Oooh that opening bass line!
I am finishing this week of Song o’ Days with a number that is one of my all-time favorite mood-elevators, Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” This classic cut from a giant of 70’s soul music is a gift that keeps on giving. Jerry Knight’s opening funky bass line kicks off an affecting and uplifting song that acknowledges that not all lovely days start off that way.
Some contemporary popular musicians, such as Questlove, revere Bill Withers because he was a man that used the pop music industry before it used him. Withers grew up a stuttering child in the Jim Crow south and used a stint in the Navy to get escape West Virginia. He landed in southern California, overcame his stutter, taught himself guitar and composed a series of hits (”Lean On Me”, “Aint No Sunshine”, “Use Me”, “Just the Two of Us”) during a recording career that lasted only about a decade. He and his wife Marcia have closely guarded the rights to his catalogue of songs and their business savvy has set them up so that Withers did not need to continue to subject himself to the industry indignities so many of his peers faced.
I love this song because it gives voice to the challenges we all face and also gives us the musical ladder to climb towards a better day. A lovely day.
When the day that lies ahead of me
Seems impossible to face
When someone else instead of me
Always seems to know the way
Then I look at you
And the world’s alright with me
Just one look at you
And I know it’s gonna be
A lovely day
Bill Withers is a man that succeeded on his own terms, overcoming poverty, racism, a stutter and an industry that sought to exploit him. His story and his music are touchstones of hope, dignity and a sort of success that we can all aspire to. A true American.
PS. It bears repeating that I love and respect the NYFOS community and Steven’s enduring artistry. I appreciate this opportunity to share my slightly different experience and our shared love of Steven, NYFOS and popular song.
Monday’s NYFOS Sing For Your Supper – “A Goyishe Christmas to You – Yuletide Songs by Jewish Composers” at HENRY’s is sold out, but we do have an active wait list and we would love for you to join us. We will also have room for walk-ins at the bar. Come share the holiday spirit.
This number is dedicated to all my wonderful HENRY’s bartenders at closing time. My Song of the Day today is from my modern everyman, Tom Waits with his delightful song, “The Piano Has Been Drinking.” The time is ripe for some rich satire.
“The Piano Has Been Drinking” is special to me because of its unique perspective on my life’s work, service. Waits focuses on a particular moment that hospitality professionals know well: closing time. There is a moment at every bar, as the night comes to an end, when the air goes out of the room. Your best guests have left before the cleaning crews start working the dark edges, slowly moving into the dim light. Everything changes at that moment, as a night of endless possibilities suddenly becomes a morning of bitter reflection. Last call lures so many to stay beyond their limits and to test the patience of those that serve them.
Waits’ growling, slurred vocals fit a particular vision of the over-served lounge pianist who’s drooping eyes rove over the room at closing time, leaving no thing and no one unscathed. His fingers move up and down the keys carelessly, aimlessly, while his lyrics pull it all into focus.
And the telephone’s out of cigarettes, and the balcony is on the make
And the piano has been drinking, the piano has been drinking…
And the box-office is drooling, and the bar stools are on fire
And the newspapers were fooling, and the ash-trays have retired
But it is his denigration of the owner that sets my heart afire with love for this song. “And the owner is a mental midget with the IQ of a fence post.” Let alone that he has rhymed that line with “As the bouncer is a sumo wrestler cream-puff Casper milquetoast.” This is one of those songs so well suited to its writer’s gifts that we are left to bathe luxuriously in its wonder.
Tom Waits: The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me), aka The Bartender’s Prayer
Studio Version from Small Change, 1976
Live Version from Bounced Checks, 1981
Live Television from Fernwood Tonight w/ Martin Mull & Fred Willard
PPS. If you want more politics in a Waits-ian vein, try this on for size – God’s Away on Business. Waits wrote it with his wife, Kathleen Brennan for a Robert Wilson musical of Woyzeck, the songs from which are on Waits’ Blood Money album.
I have always loved this song and love how it fits so beautifully in Nina Simone’s voice. “The Other Woman,” written by Jessie Mae Robinson, has a special contemporary resonance as we all work to come to terms with the results of our recent presidential election. Hillary might be seen as the “other woman” but, to me, this song resonates in our current climate because it is a poignant narrative of otherness and how we deal with our bitterness towards outsiders of any type.
Competition between women in our culture can be brutal and a woman’s rivalry with her man’s lover can be especially bitter. Rivals in love are sworn enemies and feelings of betrayal run deep. The discovery of an affair is not a time for empathy and sisterly connection. To the contrary, the hurt deepens with our feelings that “the other woman is perfect where her rival fails.” Our emotional connection with our rivals is weak and Simone’s rendering of this song ends on a note that challenges us to find empathy no matter how much it hurts: the “lonesome queen…will end her life alone.” Surely we can all find some compassion and understanding for such loneliness.
