Friday, 9 March 2012

The end of the top twenty

20 All I Want To Do Is Shag For Christmas The BellRays feat. Lisa Kekaula, Tony Fate and Bob Vennum

Another repeat visit. I put the the Bellrays’ Poor Old Rudolph on the 2008 compilation, having first heard it and them on the Bob Dylan Christmas show.
The Bellrays — or BellRays, both variants seem to be as common as each other — are from Riverside. There’s another constant for a seasonal compilation — a California sun connection. That’s where White Christmas was written and where its rarely sung opening verse is set.

Oddly, I have only ever heard Christmas songs by the Bellrays. The Rudolph one comes from 1996. This track is on a five track EP from 2005, A BellRays Christmas. I’m not sure I want to risk listening to anything else of theirs. I might not like it.

Nor had I ever seen a picture of them or read anything about them. So I looked them up. Their website has a manifesto which starts, unpromisingly, not to say ungrammatically: ‘Blues is the teacher. Punk is the preacher.’ Which is another reason I’m not risking listening to more of them.

Lisa Kekaula is the female singer. She’s pale black with big hair and wears thin-strapped tops. She’s not young. She looks like she might mean business. Or have several not-small children. Or both. (I now realise that ‘mean business’ could be interpreted in a sexual way. I didn’t mean that, just that she has the air of a woman of purpose.) The other three, all grown-up men, look like being in a band is important to them, too.

I’ve no idea at all whether the Bellrays have any knowledge of the different meaning that ‘shag’ has on my side side of the Atlantic. Till recently, I would have been certain that they didn’t, that they just thought it was a southern youth dance style of the early 1960s, particularly popular on beaches and among the well-educated but undriven (frat boys etc). The Carolina Shag is now the official state dance of both Carolinas, North and South — and it’s a kind of swing dancing so maybe my history is imagined rather than real.

Anyway, as to possible confusion between English and American shagging, I heard a track from the new album by the Magnetic Fields. Best known for their 99 Love Songs record, they are definitely American. It’s another love song — about a boy in drag who the singer wants to shag. So maybe the BellRays did know the shaggy truth.

PS2 So: shagging at Christmas? Well, it certainly goes on. More than the rest of the year? Yes. How do I know that? Month of birth statistics. The peak for births is late summer/early autumn. In the US and UK, anyway. In mainland Europe, it’s spring — as it was in the UK till a generation or so ago. Researchers have linked this to latitudinal luminosity and the effect of temperature on sperm motility.

That doesn’t make sense of the UK shift, though. There is a Czech study which further complicates the picture, finding a socio-economic effect — only among older, more affluent, well-educated women was there a birth-month differential. Poorer, younger, less educated Czech women had babies at the same rate right the year.

So I stand by my original belief. That Brits and Americans get drunk at Christmas and do more than the usual amount of drunken, forgetful sex. Why the different peak for Europeans? They are more connected to the rhythms of the agricultural year — or more likely to still be living at home. So they wait for warm evenings in the fields to do more than the usual amount of forgetful sex, drunken or not.

Next (and last) Bing dong Bing

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Nineteen . . .

19 Jesus was a Dreidel Spinner Jill Sobule

Yet another Jew. Yet another personal story. I think of Jill Sobule as my favourite lesbian. She’s certainly my favourite lesbian singer songwriter.

I saw her play, once, in a club in west London. Despite the fact that she’d had a long career and had written some great songs, the audience was tiny. She could have done the show in my sitting room. Even most of those who were seemed to be A&R men waiting for the next act.

She was the complete trouper, though, performing as if it were the Albert Hall. When she’d finished, I think she had to leave the stage by stepping into the audience. I felt I should go over and tell her how great she’d been and how much I admired her songwriting. But I didn’t, of course.

When I left the club, I tripped over a step, bashed my knee and left myself limping for a month or two.

Next The vexed question of seasonal shagging

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Eighteen with a bullet (from Brooklyn)

18 The Chanukah Song Neil Diamond

Written (with others) and first performed by Adam Sandler, in 1994. There were two further parts added, in 1999 and 2002. This version only features the first part — which is, the way things usually are, the best.

Let me pedantic for a moment. Wikipedia tells me that there are factual errors in the original — and, of course, factual accuracy is a prime requisite of pop song writing. Diamond repeats them here, too.

One Rod Carew, a black baseball player and coach, is not Jewish. His first wife was, though.

Two Harrison Ford is not quarter-Jewish but half-Jewish — via his mother, Dora Nidelman.

Three The Three Stooges were not all Jewish. This one’s complicated. Only three of them were — over the years there were five Three Stooges. Plus Iggy, of course. And the rest of his band, too, I guess.

The song’s other writers deserve credit, too. Ian Maxtone-Graham who has long been a big wheel on God’s own TV show, The Simpsons — he’s currently executive producer. Lewis Morton, one of the major writers of Futurama. I’ve no idea if they’re Jewish. Judging by names, though, you’d guess the first was and the second wasn’t, right?

Having written that stuff above about Tom Waits must have put me in a frame of mind to look for personal connections to the performers. And I realised I’m just a kiss and a handshake away from Neil Diamond. But no, I’m not telling you how or who did the kissing and shaking. (There is Jewishness involved, though.)

PS I wonder if this is where the popularity of the phrase ‘not so shabby’ began?

Next More Jews

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

And so to seventeen . . .

17 Last Christmas Minuteman

The longer this song hangs around, the more it seems to mature into something more and more intriguing and impressive. Which is true of many things about George Michael. I happened to see the Club Tropicana video recently and I can’t imagine anything more, well, more, not just camp, not even gay but, well, homosexual. Bare chests, oiled-up etc etc.

