Archive for the ‘lyrics’ Tag
This is my favourite couplet from any song – and how come my philosophy on life is derived from George Benson.
I first came across the song ‘Nature Boy’ on the record ‘In Flight’ by jazz guitarist Benson. In time it emerged that it was a cover of Nat King Cole. In more time I became aware that it was written by someone called Eden Ahbez (who I’d never heard of). He turned out to be a proto-hippy and a very interesting character whose extraordinary story gave rise to this fascinating photo:
The dapper Cole and the Jesus-like Ahbez came to coincide in the wake of Ahbez pushing a dirty, rolled-up manuscript onto Mort Ruby, Cole’s manager, backstage at the Lincoln Theater, LA. On it was a tune and these words:
There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he
And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return
Beautiful simplicity – as has that fantastic closing couplet.
This happened shortly after World War Two, in 1947. Ahbez at the time was of no fixed abode and unemployed. Cole liked the song and began playing it live to audiences. In 1948 he recorded it but before the recording could be released Ruby needed to track down its writer to secure the rights.
Ahbez was eventually discovered living just below the first L of the Hollywood sign with his family. They slept under the night sky. Ahbez ate vegetables, fruits and nuts. He had shoulder-length hair and a beard, wore sandals and white robes. He studied Eastern mysticism and claimed to live on $3 a week.
‘Nature Boy’ became a No. 1 hit in the US Billboard charts for eight consecutive weeks during the summer of 1948. That same year RKO Radio Pictures paid Ahbez $10,000 for the rights to the song to use it as the theme tune for the movie ‘The Boy With Green Hair’.
Meanwhile he lived a proto-hippy life under the big L of Hollywood. Letters were significant for him. He actually called himself eden ahbez rather than Eden Ahbez as he reckoned only the words “God” and “Infinity” merited capitalisation.
During the 30s he lived in Kansas City and worked as a pianist and dance band leader. In 1941 he moved to LA where he got a gig playing piano in Eutropheon, a health food shop and raw food cafe on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, owned by John and Vera Richter. The Richters lived by a philosophy based on ‘Lebensreform’ (Life Reform) and the notion of the ‘Naturmensch’ (Nature Man) which was derived from the ‘Wandervogel’ (Wandering Bird) back-to-nature movement in Germany.
ahbez became part of a California-based group known as the ‘Nature Boys’, prominent among whom was Gypsy Boots (Robert Bootzin). Bootzin is another fascinating character, a hippy decades ahead of the 60s counterculture, with shared elements of ahbez’s background.
Bootzin was born in San Francisco to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. His father was a broom salesman. His mother brought him and his four siblings up as vegetarian. She led the family on hikes in the Californian hills and fed the homeless with her black bread. In the wake of his older brother’s premature death from TB, Bootzin resolved to pursue a healthy, natural lifestyle. He grew his hair long. By 1933 he had dropped out of high school and left home to wander the wilds of California with a group of fellow vagabonds. In the 40s he lived off the land with a dozen other Nature Boys in Tahquitz Canyon near Palm Springs, CA. They slept in caves and trees, and bathed in waterfalls. Long hair and beards were the order of the day.
Hence ahbez’s Jesus hair and beard, and diet of raw fruits and vegetables. It was at this juncture that he adopted the name ‘eden ahbez’ (ahbe to his friends). He was actually born George Alexander Aberle on 15th April 1908. On subsequent adoption (1917) he became George McGrew. Then George became eden.
ahbez was originally of the East Coast not West. He was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish father and a Scottish-English mother but spent his early years in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum. He was then adopted at the age of 9 by the McGrew family of Chanute, Kansas.
How much of the life of eden ahbez is self-mythologising is difficult to gauge. He claimed to have crossed the U.S.A. on foot eight times by the time he was 35. He settled in L.A., married Anna Jacobsen, with whom he slept in a sleeping bag in Griffith Park. They had a son, Tatha. The family continued living out under the stars, with just a pushbike, sleeping bags and a juicer. ahbez was to be seen on Hollywood street corners sharing gems of Eastern mysticism.
Having been handed the scruffy ‘Nature Boy’ manuscript via Ruby, Cole recognised the underlying melody in the song as Yiddish. He decided to add it to his repertoire because he wanted a Jewish song for his act (presumably good for capturing that particular constituency). Cole recorded ‘Nature Boy’ on 22nd August 1947 with an arrangement by Frank DeVol and a piano part written by Cole played by Buddy Cole (Edwin LeMar Cole, no relation).
