It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

Woke up this morning to the strangest sound; like living next to a major freeway, but more of a rumble. It woke me up, starting suddenly and rolling and rumbling like distant thunder. After a couple minutes, I got up to look out into the dark to see if I could make out what it was. The closest freeway is a mile away, and not busy at night. I couldn’t see anything that looked like a sudden LA-sized influx of traffic.

Suddenly it hit me. One of the joys of living on the north side of Sacramento is that most of these small towns were built around the railroads. I was hearing a sound I hadn’t heard like this in years—a passing freight train.

When I was a kid, my brother and I used to spend some time each summer with our grandmother. One of her houses (she seems to have moved more than most grandmothers) was right across a narrow street from railroad tracks. I remember that when we’d first arrive, each passing train would awaken me as it growled past. But by the second night, it was just a comforting background sound like the ticking and quailing and cuckooing of the huge German clock in the hallway.

Trains seem to inspire musical feelings; I know they do in me. I started making a list of train songs, and I hope to come back and spend a bit of time riding each one. For now, I’ll just spit out a stream-of-consciousness blurb for each. Let me know if you have any favorites, or if there are some I’ve missed.

If Love Was A Train (Michelle Shocked)
Why Michelle ‘Shocked’ Johnston didn’t become a major star is beyond me. Brother Max (The Gourds) is benefitting from the same near-anonimity. Guess it’s better than watching ZZ Top go from serious blues influence to slithery pop gunk.

Midnight Special (Credence Clearwater Revival)
My dad bought ‘Willy and the Poor Boys’ because it had this tune and ‘Cotton Fields.’ Since his death, I hadn’t heard the album until I got it again two weeks ago. It’s hard to laugh with joy and cry in pain at the same time.

Driving the Last Spike (Genesis)
Phil Collins accidently lets us get another glimpse of genious. Phil, Phil, Phil; come back to us and leave the trivial pop nonsense. This deserves a movie to be made of it. Collins actually did research before writing the song.

Canadian Railroad Trilogy (Gordon Lightfoot)
Gord knows how good this is; it shows up on more of his albums than any other tune I can think of. I know Lightfoot haters who say, “But that railroad song; I can listen to that.” I want to go to Canada and ride the railroads for as long as my money lasts.

Steel Rail Blues (Gordon Lightfoot)
Yeah, Canadians get trains better than USicans do. From his first album, it’s the kind of tune my Dad and his brothers would have taken to if it hadn’t been so quietly obscure.

Honky Tonk Train Time (Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis)
This one shows up in two different arrangements on the Smithsonian Jazz Collection; once on the piano set, once on the band set. (If you know someone who has these CDs, I’ll take out a bank loan to buy them. Call me; write me; send up smoke signals. I want these classics.) Kieth Emerson covered it as well. It rolls.

Hellbound Train (Savoy Brown)
How sad it was to see Foghat live in ’98. Right up until the nostalgic bit in the middle where ‘Lonesome’ Dave Peverett took the lead guitar and did some Savoy Brown. No, they didn’t do “Doin’ Right” or any of the great stuff from “Hellbound Train” but they did justice to “It Hurts Me Too.” Buy “Hellbound Train”, but don’t listen to the title track. Some clown decided the re-issue should have a fade-out ending instead of the jarring vaporisation of the original. So, buy the “Savoy Brown Collection” as well; you’ll get the original unbastardized version of “Hellbound Train” plus more rockin’ blues than you can shake a pick at.

Aww. Just took a look for some info, and found out Lonesome Dave died from complications of kidney cancer in February of 2000. What a huge loss to blues.

Southern Pacific (Neil Young)
Neil’s ‘re*ac*tor’ is one of his very best albums. Huge crunchy tunes which repeat the fact that he invented grunge and is still its master; goofball stuff like “Get Back On It” and “Motor City”:

My army jeep is still alive
Got locking hubs and four wheel drive
Ain’t got no radio
Ain’t got no mag wheels
Ain’t got no digital clock
(ain’t got no clo-o-o-o-o-o-ck)

and ending with the driving, gut-wrenching “Shots.” No one, no one, rocks like Neil Young.

