising point that I was prepared for based on this blog by Joshua). Nick Hornby says that Elvis Costello has some ideas for bringing Rod Stewart back to the masses, and Hornby himself has some ideas, and the chapter ends with a music geek daydream of reviving Rod Stewart’s career. I guess what I’m saying, Joshua, is that in this scenario you’re Rod Stewart, and Elvis Costello and I routinely talk about your musical future while eating sundaes and playing Trivial Pursuit (…in my dreams.) So here are some songs to listen to, to cover, and to think about as you get the band back together. And if that chapter on Rod Stewart taught me anything, it’s to stay away from straw hats. That’s my only piece of production advice (Elvis Costello will, of course, cover the rest.)
“Stop Talking,” by the 5 Chinese Brothers
I’ve always thought that you would really like the 5 Chinese Brothers, if I could just get it together and give you their albums. And since I haven’t, and am sure that I will forget the next time I see you, they’re at the top of this list. Singer Songwriter Beggerman Thief (the album this song is from) is one of my all time favorite albums and features some themes I think you could get down with—Baltimore love that borders on dislike, distressing father/son relationships, and breakup songs. Really, really good breakup songs that are so quotable they’ll spin through your head indefinitely. “I only wish you loved me/ Half as much as you’re enjoying this” is one of my favorite quotable moments, and it’s in this song (also see “I Always Knew” and “Don’t Regret”).
“Sledge Hammer,” by Peter Gabriel
One of the funnest, rowdiest covers I ever saw was when The Bridge covered “Sledge Hammer” at the Recher, probably 10 years ago. This is a song that was made to be covered at shows. It perks up a too mellow crowd, turns non-dancers into dancers, and gives the energy in the room a swift kick in the right direction. It’s classic Peter Gabriel mind control—though never a big fan, he has a few songs that are powerful tone-changers, that will swing the mood pendulum of your audience where ever you need to swing it. (Also if you found out that Peter Gabriel has scary mind control powers, would you really be surprised? Top 5 Maybe Mind Controllers: Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, Sting, Peter Frampton*, that girl who sings “Call Me Maybe”**)
“Rosie,” by The Bridge
You know how neither of us listen to The Bridge any more (other than in throwback, nostalgic ways)? This song made me wonder if we should change that. Also, though I haven’t heard you sing since some long ago karaoke night (did you sing, or did you just make Ashley and I sing “Ebony and Ivory”? Memories.), I think your voice would sound awesome on this.
“Let’s Straighten It Out,” by O.V. Wright
This is, in fact, already a cover, but a very good one, and I found it lodged halfway through “Songbook,” a book that solidifies Nick Hornby’s status as the unwilling godfather of the Charm City Jukebox. I like it because it’s not a break up song, or a love song—it’s a song that sounds and feels sexy, but in reality is about working on difficult issues in a long term relationship. It’s slow too, but not too slow, so if at some point you need to cool down your “Sledge Hammer” fueled audience, this would be an unexpected place to take them. Trust me, after listening to those songs back to back, it does the trick.
“You’ve Got a Friend,” by James Taylor
I’ll be honest: I think James Taylor has all the corny charms of frequent-pun-users and shiny, eager kids who try to convert you outside of college Student Centers (Taylor, to his credit, is not a pun abuser or Christ peddler, but on the scale of minor annoyances, they’re all on the same level)
One of the weirdest reading experience I ever had was with “Girls Like Us,” which tracks the careers of Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King. It’s a great book, and there’s nothing particularly odd about it, except for the characterization of James Taylor, who comes across as a troubled drug addict rock star sex god. It’s not a new character; anyone who has ever seen a movie about musicians or read a book or fallen down a Wikipedia rabbit hole knows that’s pretty par for the course. But James Taylor? Really? It was like finding out Randy Newman got his start in porn.
While “Girls Like Us” made me take a new look at James Taylor the man, the Isley Brothers made me take a new look at James Taylor the musician. They turned “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” into soulful bedroom soundtrack fodder, and made me wonder if other Taylor songs could be re-imagined into something raunchy and delightful.
“You’ve Got a Friend” is a sugary song about the joys of friendship that, if delivered with a raised eyebrow and some solid funk, could be downright raunchy. Imagine it as an ode to long-standing booty calls (“You just call out my name/ And you know wherever I am/I’ll come running to see you again”). It’s an interpretation that could be simultaneously sexy and hilarious, since this song was relegated to the world of middle school choirs and youth group campfires long ago. It’s like finding a hidden, dirty double meaning in the Sesame Street theme song. Take a cue from the Isley Brothers and unlace this straightlaced Taylor gem.
* The title of Frampton Comes Alive! was Peter Frampton’s confession that he is a zombie.
**One day Carlie Rae Jepsen will rule us all. Exhibit A.