11. Marc Cohn - Walking in Memphis

If you haven't guessed it by now, I'm a pretty big fan of music.  When I'm listening to music, especially on headphones, I'm listening to the little nuances, the small sounds that the producer doesn't think I hear.  But I do.  That little wisp of hammond organ at the end of the first verse, barely a third of second long?  Yeah, I got that.  The doubling of the bass to give it that extra thump at the low end?  I heard it.  I'm not bragging, I'm just telling you how much I appreciate music and how it's put together.

When I listen to music, I'm not visualizing what the singer's trying to portray, I'm absorbing all of the music and the melody, bit by little bit.  That's why lyrics are often completely ignored by me, other than seeing them as a melody delivery device.  "Hey Jude" could've just as well been "Hey Dude" and I probably wouldn't have noticed.  It's not often that lyrics really catch my ear, much less cause me to put my metaphysical need to delve into the minutiae of the music aside and let a visual reference jump into my head.  Putting this list together and writing these essays on each song may have changed that forever to a certain extent, but that's still my disposition.  Paying attention to lyrics takes an effort.  Breaking down the music into individual elements is something that just comes naturally to me.

To steal a riff from the greatest comedian who ever lived*, "I told you that story to tell you this one."

Just like there are iconic guitar riffs, there's also the lesser-known, kid brother of the guitar riff - the awesome piano intro.  Played just right, an opening piano line can really catch your ear, pulling you out of whatever you were doing and making you listen.  #78 had one.  So did #67, #66, #63, #38, #33, #20, and #13.  #4 on this list has one (good luck Todd trying to guess it).  I like the piano.  Even though it doesn't get its just due in rock & roll for the most part, it does on my list.  But none of those other piano intros did what the piano intro for "Walking in Memphis" did for me.

It's a rainy night in the countryside.  You're not sure where you are, but you know you're in the South.  The rain started slowly - just a few drops to make you wonder if you were seeing things or not.  Before too long, it's raining just hard enough to bring that pleasant "it's raining" feeling to you, but not so much that it's going to be a big inconvenience because there aren't many street lights on this stretch of the highway.  You're going south from Memphis, where you had an amazing few days.  But real life beckons, and you're heading home.  But not just yet.

The song on the radio isn't doing it for you and you're a bit hungry, so you pull off at the next exit, chuckle at a sign that it actually says "Hollywood," and in less than a minute, you pull into a parking lot of one of those diner/juke joints that you only see in movies.  You smell frying catfish and hear the strains of good - no, great music spilling through the crack of the door that the fry cook left open while he finished his cigarette, which he prematurely snubbed out because the rain was really starting to come down now.  Without hesitation, you walk in.  Before long, you're best friends with a guy you just met named Rodney, who you're telling about your recent trip to Memphis.

That's the vision that jumped into my mind, fully formed, while I listened to this song for the first time.  The piano refrain was the rain, and the lyrics helped paint the rest of the picture.  It was like a dream that I was fully awake for, complete with soundtrack.  That kind of thing never happens to me, so that's why this song lands so high on my list.  Well, that and it's an amazing song sung by a guy with one of those great meaty voices.  Marc Cohn is one of those rare people who's both blessed with tremendous talent in his instrumental ability as well as his voice.

The song is full of tons of references to all things Memphis.  His "blue suede shoes" are from Carl Perkins' great song, Beale is the musical heart of Memphis.  WC Handy is a blues legend, while Union Street is the home to the legendary Sun Studio.  Graceland, of course, is Elvis' home, while the jungle room is where Elvis and his pals "took care of business."  I'll leave that last part to your imagination.

Marc puts it much more poetically, so I'll use his words:

Saw the ghost of Elvis
On Union Avenue
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
Then I watched him walk right through 

While the piano is the star of the show, without the rest of the music being strong as well, the song may have collapsed under the singular weight of just the one instrument.  The way he hits the keys with his piano, Marc is the first person who establishes a beat.  But drummer Steve Gadd then takes over, hitting the rim of his snare to maintain the beat but not to distract too much.  He lightly dances over his cymbals and toms, giving that off beat jazzy feel to the song while also keeping the actual beat to move the song forwar  d.  It's easy to write about, but much harder to accomplish. 