Oh, and how ’bout the track I stole this title from, or Harry Nilsson’s “Nobody Loves the Railroads Anymore”?

Man there’s a lot of train songs. Maybe I’ll start a whole new site.

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.

A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night

A long, long time ago, there was a singer named Harry. He was never very popular; even though he recorded over two dozen albums, almost entirely his own compositions, and although his few hits are ubiquitous in modern music, his name still draws blank stares.

SchmilssonIn an interview in the late sixties, John Lennon and Paul McCartney named Harry Nilsson as their favorite American singer. With a nearly four-octave range, an obvious passion for music (his own or someone else’s) and a natural wit, Harry was a marvelous performer. Even those who don’t know his name recognize songs like “Everybody’s Talkin’“, “Without You“, “The PointMe and My Arrow” from his wonderful children’s story “The Point”, and “Coconut.”

What Harry is not famous for is my favorite album, bar none. Never one to pander to anyone else’s taste, in 1973 Harry teamed up with the great Gordon Jenkins, composer and arranger for Benny Goodman, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and others. Harry chose Jenkins to arrange and conduct an album of standards (and not-so-standards) and in the process, made them his own.

Harry often joked with his last name in his album titles: “Schmilsson”, “Son of Schmilsson”, and finally, “SchmilssonA Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night“, today’s feature.

I’ve owned this album since shortly after it was released, and I’m quite certain a week has not gone by when I haven’t listened to it. After more than a thousand auditions, certain passages still make me catch my breath; certain segues still make me stop what I’m doing to absorb the subtlety; certain lyrical phrasings still make me marvel at Harry’s intuitive grasp of how language and music can be one. We occasionally give it as a special gift. It’s just part of our lives and I can’t imagine anything less.

Jenkins shows why he was sought after from the thirties to the sixties with his arrangements. No tune stands on its own; instead, the orchestration of each piece flows into the next. The album opens with the first three lines of the closing tune, then sweeps into an orchestral section before settling into the first tune.

As Time Goes ByThese orchestral connections make frequent reference to “Over the Rainbow” which doesn’t appear on the album. I wondered about that for years, until I recently discovered the 1996 album “As Time Goes By: The Complete Schmilsson in the Night.” I completely missed 1988’s “A Touch More Schmilsson in the Night”, but I’m glad to see the lost tunes from those sessions come to light. I’ll definitely have something to say about the other tunes once I’ve had a chance to fully absorb them.

  • Lazy Moon – After the nod to “As Time Goes By” and a sweeping orchestral bit, Harry sings accompanied only by the slow strumming of a quiet guitar, and a few strings. The only other known recording of this tune was by Oliver Hardy, possibly in the movie “Pardon Us.” Composed in 1901 by the innovative team of Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson, Harry turns this vaudeville tune into a gentle but humorous love song. Witty lyrics and a simple melody make it easy to picture Ollie singing it, too.
  • For Me And My Gal – Written for the 1942 movie of the same name, it’s been covered by nearly everyone at one time or another. A memory of simpler times.
  • It Had To Be You – Lyrics composed in 1924 by the great Gus Kahn to an Isham Jones melody, this one receives special treatment by Harry and Gordon – slightly adjusted lyrics for the last two lines:

     But with all your faults, it's you I adore, When you stand up, your hands touch the floor, It had to be me, unlucky me, it had to be me!

    Okay, it’s not that funny, but coming unannounced this far into an album of serious and romantic tunes, it sure caught me off guard the first time I heard it.

