“damn dog” – robin johnson (1980)

Times-Square-Soundtrack-1980-Front

One of the finest pleasures anyone can experience are those few, rare moments where it feels like you’re the center of the universe; when everything has aligned perfectly and you can live free and uninhibited. I love these moments because I can forget everything else such as the mundane aspects of life like bills and work. It is within these wild moments of individual self-expression that we truly feel free, alive, and completely ourselves.

Two years ago, I picked up a double-LP soundtrack for a movie called “Times Square.” Two punk girls dominated the cover with a small image of Tim Curry appearing from the corner. I looked at the track listing and I was blown away. Talking Heads, Gary Numan, Roxy Music, Suzi Quatro, Joe Jackson, The Ramones, XTC, and more! It looked like a solid compilation of post-punk exuberance. And it was only $1.99.

I love this record and I listen to it frequently. Though there was an abundance of amazing tracks by recognizable artists, a few were unfamiliar to me. There were a few tracks by someone named Robin Johnson. Just who was this Robin Johnson”? Were they a he or a she? Was this someone from a band? What else has this person done? Upon listening, it turns out Robin Johnson was a gruff punk rock girl with a sexy. rough and tumble voice. As I researched “Times Square,” it turns out her tracks “You’re Daughter Is One” and “Damn Dog” were original songs for the film. Alright, I have to see this movie now!

Roughly a year later, I found a copy of the movie. It is fairly obscure and only one rental store in Chicago had a copy, an art-house theater that also boasted the largest rental library in the country. Tim Curry was the only star of the film, but he maintained his role supporting two young female leads, Trini Alvarado & Robin Johnson. The story follows Alvarado’s character, a daughter of a local New York politician. She’s been going through teenage anxieties on top of the scrutiny of being a politician’s daughter. Like all teenagers, she needs an escape. She runs away and ends up meeting Johnson, who plays a kickass punk street urchin. Johnson’s character lives in an abandoned warehouse, steals food and clothes, and suffers from depression. Despite coming from two different worlds, they become inseparable. Alvarado learns to let her insecurities go and becomes more wild, and Johnson finds the love and support that has been missing from her life. Alvarado supports Johnson’s dream of becoming a singer for a rock band and, with the help of Tim Curry playing a local rock DJ, the story of these two punk rock runaways takes New York.

Despite my unfamiliarity with the film, it apparently is a regular addition in many LGBT film festivals. The film has strong allusions to the girls being romantically linked. Apparently, there was more footage shot that emphasized the lesbian relationship, but that was left out of the final cut. However, it is still every apparent that “Times Square” is a teenage rock ‘n’ roll lesbian love story with awesome music to boot.

“Damn Dog” is one of a few original songs that appears on the soundtrack. In the movie, this is Johnson’s swan song; the one that validates her talent and serves as her ultimate form of self-expression and the inner peace that comes as a result. The track is fiery and the passion of Johnson’s gruff voice accentuates the anti-authority power of the song. I believe this song is a way for Johnson’s character to express affection and her insatiable lust and desires. For me, it serves as the romantic bond between Alvarado and herself. She see what she wants and it looks delicious. Beware because this bitch bites!

The movie is ok, but worth checking out. Unfortunately, it is one of those instances where the soundtrack overshadows the films. Though, I’m glad I experienced both. “Times Square” has a great story that teaches you to find what you want and to fight all the way for it. For those moments of pure oneness, they come so few if even at all.

Check out both versions!

Soundtrack version:

Movie version:

Advertisements

“how long do I have to wait for you?” – sharon jones & the dap-kings (2005)

R-1280505-1206033520.jpeg

We all want the quality of our lives to improve. With our own individual dreams, passions, and interests, each one of us has our own motivations to achieve happiness, or what we may think is happiness. It is the chase; the pursuit of happiness where we manifest a perceived outcome. If I do this, it will make me happy. I want this because I believe I will be happy when I have it.

Fame and success, specifically in the celebrity sense, is a common motivator for a lot of people. The appeal of being lauded by the public for their own individual artistic expression drives them. And it really is appealing. Some may like the concept of celebrity more than others, but doesn’t the attention and the adoration sound at least little appealing to all of us?

Instant fame and celebrity status can be very damaging on a young psyche. Sure, we all the cautionary tales of Hollywood child stars. Cute kids with one-liners that get bombarded with sensory overload. The constant attention diminishes opportunities for self-reliance and the flashing lights can be blinded.