Guitar in this song is purely of the rhythm variety.  It adds nice atmosphere while it doubles the piano line, giving the song some extra sonic texture.  There's just the slightest hint of organ early in the song.  As the song progresses and the pace picks up, the organ pops through occasionally, unable to contain its enthusiasm.  When Marc sings about "gospel in the air" and mentions former soul legend turned Reverend Al Green, the church organ takes its brief moment in the spotlight.

It's at this point that Marc's lyrics perfectly sum up how gospel music has really permeated through to secular music.  The inspiration and enthusiasm of gospel music is so contagious that popular music just can't ignore it.  The influence is in countless soul, rock and pop songs.  When you see people play and sing with such vervor, you can't help but want to jump up, singing and dancing with them, even if you're a card carrying atheist.  Marc captures that scene:

Now Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would --
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
And she said --
"Tell me are you a Christian, child?"
And I said "Ma'am I am tonight"

I've traveled all over the US, been to 39 of the 50 states (including Tennessee), but I've never been to Memphis.  After listening to this song, I feel like I have.  And I want to go back.

*Bill Cosby - The line is from "Buck Buck," from his album Revenge - the first introduction of Fat Albert.

12. U2 - Sunday Bloody Sunday

"There's been talk about this next song.  Maybe... maybe too much talk.  This song is not a rebel song.  This song is "Sunday Bloody Sunday"*

Bono, you sir are a big fat liar.  Not a rebel song?  I hate to break it to you, but "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is all rebel song.  It's a sheep in wolf's clothing.  It takes the structure of your militaristic call-to-arms and turns it on its head.  It's a musical swords to plowshares.  While protest songs of the 60's and early 70's (i.e.  The Byrds' "Turn Turn Turn" and even John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance") called for the world to change its warring ways, they all did so with a reasoned calm, trying to get more flies with honey.  A few bands, like CSN&Y with "Ohio" and CCR with "Fortunate Son" definitely had anger in their songs, but it still came across as hippies preaching to the choir.  U2 took that motivation and took it to eleven - hell - fifteen.

"Imagine" is trying to change the world by inspiring you with a quiet restraint.  "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is trying to change the world by convincing you with a sledgehammer and a bullhorn.  U2 didn't have the patience or the inclination to tone down their message so they didn't piss people off.  U2 didn't care.  They did know, however, that they were putting themselves in a precarious position with the Irish nationalists back home.  Edge had written lyrics that were even more pointed (but not in support of his country's Catholic brethren, as you might think), but the band didn't want to take it that far.  But they were taking it farther than anyone else had ever done before.

Right off the bat, the song starts with Larry Mullen Jr.'s machine gun drum intro.  On the album version, the  drums were recorded in a staircase of their Dublin recording studio. Producer Steve Lillywhite was trying to get a full sound with a natural echo.  The Edge, the guitarist, plays a simple repeated guitar riff until Bono opens with the lyrics that spill out of his frustration.  He just can't contain it any more.  The lyrics go back to hearing about that afternoon's Bloody Sunday massacre.

I can't believe the news today
Oh, I can't close my eyes and make it go away
How long, how long must we sing this song?
How long? How long?
'Cause tonight we can be as one, tonight

The sad part is that Bono's fully away that although we can be as one tonight, we're not going to be - at least not any time soon.  You hear the frustration in his voice.  But it's more than that.  It angers him.  And it should.  There were no winners in the conflict between the Irish who wanted Northern Ireland to be a part of the homeland and the British who had come to call Northern Ireland home.

Sadly, Adam Clayton's bass line doesn't even enter the song until the first chorus.  And even though I'll sound like a broken record, to lay one's ego aside for the good of the song is something at which bassists are especially talented.  Adam just gives some low tones to hold the rhythm together and not to take away from Larry's stand out drumming.  There's a great fiddle part, played by a local violinist, Steve Wickham, who'd actually asked Edge at a bus stop if U2 needed any violin on their next record.  Turns out they did.  At times, it comes across almost as another rhythm instrument, while at other times it plays a plaintive wail, echoing the scream of sirens that must've filled the early-evening air.
As great as the album version is of this song, the definitive versions are ones that were recorded live.  Of those, the two most famous are ones recorded for concert films.  The first is the one that helped bring U2 to national prominence, the performance that was recorded at Denver's Red Rocks Amphitheater in 1983.  That's the one quoted at the beginning of this entry.  The second one was recorded (ironically, also in Denver) on November 8th, 1987, the same day as the Remembrance Day Bombing in Enniskillen, a northern Irish town, where 13 people were killed by a bomb detonated by the IRA.  It was at this performance that Bono's frustration and anger finally exploded.  He realized that they'd gotten no closer to a resolution.  He could contain it no more.