The Trump presidency is a time for this sort of understanding. In politics compassion is a rare commodity, however, this song moves me to find love for “the other” in my life. We will all be better served if we connect rather than disconnect. This sort of understanding is difficult yet fundamental to a fully lived life. Nina Simone sings of what is true, deep and real. She gives voice to our inner fears and self doubts that we project onto others. We are all better off for finding the compassion that allows us to connect with “The Other Woman” in our lives.
“The Other Woman,” Nina Simone at Town Hall, 1959
I moved to NYC in 1979 from a small New England college town where I had heard of rebellion, but had hardly ever seen rebellion in any meaningful form. When I hit the city streets that summer, Debbie Harry of Blondie and Iggy Pop were two of the foremost avatars of rebellion writ large. They were way out there but they were also admired as artists. Everywhere I went in my NYC of the 80’s, there they were pushing the envelope of the creative boundaries of high and low art.
My life in the wonderous, both safe and dangerous, NYC of the 80’s took a sharp turn towards terrifying with the arrival of AIDS. Everywhere you turned people you loved and admired were devastated and way too many died. In 1990, as this scourge reached its peak, there was an all-star benefit album series called “Red Hot and…” that rallied musical artists of all stripes to record songs to raise awareness and money to combat AIDS. The most moving of these was a Cole Porter tribute album called “Red Hot + Blue – A Tribute to Cole Porter.” Many of my favorite artists of the time – David Byrne, Tom Waits, Annie Lennox, k.d Lang, les Negresses Vertes – took the divine songs of one of the best, Cole Porter, and recorded them in new and exciting ways. And each time you listened, you dreamed there would be some end to this horror.
I love many songs on this album, but the one that really moved me was Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop’s cover of “Did You Evah!” from the 1939 Cole Porter musical DuBarry Was a Lady. This song was most famously recorded as a Frank Sinatra-Bing Crosby boozy duet for the film High Society in 1956. But, in 1990 it was a grungy, raucous affair directed by Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy) set in the streets of downtown NYC featuring the gorgeous Harry and Pop as a modern day, grungy/glamorous couple about town. Debbie Harry’s clear, bright voice mixed with the spoken-sung gnarl of Iggy Pop (nobody’s idea of a beautiful voice) to capture the unique angst of this age. We were young, happy, sexy and having a helluva a lot of fun. And then we weren’t. As Debbie Harry deadpans at the end of the Cox video (4:45), “I thought this was the worst thing that could ever happen, because I really love sex.”
PS. Do not miss the other videos from the Red, Hot + Blue album! k.d Lang’s video of “So In Love” is heartbreaking. Laundry never moved me so.
Blondie & Iggy
“Did You Evah!” by Cole Porter for the AIDS relief album Red Not & Blue – A Tribute to Cole Porter, 1990. Video Directed By Alex Cox
The roster of great talents who have blogged for NYFOS’s No Song Is Safe From Us humbles me. Steve and Michael have created nearly three decades worth of artistic relationships with some of our city’s most gifted citizens. I am so very grateful, as humble publican to this exalted community, to be invited to share some of my favorite songs along with this impressive company of No Song Is Safe From Us contributors.
My first Song o’ Day is inspired by next Monday’s 6th annual Sing for Your Supper holiday show – A Goyishe Christmas to You – Yuletide Songs by Jewish Composers. SFYS is a divine mix of high- and lowbrow, formal and casual, elegant and earthy, classical and contemporary. I honor SFYS – Goy! with the choice of Bing Cosby and David Bowie’s duet of “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy.” This duet is a perfect holiday blend of styles and generations. What better way to celebrate the holidays and NYFOS than this inclusive pairing of cardigans and mod hairstyles?
Holidays are one of the most important ways a culture defines itself. In a multi-cultural setting like New York City, and especially at HENRY’s, the lasting resonance of Goy is its message of a holiday as inclusive, welcoming and warm as this song. Bing + Bowie bring together so many disparate elements – faux castle sets, Christmas kitsch, cardigans and the hippest, most avant-garde, “tri-sexual” rocker ever – and from them they make beautiful music. If only the song had been written by a Jew!
We all know how hard it can be to create grace under pressure. Holidays are filled with tradition and heightened expectations. Sometimes it can be challenging to appear warm and welcoming, especially if difficult relatives are involved. There are moments in the famous footage of Bing + Bowie where you can see them sneaking uncertain glances like long-lost cousins. But, at the end of their song, you can also see artists who realize they’ve made something special. As Bing says at the end of their song, “It’s a pretty thing isn’t it?”
Please share the joys of Bing + Bowie with me as we enjoy the holiday season with friends and family. Join me as we move through the awkward and the difficult towards the warm and welcoming. Join me in the holiday spirit of inclusiveness.
New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • firstname.lastname@example.org