The stories of those who experienced fame early are a dime a dozen. I want to focus on how fame affects older people; people with decades of experience outside of the limelight. I find more often than not that people who find fame later in life tend to handle the negative consequences of international success a lot more maturely. This is because they have gratitude and appreciate the hard work and patience behind their success. Such is the case with Sharon Jones.

Currently 59, Jones attempted to break into the music industry. She crafted her sound singing in church gospel choirs and eventually got picked up as backing vocalist for session bands. However, she didn’t get her share of the limelight. Dismissed because of her looks, Jones had to find employment elsewhere. For years, Jones worked as a corrections officer and an armored car guard, but she never gave up on her dream.

In 1996, Jones was starting to get attention for her vocal performance after backing soul legend Lee Fields. It would be six years before she released her first album with the Dap-Kings, another six years before she gained international attention and played festivals, and finally, seven more years until she earned her first Grammy nomination. It took Jones nearly two decades to finally earn the respect and praise she deserves as a spirited soul goddess.

Though it wasn’t the first song I heard from Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, but “How Long Do I Have to Wait for You?” has since become one of my favorites. Released on her 2005 release “Naturally,” this song is a perfectly crafted soul single.   Everything works. Jones’ vocals are strong and emotive as she pleads for an answer; she loves her man, but she can’t wait forever because a girl has got to live her life. And the instrumentation from the backing band is fantastic. The Dap-Kings have earned a reputation of being a precise and tight backing band (even supporting acts like Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse). The horns are rich and the analog recording adds levels of warmth and vibrancy missing from digital recording. This track could’ve easily been an R&B radio staple in the 60s and 70s. Even upon its release in 2005, it stands out as a unique contemporary treasure a decade on.

I discovered Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings after buying their 2007 release “100 Days, 100 Nights” from the Great Escape when I was in college in Bowling Green, KY. I was instantly impressed, and I told everyone about this band. It seemed no one else had known about this band and their amazing retro-soul style. This was my first experience at being an early adopter of a really cool record. They weren’t fully recognized yet, so it felt like my own little secret; my own musical treasure. Since then, Sharon Jones is a common name among the indie soul, college radio, and festival crowds. She’s found an audience and people are paying attention. She couldn’t wait on her man much longer because she had records to make and people to entertain as a true soul diva.

“i’m the urban spaceman” – the bonzo dog doo dah band (1968)

R-1764733-1241892015.jpeg

The ultimate purpose of every single member of the human race is to experience as much joy as they possibly can during their short life. Part of that is never being afraid to try new things. Take a chance on new ideas, people, food, and anything else that may strike your fancy. If you’re lucky, there is a good chance your pursuits will take you someplace strange and magical; a small segment of reality unnoticed by the populace where the strange and surreal reside.

Very few bands give me as much joy as the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. Just a collective of weird British musicians, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band masterfully crafted their own brand of anti-pop for whoever was willing to listen. Their avant-garde approach to contemporary music created an atmosphere of humor and artistic freedom. Why worry about getting a hit on the radio when you can do just whatever the hell you want?

As with last week’s entry, I struggled to find a particular song to discuss. There are so many great tunes for this band. “The Intro and the Outro” is a great track of musical introductions perfectly overdubbed piece by piece to create a mosaic of rhythmic noise. “Death Cab for Cutie,” which is best remembered as being featured in the Beatles’ film “Magical Mystery Tour,” is a clever nod to lounge acts (and even inspired the name of a famous band). And “We Are Normal” is anything but!

“I’m the Urban Spaceman” became the band’s most successful single. Produced by Paul McCartney (under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth), “I’m the Urban Spaceman” is easily the most conventional, and therefore accessible, single in their catalog. Though being a novelty record, there are a lot of great things about this tune.

The best way I can describe this song is that it is the sound of a lumbering fool stomping through an orchestra pit. There is a lot happening musically amidst the madness of the musicians. The record is the most dominant instrument in the back track. The melody is crisp, jovial, and keeps the song lighthearted and fun. Aiding the rhythm section, the tuba is another prominent feature of the song and is actually my favorite aspect of the instrumental section. Though low, it carries a lot of power in the song and makes it sounds as if the Bonzos are on the march; don’t bother trying to get away, but they are coming whether you like it or not. The lyrics, as expected, as silly and nonsensical at times. There’s no point in trying to decipher a deeper meaning. Just try to accept this abstract humanoid that manages to be loved and exists as a contradiction.

