Early in the Morning

No stranger to these pages, Harry Nilsson returns today with a tune that takes me back to my days as a bachelor, living with a friend who was as big a Nilsson fan as I was.

Lonnie and I lived in a tiny mobile home. Tiny. It was 8 feet wide, and 30 feet long. My bedroom, the smaller one, was 6 feet by 8 feet, but since the hallway between the kitchen and bathroom ran through the middle, I actually had a builtin bunk on one side, and a dresser on the other, and that was it. Lonnie and I were pretty close, quite literally.

He worked at the airport, and often got home from work early in the morning, right around dawn. We frequently pulled all-nighters, driving to Arizona and back, or just driving around San Diego. When either or both of us came in at that hour, it usually took a while to relax enough to get some sleep (unless it was a work day, in which case, we skipped sleep.) Many mornings, I awoke up to Lonnie ‘relaxing’ after a long night’s work by listening to Harry Nilsson’s “Harry Nilsson's 'Schmilsson'Schmilsson” nice and loud, and usually, to the song “Early in the Morning.”

Written by Leo Hickman, Louis Jordan, and Dallas Bartley for the play “Five Guys Named Moe”, the original Broadway cast recording is sparse, primarily bass and sax. Harry takes it one step further, recording it with only a calliope-sounding organ and vocals.

Fading in from silence, Harry uses the pedals to create an alternating bass line he maintains throughout the song. The keyboard part is syncopated to the bass, giving the tune a real bouncy feel. Harry sings it half with tongue in cheek, half with an obvious appreciation for how blues should sound. At one point, the chorus becomes a repetition of the line “early in the morning” — which Harry sings for eight bars, followed by six repeating bars of “ain’t got nothin’ but the, ain’t got nothin’ but the, ain’t got nothin’ but the” before he finally finishes the line “ain’t got nothin’ but the blues.” Then, just to round it off, we get eight more bars of just the organ, bass and melody syncopating while we wait for Harry to do something, anything.

Despite the fact that he never performed publicly, Harry was a showman. He wanted to be the center of attention, and he was always on the lookout for a laugh in his music. His cover of “Early in the Morning” is pure Harry, leading you down the garden path, and then shoving you into the pond, laughing the whole time.

Pacing the Cage

Two years ago I heard what I thought was a new song by guitar wizard Leo Kottke. This means it had an intricate bass-treble alternating bounce to the acoustic picking style, and unadorned but earnest vocal accompaniment. Eventually I learned that it was instead a great Canadian artist named Bruce Cockburn.

Bruce Cockburn's 'Anything Anytime Anywhere'Pacing the Cage” is chock full of ‘what am I doing here?’ imagery. This pacing is what happens when we’ve gone down a path we didn’t scrutinize closely enough, to a place we’ve realized we don’t want to be. Lines like

 I never knew what you all wanted So I gave you everything

bespeak a certain weakness; succumbing to external pressure rather than maintaining fidelity. But the final verse seems to offer a reason, if not an excuse:

 Sometimes the best map will not guide you You can't see what's round the bend Sometimes the road leads through dark places Sometimes the darkness is your friend

invoking the belief that, essentially, we’re all making our best guess and can’t always know where it will lead. My head says that it’s possible to live without regrets, to look ahead and make the right choices. My heart doesn’t always agree.

Cockburn’s guitar work is deceptively simple, his singing warm and direct. If you’ve ever seen Leo Kottke play the guitar, you’ve seen his distinctive picking style; this song has that sound to it. Each verse closes with a different sentence ending with ‘pacing the cage’ and each gets a slightly different phrasing and timing. At first listen, it seems simple; but when you try to sing along it’s evident that this is a man who knows how to get the most out of a moment’s silence, an unexpected pause. This thought-provoking piece is well-written and beautifully performed.

Comment: Lenny

rudy says, regarding ‘Lenny‘ —

beautiful, especially the ending "texas flood" was brilliant one of my favourite srv tracks is "empty arms," not the cut on "soul to soul," the more uptempo version on "the sky is crying"-- i played that over, and over, and over, after my wife moved outyou have run me ragged, baby it's your own fault you're on your ownyou didn't want me no way baby tell your other man we're goneyou can try to get me back baby with all your tricks and charmsbut when all your games are over you'll be left with empty armsstevie ray definitely makes my "top ten" list but what do i knowac/dc does too ;o)

Shelter from the Storm

Webster’s defines it as ‘a position or the state of being covered and protected.’ Sometimes some of us reach a place in life where, if we can’t have love, at least we hope for a shelter from the storm.

From the opening verse

 'Twas in another life time, One of toil and blood. When blackness was a virtue And the road was full of mud. I came in from the wilderness, A creature void of form. "Come in" she said, "I'll give you Shelter from the storm."

it’s not completely clear whether the shelter is real or imagined.

Later, “Dylan sings

 Try imagining a place Where it's always safe and warm

but if he’s reassuring us, why use the word ‘imagine’? It’s as if his life has become so bleak that he’s blind to the cost of her ‘shelter.’ Too late, he learns.

 I bargained for salvation And she gave me a lethal dose. I offered up my innocence And got repaid with scorn

Perhaps ‘learns’ isn’t the right word; still hopeful at the end,

 Beauty walks a razors edge, Someday I'll make it mine. If I could only turn back the clock

but clocks don’t turn back; the past is irretrievably gone.

