Tag Archives: swing

Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody – Joni Mitchell

Hi all. I should be in Barcelona right now, but owing to a rather nasty ear infection that dogged me all last week and hasn’t completely gone away yet, I thought it better not to risk flying; it tends to play havoc with my ears at the best of times. So since I’m here, here’s a little bonus post.

Joni Mitchell is high up on the list of my push-comes-to-shove favourite artists. But my appreciation of her music is based principally on the run of albums starting with Blue and ending with (but including) Mingus. There’s much good work to be found outside this period (the only time I’ve written about her on this blog before, I wrote about a song called Tin Angel from her 1969 album Clouds), but 1971-79 is where the most of the classics reside.

Wild Things Run Fast falls outside her great period. It’s the first studio album she made after Mingus, the first after signing to Geffen. It’s an album of variable quality, almost inconceivably bland at its worst. The mix of legit jazz players (Victor Feldman, Wayne Shorter) and LA session men (Steve Lukather, Michael Landau), intriguing on paper, instead seemed to bring out the most pedestrian aspects of both factions, making the album’s title the more unfortunate.

The record does, however, start with a wonderful song, a bona fide Joni Mitchell classic, and maybe the best thing she wrote in the whole of the 1980s: Chinese Café/Unchained Melody.

Interpolating an old song in a new song is a trick Mitchell had pulled off before, on Harry’s House/Centerpiece, an astonishing track from The Hissing of Summer Lawns. In that instance, the insertion of a romantic swing tune in such an unsparing portrait of a crumbling marriage signified the emotional distance travelled by Harry and his wife from the optimistic (1950s) beginnings of their affair to the (1970s) endgame of a marriage grown empty, in which love and optimism had been replaced by work and the accumulation of things. An irresistible but bitterly ironic musical joke, it’s the greatest coup on an album full of them.

Inserting Unchained Melody into her own Chinese Café, Mitchell repeats the trick to more straightforwardly poignant effect. Initially just quoting the song’s opening line within the chorus (“We’d be playing ‘Oh my love, my darling’ one more time”), she ends the track by singing a whole verse and chorus, with a few canny melody adjustments and reharmonisings. As in Harry’s House/Centerpiece, the older song stands for youth, for optimism, for the “birth of rock’n’roll days” that are referred to in the first stanza, so different from the life the narrator finds herself living now.

In 1982, Mitchell was 39 and given that the song’s narrator refers to bearing a child but not raising her, it’s probably not presumptuous to assume Mitchell was singing about herself. Which makes Chinese Café, like Hearts and Bones by Paul Simon from a year later, one of the great backward-looking, stock-taking songs of middle age, a style of song not too well served by rock music on the whole. Akin to Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter musically, but departing from the long-stanza, third-person reportage of her writing on those albums in favour of a simpler, near-the-knuckle style, Chinese Café stands comparison with her very best work.

Joni_Mitchell_2004

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Rock & Roll Doctor – Little Feat

Popular music is full of songs about medical practitioners. From Cypress Hill’s Dr Greenthumb to Gloria Estefan’s Dr Beat. From Aqua’s Dr Jones to Steely Dan’s Dr Wu. From the Beatles’ Doctor Robert, who helps you to understand, all the way through to Dylan’s ‘best friend my doctor’, who can’t even tell what it is he’s got. There have been Frontier Psychiatrists, Night Nurses and Witch Doctors.

But has any doctor in pop music ever had two degrees in bebop and a PhD in swing? Only Lowell George’s Rock & Roll Doctor.

George was one of the heroes of Laurel Canyon. There were several artists out of LA in the early seventies who were hugely popular with the mainstream audience (Young, Mitchell, CSNY, Taylor, King, Eagles, Ronstadt), and then there were artists who were hugely popular among other artists: John David Souther, Lowell George and Jackson Browne – guys whose songs everyone covered, who pretty much everyone believed were really talented, but who didn’t particularly catch on themselves commercially (Browne of course did later, but his first album took four years to go gold and he was never a major star like Taylor, King or Young). As late as 1975, David Geffen was still trying to make JD Souther a big name by putting him in an instant supergroup with Chris Hillman and Richie Furay. It duly went nowhere, with Furay and Souther openly loathing each other. Hillman, as is his lot in life, was caught in the middle.

Little Feat had a cult audience Souther would have envied, and like Souther, Lowell George could afford all the coke he could snort thanks to covers of his songs by artists such as Linda Ronstadt, but far too few people heard George singing his own songs, backed by his own band, several of whom were in-demand session players, like Richie Hayward – a great drummer who played with Ronstadt, Dylan, Robert Plant, Tom Waits and many more. George himself was known for his slide guitar – and he is one of the very finest, completely himself and instantly recognisable – but he was also a decent singer, much admired by Van Dyke Parks among others,  and at his best a great writer too.

He died in 1979 from a heart attack, 34 years old and weighing over 22 stone (quite a gastronomic achievement for a man who was high on coke almost constantly), leaving behind a wife and young daughter (Inara George), and a reputation that’s still not really spread beyond fans of seventies LA rock. He’s not obscure, exactly, but he’s not a cult artist either. I’ve never met a fan of Little Feat my own age or younger. I’ve never met a fan of Inara George my age either, come to that. His profile might yet be boosted as, say, Judee Sill’s has been in the last five or six years, but it’d take someone to stand up for him and argue the case.

If you find yourself caught up in the groove of this one – and really, you should – check out the live version they played in 1975 on The Old Grey Whistle Test (easily found on YouTube); if anything it cooks even more.

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Lowell George — heavy slide, natural Strat