When they play the song live, the band often breaks the arrangement down, simplifying the music.  Edge lightly strums his guitar with muted strings, matched by Larry's martial drum beat and augmented with Adam's bass line.  It's at this point that if Bono has something to say, this is where he says it.  They can keep it up as long as he needs.  On that November night, Bono had much to say:

Now lemme tell you somethin'. I've had enough of Irish Americans who haven't been back to their country in twenty or thirty years come up to me and talk about the resistance, the revolution back home. And the glory of the revolution, and the glory of dying for the revolution. Fuck the revolution! They don't talk about the glory of killing for the revolution. What's the glory in takin' a man from his bed and gunnin' him down in front of his wife and his children? Where's the glory in that? Where's the glory in bombing a Remembrance Day parade of old-aged pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day. Where's the glory in that? To leave them dyin', or crippled for life, or dead, under the rubble of a revolution.... that the majority of the people of my country... don't want. Sing no more!
Even though his anger is palpable, he won't let it get to the point where violence seems to be the only answer.  He's seen where that's gotten his country, and he addresses it in the lyrics:

But I won't heed the battle call
It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall

So Bono, and the rest of U2 as well, does the only thing they really know how to do.  They sing - and play.  They try to get people to realize the futility of violence begetting violence - the unending vicious circle that terrorism and its retribution reaps.

And while Bono knows that we may not be as one tonight, we will be.  It's inevitable.  We have to be.  And it's that optimism, cloaked in a song filled with anger and frustration, that is the lasting message of "Sunday Bloody Sunday."  So in taking a musical structure that has more in common with a rousing call-to-arms, U2 shouts a message for peace, shouting it so loudly that you can't ignore it.  "Sing no more!" Bono implores.  Tens of thousands of voices ring in agreement at every concert.  This is how the other side, the violent side, does it.  Get everyone shouting in unison about something in anger.  But in this case, it's a call-to-drop-arms.  And although sporadic violence still erupts, with the Belfast Agreement of 1998, which ended the hostilities between the British government and the Irish militants, U2 has proven their case.  We can be as one tonight. 

Go ahead Bono, you can say it.  To a certain degree, you've won.  I'll even give you the line:  "This song was absolutely a rebel song.  This song is "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

* There are two Bloody Sundays in Irish history. The first was in 1920 when British troops fired into the crowd at a football match in Dublin in retaliation for the killing of British undercover agents. The second was on January 30, 1972, when British paratroopers killed 13 Irish citizens at a civil rights protest in Derry, Northern Ireland. The song is more about the second Bloody Sunday.

Three videos for this one.  The first is the iconic live recording from Red Rocks, the second is the album version, and the third is the one from Rattle and Hum with Bono's speech about the bombing at Enniskillen.

Larry Mullen had a great quote that I thought was just a bit too long for the main body of my post, since I already had that long one by Bono.  It's kinda like a deleted scene in a movie.  I didn't want to cut it, but it just slowed things down a bit too much for my tastes.  But it's really insightful:

We're into the politics of people, we're not into politics. Like you talk about Northern Ireland, 'Sunday Bloody Sunday,' people sort of think, 'Oh, that time when 13 Catholics were shot by British soldiers'; that's not what the song is about. That's an incident, the most famous incident in Northern Ireland and it's the strongest way of saying, 'How long? How long do we have to put up with this?' I don't care who's who - Catholics, Protestants, whatever. You know people are dying every single day through bitterness and hate, and we're saying why? What's the point? And you can move that into places like El Salvador and other similar situations - people dying. Let's forget the politics, let's stop shooting each other and sit around the table and talk about it... There are a lot of bands taking sides saying politics is crap, etc. Well, so what! The real battle is people dying, that's the real battle."