Despite Capitol releasing ‘Nature Boy’ as a B side, its quality overcame record company cluelessness to quickly hit the #1 spot. Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and others rushed out cover versions and it remains a much covered song, from David Bowie to John Coltrane, from Ella Fitzgerald to Bobby Darin.
ahbez’s relationship to the greenback seems to have been an awkward one. Once ‘Nature Boy’ became a hit, the publishers and composer (Herman Yablokoff) of the Yiddish song ‘Schwieg Mein Hertz’ (‘Shvayg Mayn Harts’/ ‘Be Still My Heart’) claimed that the melody of ‘Nature Boy’ came from their song and sued, subsequently settling out of court with ahbez for a whopping $25,000. ahbez said he had “heard the tune in the mist of the California mountains.” Prior to this, when Ruby and Cole had eventually tracked him down under the L, it turned out that ahbez had given various people different shares of the publishing rights so he ended up with pretty much big fat zero. The happy ending though is that after Nat ‘King’ Cole died in 1965, his wife eventually gave all the rights back to its creator ahbez.
In the wake of ‘Nature Boy’ ahbez continued to write songs for Cole, including ‘Land of Love’ (covered by Doris Day and The Ink Spots). In the mid 50s he supplied songs to Eartha Kitt, Frankie Laine and others. His composition ‘Lonely Island’ was recorded by Sam Cooke in 1957, his second and final tune to make the Top 40.
He collaborated with jazz singer-songwriter Herb Jeffries, in 1954 releasing the LP ‘The Singing Prophet’ including ahbez’s 4-part ‘Nature Boy Suite’. In 1959 he started recording his own distinctive brand of instrumental music. He could be seen in beatnik coffeehouses around LA performing on bongos and flute as accompaniment to beat poetry.
In 1960 (thanks to the prompting of Bob Keane, boss of Del-Fi Records) he cut his only solo record, ‘Eden’s Island’ – “the first ever psychedelic pop classic” according to my pal Doug, and he knows his shit. It combines beat poetry with off-beat jungle exotica arrangements. ahbez promoted the LP by making personal appearances on a coast-to-coast walking tour. (He recorded another similar album, ‘Echoes from Nature Boy’, again containing his poems set to music, which was released posthumously.)
He pops up in various places during the actual Hippy era. Grace Slick, later of Jefferson Airplane, then of The Great Society, covered ‘Nature Boy’ in 1966. Early the next year ahbez was photographed in the studio with Brian Wilson during one of the ‘Smile’ sessions. Later in ’67 Britain’s very own psychedelic pioneer Donovan tracked down ahbez in Palm Springs and the two like-minds communed.
ahbez had his fair share of personal tragedy. His wife Anna died relatively young (47) of leukemia (in 1963). His son, Zoma (originally named tatha om ahbez) drowned as a 22 year old (in 1971). He himself met an ironically unnatural death at the sharp metallic end of an automobile, succumbing to the injuries sustained in the accident in LA on 4th March 1995. He was 86. The fruit and veg had agreed with him.
On the subject of fruit, ahbez said he once told a cop who was hassling him for his shaggy appearance: “I look crazy but I’m not. And the funny thing is that other people don’t look crazy but they are.”
Yesterday Christies in New York sold the manuscript and notes for Don McLean’s 1971 mega-hit ‘American Pie’ for $1.2M. It’s a view back from the perspective of 1971 over the 60s and 50s to an age of innocence represented by Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper. The lyrics have a reputation for being impenetrable and rich in sub-text, though it is easy to spot Dylan, The Stones, The Beatles, The Byrds, Janis Joplin et al as he takes us through from his 12 year old self mourning the loss of Buddy Holly and co. in a tragic plane crash in 1959 through to a jaded, nostalgic 24 year old surveying the wreckage of the Hippy era. When asked what it means McLean’s favourite answer is: “It means I never have to work again.”
I went back this evening to check whether the song is as irritating as I remember. It is. The description of “bubblegum Dylan” is not far off (I think the phrase is Alexis Petridis’s). But the song’s sale and the fact it is trying to capture the meaning of a particular point in music history makes it a good springboard for a project that’s been brewing up in me for quite some time.
Over a couple of years I kept noticing that a number of classic records were recorded in 1971. After a while it seemed more than just coincidence. And as the 1971 records gathered I noticed that in many ways they seemed to represent the essence of the 60s/Hippy era even though they were a couple of years late numerically. How come the 60s seemed to climax in 1971? What was special about that year?
I went back to look and picked out 10 records that seem crucial to that year, and then one track on each that gets to the heart of the record. I’m planning to do a post about each of them in the wake of this intro. So first up will be ‘Natural Woman’ by Carole King from ‘Tapestry’…
The night before last the New York jazz club of the 30s and 40s Cafe Society was recreated in London at the Purcell Room on the South Bank for one night only. The club was set up in 1938 as an alternative to the largely segregated, mob-run nightclubs then on offer. Behind it was Barney Josephson, the New Jersey-born son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. His declared ambition was to create ”a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front”. His socialist tendencies are well captured in the club’s motto: The wrong place for the Right people.