There is so much joy to this song and band. I think a big part of that comes from not taking yourself seriously and living by the standards of others. The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band didn’t invent the idea of creating surreal anti-pop. The Mothers of Invention started out a few years ago out of L.A. and with even more stranger, and even less radio friendly, approaches to music. And you have countless psychedelic bands that took pop and added their own unique brand to further broad scope of what rock music could be, but those bands are often pretentious and take themselves way too seriously. What separates the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band from those guys is the fact kept it light, funny, and free. They embody the urban spaceman waking up with a smile on their faces and their natural exuberance spilling everywhere. Take a page from their book and live to create as opposed to creating to live. Have fun doing you.

“stronger than me” – amy winehouse (2003)

R-265426-1145933138.jpeg

My intent when starting this blog was to focus on a song and relate it to how I was feeling at the time, or involve it within a larger humanistic idea. I might briefly talk about the artist, but I primarily analyze the music itself. What the words mean despite what is being said, and what the musical track represents thematically. This week’s entry is going to be a little different because I want to talk about the artist.

The life and career of Amy Winehouse was tragically short. Spending nearly a decade in the spotlight, Winehouse represented a musical paradox. Her public image as an addict with severe substance abuse issues contradicted her enormous talent as a singer. While her offstage life was filled with scrutiny and ridicule, she managed to garner international respect from music critics and musicians. Winehouse was incredibly young when she passed in July 2011. At only 27 years old, the world lost a tremendous talent who would have continued to surpass herself artistically and commercially with each new release.

I remember the days leading up to her death. She was in the middle of touring across Europe while sporadically working on her follow-up to the 2006 global hit “Back to Black.” You could see it in the headlines and YouTube clips she was not doing well. Performing in Belgrade at was what to be her final concert, Winehouse kept falling down onstage and needed to be picked up her security. I watched the clip thinking that she would alright. Over the years, Winehouse’s addiction was a rollercoaster ride complete with the uplifting highs and lonely lows. When she would get rid of toxic people around her, Amy would be flying high and ready to be the star she was always meant to be. I chalked off the Belgrade performance as just another low in a series of lows she had successfully ridden out before. I knew that staying out of the spotlight and working in the studio would be exactly what she needed to ride out the storm. I believed in Amy.

When Amy died, I became disappointed in the people around me. My social media feeds were filled with jokes and ridicule of someone who struggled. Comments about how she deserved to die a junkie’s death because she bragged about not going to rehab in her hit single were everywhere. The callousness I witnessed from friends over the death of someone with deep mental health issues was disturbing. What others saw as a moment to congratulate themselves for their stability, I saw it as another victim in a system that alienates and preys upon the sick.

In 2014, I noticed something that heightened by disappointment. That summer, Robin Williams committed suicide by hanging himself. A lot of speculation circulated around the media for weeks as to why such a lovely and funny man would do this. As it turns out, Williams suffered from depression stemming from years of addiction; another example of amazing talent torn apart by mental health issues. However, the world over mourned Williams and the very same people I saw ridicule Amy now had a progressive stance on helping those who suffer from mental illness and addiction. I was disgusted by their inauthenticity. I don’t know why there was a difference. Williams openly joked about his drug abuse. Maybe he was a more likeable and accessible figure. Or maybe sexism is the issue here. Regardless of the differences, we shouldn’t cherry pick who decide to help and who we decide to chastise for something they cannot help.

This month marks the four years anniversary of Amy’s death and the release of a documentary about her life. I thoroughly believe time will be good to Amy and her legacy as one of the great contemporary artists will become legitimized. Twelve years after the release of her first album “Frank,” Amy has already influenced her generation and will continue to influence future generations. Lady Gaga, Duffy, Adele, and other women in music have cited Amy’s influence in paving the way for offbeat women to succeed in music today. And even long-established artists like Tony Bennett and Herbie Hancock have heralded Amy as being one of the great jazz singers.

Picking a track from Winehouse for my weekly blog was tough. I could pick any track from her discography and it would be a winner. For this week, I decided to spotlight her first single “Stronger Than Me.” This was Amy’s debut; her message to the world crying out that she had arrived and she planned to stay. However, there is some irony in picking this track. In the song, Amy ridicules her man for not playing his gender role in being the protector and provider. He is supposed to be stronger than her, Amy says.   But you can hear the power and strength in her voice as the song progresses. Her voice becomes less low and more lilting. She doesn’t need anyone to be strong for her.

Amy has always had the strength in her and she didn’t need the help from a man, alcohol, or drugs. But she lost that voice before she realized the lioness strength within her. Though Amy could not find that strength to battle her demons, her legacy will inspire others to find their strength. Her legacy is secure and I eagerly await to see how her spirit manifests itself in the musicians of tomorrow.