And, with hindsight, Last Christmas seems imbued with the knowledge of loss and simple loneliness that were clearly (now, at least) always there in George but have recently become not just publicly obvious but taken him into a world of tabloid attacks, if not humiliation.

I reckon that his original version of Last Christmas is a harbinger of the dignity and honesty he displayed in the recent press conference in which he talked, movingly, about his near-death from pneumonia and thanked the medical team with simplicity and sweetness. He used his stardom — ie you or I can’t call a press conference and expect anyone to turn up while he can — to affirm a joint humanity. Which accepts the inevitable possibility of having your heart torn apart between one Christmas and the next.

This version is from a 2006 charity album for Shelter, It’s Not Like Christmas. I used another track from it, The Twelve Days of Christmas by Field Music and Kathryn Williams, on my 2007 compilation. This is by Minuteman, the most recent of at least three acts by that name — and nothing to do with the American 1980s punks, the Minutemen. As far as I can tell, Minuteman, was a solo electronic artist who made music for video games. There is a suggestion that he ‘reformed’ to record this track but that’s a joke, I think. He seems to have disappeared again, though.

Next It's Chanukah time, with the Brooklyn Diamond

Monday, 5 March 2012

Sixteen sleevenotes and what have you got?

16 New Year's Eve Tom Waits

An extremely belated follow-up, perhaps, to his 1978 Christmas Card From a Hooker In Minneapolis. Or a companion piece to the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York. It’s the same low-life, gutter-romance setting. Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, that kind of thing. A life lived out in betting slips etc. It’s a waltz. It reprises Auld Lang Syne with irony. Or perhaps offers a truth about the particular sadnesses of New Year’s Eve parties:

   ‘I was leaving in the morning with Charles for Las Vegas
    And I didn’t have a plan to come back
    I had only a few things
    Two hundred dollars
    And my records in a brown paper sack.’

Maybe that’s a little obvious, a little heavy-handed. I’m not sure. It’s new in our life. The album it’s from, Bad To Me, only came out in October 2011. It’s the last track, of course. Unless, that is, like me, you have the deluxe edition, with an extra three songs. Then the last is the even more final After You Die. A man with a sense of humour, certainly.

In an interview, he described it as ‘one of those gatherings where things went badly, where we all sing even though the fireworks scared the dog and he's been gone for two hours, and someone lit the sofa on fire, and Marge got food poisoning, and Bill O'Neal called the cops.’ He also ended the interview by saying ‘The truth is overrated. Avoid it all costs.’

So, like many a Tom Waits song, it begs a question: autobiography? Well, I do, as it happens, have some stuff that could be taken into account when thinking about that question.

I’ve broken bread with him twice, for interviews. The first time was in Greenwich Village right before Labor Day weekend, in the mid-1980s. He was promoting Rain Dogs and had come into the city for our meeting, in a cafe. He was staying with his in-laws out in Jersey. His wife was about to give birth to their second child — who is now his drummer. There was a third child a decade or so later.

As he came in, he was Tom Waits. He took his seat. He ordered coffee — black if I remember right — to go with his cigarettes — Pall Mall, my memory tells me. He may have been a little hungover but he didn’t talk about it. We did a little small talk. I started asking my questions.

At the end of our interview, he switched off ‘Tom Waits’ and went back to being Tom Waits. He wanted to make sure that he’d given a good interview. Which he had and which I told he had. He must have sensed some reservation in me, though. Which he was right about. I wasn’t sure I had a take-home line for the piece, the bit that — kind of spuriously but kind of not, too — sums everything up and maybe even gives a final line. In fact, I was fairly sure I didn’t have one. As we shared a cab uptown — I think we were dropping him off at Penn station — he snap-turned into ‘Tom Waits’ and pretty much suddenly announced to me: ‘Champagne for my real friends. Real pain to my sham friends.’ I think he said it was his motto. It was a new line to me. I thought it was great. I knew I had an end to the story — it worked, too. He looked me and knew his job was done. He turned back into Tom Waits. I thanked him. He got out of the cab and went back to his wife and family.

The second time we met over a table was in Paris. Not just any bit of Paris but for lunch at the weekend in the Place des Vosges. If you don’t know it, it’s an old, pre-Haussman bit of Paris, with colonnades and a high-end hotel that was long favoured by the high-end of the music business.

Perhaps because of its pre-revolutionary architecture and history, it’s also popular with the local BCBG crowd. A French equivalent of Sloanes, they have some kind of attachment to the monarchy — real or fantasy, I don’t know. At weekends, young family groups of them would gather in the Place des Vosges. The men’s ‘uniform’ included cord trousers. I was told this was because the word ‘corduroy’ comes from ‘corde du roi’ — the king’s cloth. I liked that idea. I’ve since found out, though, that’s not a true derivation. But maybe they don’t know that. Maybe their choice of trouser was based on false etymology. I like that possibility even more.

Again, I think Tom was hungover. I think I ate lunch while he drank coffee — no cigarettes this time, he’d given up by then. Again, I chatted with Tom Waits and did the interview with ‘Tom Waits’. When we finished, we walked to a cafe on the far side of the square. While I waited for the cab to take me out to the airport, we were joined by his wife, Kathleen Brennan, and his mother-in-law, I think. 

Again, we chatted, like adults, about Paris, art, stuff like that. Then, expecting the answer I got, I asked Kathleen if I could ask her about Tom for my piece. She smiled and said: ‘Of course, not, Pete.’ And we went back to talking about Paris, art, stuff like that.

Next The eternal wonder of George Michael's winter solstice experience