Cafe Society was opened in 1938 by Billie Holiday and it was there within the year that she unleashed upon the world Strange Fruit, a song like no other. Picking up on my earlier post about great song lines, Shelter from the Storm, there is one line in this poem turned song that ranks among the all-time great song lines:
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
If you ever wanted to illustrate irony… that word “gallant” kills off a view of the Confederacy in one mighty blow. When Holiday first heard the lyrics her one question was: what does ‘pastoral’ mean? Which is ironic in itself in that her whole being understood what Strange Fruit meant which is why she made the song so much her own.
With the same irony that has Danny Boy being composed by an English lawyer, it was actually written by a white man, a Jewish school teacher called Abel Meeropol – pen name Lewis Allan, after two children he lost in their infancy. Meeropol’s motivation was simple: “I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it.”
Here’s the poem he brought to Holiday and Josephson at Cafe Society, already set to music, already performed in obscure left-wing circles, ripe for the magic of a singer who could perform it from her soul and evolve it into something uniquely powerful.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Holiday delivered this body blow to audiences throughout her career – here’s one later take on it (the instability of the picture seems to suit the song, as if it can’t fully be retained by the technology):
Barney Josephson didn’t seem to have his own Wikipedia entry so I’ve just made him one
Walter Pater, the art and literary critic much admired by Oscar Wilde, wrote that “All art aspires to the condition of music.” I read that as other arts striving for the direct impact music has on the heart and spirit without recourse to any physical medium and being able to by-pass the intellect. Much though I love music I’ve never tended to listen to the lyrics of songs in a coherent and systematic way. Phrases and lines emerge over time in their own way and hook themselves into the brain.
I was jogging along yesterday morning listening to a podcast of the evergreen Desert Island Discs when a Bob Dylan song came on and a line really resonated for me as a perfect expression of what women mean to men. When I got home and sat down in front of my machine for the first time that day I whacked the line into Quotables for posterity – and to look at it on its own for a moment.
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
Not particularly poetic. Quite ordinary really. But in its context perfect and to the heart of the matter, to the matter of the heart.
So I felt inspired to pick out 10 great lines from songs that are worthy of the condition of music, that have the resonance and penetrative power of the supreme art. I tried being strict about one stand-out line per song only (only cracked once with a couplet).
1. Bob Dylan, Shelter from the Storm (1974)
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
2. John Lennon, Oh Yoko! (1971)
In the middle of a cloud I call your name
A powerful yet simple expression of romantic love.
3. John Martyn, Couldn’t Love You More (1977)
If you kissed the sun right out of the sky for me
Song lyrics straining to capture Love (is there a theme emerging?)
4. Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze (1966)
‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky
This could be love or drugs that’s fogging Jimi’s brain – either way it’s a great line.
5. The Clash, Garageland (1977)
Back in the garage with my bullshit detector
A spirited (spirit of Punk) response to an early bad review (of a gig with The Sex Pistols at Islington’s Screen on the Green): “The Clash are the kind of garage band who should be returned to the garage immediately, preferably with the engine running”. [Charles Shaar Murray – what did he know?]
6. Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City (1982)
Well now everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Reckon there’s a load of philosophy buried in this couplet.
7. David Bowie, Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed (1969)
As I am unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed
Loved this phrase for a long time, the “somewhat” is just what’s needed to throw it off kilter.
8. The Doors (Jim Morrison), The Wasp (1968)
Out here we is stoned – immaculate
One of those lines that throws a word into a whole new light.
9. John Coltrane, Acknowledgement (1964)
A Love Supreme
Sometimes you don’t even need a whole line or clause – this is a transcendent chant. They’re the only words in this track and all the more striking for that.
10. Well, why don’t you add this one? What song words do it for you?…
[I’m treating this as a work in progress – going to be putting some more bath time into it]
After some more bath-time reflection here are some other stand-out lines, plus some picked out by commenters below that strike a chord with me too:
Michael Franti & Spearhead, Oh My God (2001)
I slept with Marilyn she sung me Happy Birthday
Magazine, Song from Under the Floorboards (1980)
I am angry I am ill and I’m as ugly as sin
The Passenger, Iggy Pop (1977)
We’ll see the city’s ripped backsides
Marvyn Gaye/Dick Holler, Abraham Martin and John (1970)
Has anyone here seen my old friend Martin?
PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (2011)
England’s dancing days are done
You seem confused by your own ideals
You will not be able to stay home brother
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
It took it 3.5 billion years to decide that you live just where you live [it = the universe]