Bob Dylan’s “Bob Dylan's 'Blood on the Tracks'Blood on the Tracks” is a treasure of an album. “Tangled Up in Blue” hits me just as hard today as it did the first time I heard it 27 years ago, but “Shelter from the Storm” has taken on a whole new meaning over the years.

Musically sparse, as Dylan often is, one thing that struck me when I rediscovered “Shelter” a few years ago was how stong the bass-playing is. It reminds me of Rick Haynes on some of Gordon Lightfoot’s early albums; strong, melodic, not content to stay in the background, but never quite competing with vocals or guitar. It’s a link I thoroughly enjoy.

Lenny

Everyone has their short lists of musical preferences — favorite songs, greatest jazz album, all that. If you really want to incite a verbal riot, announce loudly that you think Ringo Starr is a great drummer (I do, and it does. Later, maybe.) But talk about guitarists, and on anyone’s top ten list, six, maybe seven of the names will be the same small group. And, if not at the top, very near it, will be Stevie Ray Vaughan; every single time.

Personally, I think Eric Clapton has greater technical prowess; Mark Knopfler has more style, and Chet Atkins had more grace and overall ability than all of ‘em. But Stevie played with a passion to match Clapton’s hottest fire on nearly every recording he made. Clapton impresses; listen to “Motherless Children” or “After Midnight” and you know you’re hearing a master. Knopfler delights; hearing “What It Is” or “Skateaway” you know he’s grinning from ear to ear, because so are you. Chet inspires; he and Les Paul playing “Birth of the Blues” makes me wish I could, and his duet with Knopfler “Tahitian Skies” makes me know I could. But when Stevie Ray Vaughan is ‘on’, really playing what he feels, you feel it all the way to your core.

When he recorded “Lenny” on his first album “Stevie Ray Vaughan's 'Texas Flood'Texas Flood“, he was on.

Lenny was his wife, Lenora. Lenny was his guitar, a Fender Stratocaster with a maple neck and lighter than usual strings. Lenny is half blues, half jazz, half rock; all three halves graceful, stylish, technically brilliant; but mostly, “Lenny” wordlessly grabs my heart every time I hear it. It constantly amazes me that so much emotion can be conveyed with music alone.

The opening chords are jazz, pure and simple, but right away, Vaughan starts playing with it, establishing a melody and then immediately dropping out for a bar while the bass carries the tune. Now wandering up the neck of the guitar, pausing now and then to let us catch up or wonder where he’s heading; letting the silence build anticipation. Back around to the melody, but shorter, just a bit more punch; then off again, up the neck and then back down to the lowest notes on the guitar, bouncing and flexing to squeeze every drop from that low ‘E’ string, then flying up to the high ‘E’ just so you don’t forget it’s there, and then, my favorite spot in the song. A flattened, buzzed note; from most players, you’d think it was a mistake, but Vaughan has just taken us on a tour of the entire fretboard, and now, in the midst of the only screaming high notes in the journey, he throws in something personal; something other than what you expected to find. And it’s perfect.

Then, back down to the melody, slower, sweeter, and to the finale, just as slow; just as sweet, ending right where we began, except for the final two notes, gently chimed from the center of Lenny’s sweet maple neck.

A Murder of One

When I first heard Counting Crows‘ “Mr. Jones” I didn’t like it; nothing definable, it just didn’t please. Strangely, when I saw the video and didn’t like that either, I suddenly realized that I did like the song (and still do.) After a few more huge hits, I decided it might be worth spending $12 on the CD. In retrospect, my caution seems silly, but that’s my nature.

Coming after the upbeat radio hit “Rain King”, the album’s three quietest songs almost lulled me to sleep; “Sullivan Street”, a sweet ballad; “Ghost Train”, dark and brooding; “Raining in Baltimore”, so quiet and slow that it takes a careful listener to find the melody, which then rewards that listener doubly.

Following that trio, the intro to the final song on the album, a vibrating electric guitar string, seemed sure to herald another lullaby to wrap things up. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“A Murder of One” struck me as a particularly witty title — a flock of crows being a ‘murder’, and a murder of one implying, besides the obvious, the loneliness of one when there should be more.

Counting Crows' 'August and Everything After'The vibrating string fades to a moment of silence, and then the entire band joins in the first crashing note of this moving, driving tune. Matt Malley’s bass is more prominent than I recall it on the rest of the album, Adam Duritz just a little more anguished, his timing even more impeccable than usual, but for me, the star of the musical part of the song is Steve Bowman’s drumming. Tight, hard, fast; he’s clearly using both hands, both feet, and his head to get that much rhythym and snap out of his kit. I was disappointed not to find him on the Crows’ second studio album, but such is life.

The title, far from being a simple bit of wit, is apropos to the lyrics about the anguish of seeing someone you care about in an abusive relationship, unable to escape because they don’t know anything else.

It also contains, in one verse, the children’s rhyme whence came the band’s name:

 I dreamt I saw you walking up a hillside in the snow Casting shadows on the winter sky as you stood there counting crows One for sorrow Two for joy Three for girls and four for boys Five for silver Six for gold and Seven for a secret never to be told

The momentum of the music and the intensity of the lyrics feed on each other to create an effect not unlike caffeine, every time I hear the song (thrice and more, just while I’ve been writing this.)