  • Always – The shortest track on the album; composed by the amazing Irving Berlin. A short sweet statement of love.
  • Makin’ Whoopee! – No, this was written for a 1928 musical,so perhaps it’s not exactly what you think. It is a humorous Gus Kahn/Walter Donaldson collaboration about the, um, joys of hasty marriage. Gordon Jenkins puts more than the usual effort into the score. Later assassinated by Dr. John and Ricky Lee Jones on the “Sleepless in Seattle” soundtrack. All the more reason to listen to Harry’s version.
  • You Made Me Love You – Jolson, Crosby, Armstrong, Garland, Cole, all had a crack at it. It remains intact. Harry’s is subtler, more sensitive.
  • Lullaby In Ragtime – My favorite. Written by the phenomenal Silvia Fine for her husband Danny Kaye, Harry and Gordon slow it down and really make a lullaby out of it. Fine’s lyrics are always spectacular. Harry does them justice. Again accompanied primarily by guitar, but a quiet acoustic guitar reminiscent of the twenties, not the sixties.
  • I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now – Once again, recorded by everybody and his brother (and a few cousins) – Como, Crosby, Charles, Kaye, Martin; Harry makes it bittersweet. The emotional power of his voice is most evident here.
  • What’ll I Do? – Another tune by Irving Berlin, one of only two composers featured twice. Written in 1924, a smoky melody noir which Harry makes no attempt to cheer up. Subtle and beautiful.
  • Nevertheless – The songwriting team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby was the subject of the 1950 movie “Three Little Words”, named for one of their most popular tunes. Starring Fred Astaire and Red Skelton, the film has the distinction of being choreographed by Astaire and Hermes Pan, with musical direction by Andre Previn. “Nevertheless” is typical Tin Pan Alley schmaltz, but as usual, in Harry’s hands (or throat) it transcends its origins and becomes a lovely tune.
  • This Is All I Ask – Written by Harry’s arranger and conductor on the album, Gordon Jenkins, this is one of the most complex tunes present. Only ten years old at the time Harry recorded it, it sounds much, much older. John Gary did it nicely when it was newer, but as usual, Harry finds a few notes that no one else seemed to notice. Slow and subtle, it is the perfect lead into the final piece.
  • As Time Goes By – What CasablancaBogart really said was “Play it Sam, If she can take it, so can I.” So Sam plays it – “As Time Goes By.” Written by the otherwise anonymous Herman Hupfield, it is the lyrical epitome of the timelessness of true love. It’s just a bit odd that it plays such a pivotal role in a movie whose theme is that some things are more important than love. Harry and Gordon arrange it perfectly; the phrasing, the dynamics, the well-placed silences; it really is one of the finest recordings I’ve ever heard.

Harry died in at the age of 53 in 1994. In my opinion, that was a hundred years too soon.

Stardust

And now the purple dusk of twilight time
steals across the meadows of my heart . . .

Although I’m much given to hyperbole, it’s safe to say that Nat King Cole’s recording of this is my very favorite song of all time. Wistful lyrics, beautifully understated orchestration, and deliberate, almost casual vocal phrasing combine to embody the sadness of a lost love. (Not the delirious “I can win her back” kind, but the heavyhearted “What do I do now?”)

Written in 1927 and 1929, it was recorded many times before Nat took his turn in 1957. Originally an instrumental by the great Hoagy Carmichael, two years later Mitchell Parish (“Sophisticated Lady”, “Stars Fell On Alabama”) added the brooding lyrics. Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Frank Sinatra all had turns at it, but according to Parish’s obituary in The New York Times, April 2, 1993, Cole’s version was his favorite. (Not even remotely related – Avery Parrish recorded the classic blues instrumental “After Hours” with the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra in 1940.)

The orchestration by Gordon Jenkins is critical to this version’s appeal. A brilliant arranger, Jenkins was largely responsible for Harry Nilsson’s very special “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night“, featuring a dozen standards wrapped in the velvet of Harry’s voice and Gordon’s orchestration.

The first time I heard “Stars Fell On Alabama” was on Jimmy Buffet’s 1981 Album “Coconut Telegraph.” Jimmy seems to get the mood right. The album also features the flip-side of the wistfulness embodied in “Stardust” in the song “The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful.” The story of a man who’s had enough, he takes off on vacation alone when his girlfriend can’t make the time to join him and ends up making the vacation permanent. By the end, you’re pretty sure there’s nothing wistful happening here.

Another of my personal favorites, the album also contains the song “Little Miss Magic” written for Savannah Jane Buffet just two years before the birth of my own daughter. For a crusty old pirate, Jimmy does all right as a tender, loving father.