Category Archives: Music

What we’re listening to — These Days by Jackson Browne, Nico, Gregg Allman & Paul Westerberg

Once in a while I like to compare the same really good song done by two really good artists. In rare cases, you can get several versions that all work in different ways. Four is pretty unprecedented but In this case it’s warranted. Because the song in question is the reflective, melancholy Jackson Browne classic, “These Days.” Logically, most of us tend to think of the great singer-songwriter’s own version as THE version. It was released on his second album, 1973’s For Everyman, with a beautifully clean and relatively spare arrangement, highlighting Browne’s distinctively straightforward and non-self pitying vocals as they play against the very sad lyrics and the evocative guitar solos.

But Browne’s years as a teenage songwriting prodigy meant that this was not, in fact, the recorded debut of “These Days.” That honor would go to the enigmatic German artist, Nico, most famous for strangely yet appropriately taking lead vocals on 3 tracks for the Velvet Underground’s debut album (at Andy Warhol’s insistence). When Nico went solo for her 1967 album, Chelsea Girl, there was “These Days” with then-lover Jackson Browne on acoustic guitar, no less, and six years before he would get around to recording it for himself. If you’re a fan of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tannenbaums, you’ll know this version, where Nico’s trademark Teutonic non-emotive, not-really-singing seems to fit the bittersweet, offbeat comedy of that great movie.


More cover versions would not be confined to the past, though. Like few other songs in Rock, “These Days” was certified catnip for different artists’ interpretations. No sooner had Browne recorded his own version of the song, putting Nico’s in the rearview, than Gregg Allman almost simultaneously released a version for his 1973 solo debut album, Laid Back. In truth, Allman had helped Browne with his For Everyman arrangement so it seems only fair that the Southern Rock god would get to interpret it his way. Allman’s take was so good, with his trademark weeping guitar and the stoically resigned double-tracked vocals, that Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone called it “the definitive version” of the song, better even than the songwriter’s own. High praise indeed, even if Mr. Browne and his die-hard fans might disagree.


However, DeCurtis’s declaration predates another very fine version of “These Days” that I’m especially fond of. Paul Westerberg of Replacements fame covered it for his excellent 2003 solo album, Come Feel Me Tremble, speeding it up a bit from the song’s traditional dirge-like pace, adding a loping, almost dobro like guitar in place of the standard 1970s country-rock flatpicking and playing against a nicely chugging rhythm section for momentum.


I think the interesting thing about Westerberg’s version compared to the other three, aside from his trademark ugly-beautiful, slightly wobbly and cigarette-damaged vocals, is that Paul was much older than the other three when he came to record this classic song of regret and resignation. Amazingly, Browne claims to have written “These Days” at the age of 16 (!), so his intense evocation of adult setbacks and heartbreak is precocious in the extreme. By the time he got around to recording it, Browne was still only 25. Allman was likewise a young man of 26 and even the eternally gloomy Nico was only 29 or so. Obviously Rock years are not like regular human years and you could say that even in their mid or late 20s this was a trio of old souls. In fact, Allman had lost his brother Duane and another bandmate, Berry Oakley, the year prior to tackling “These Days,” Browne was already a Rock veteran by 1973 and god knows what Nico had been through in her young life between her time in New York with Warhol, Lou Reed and the Velvets. But when then 44-year-old Westerberg begs “Please don’t confront me with my failures/I have not forgotten them,” you can tell that by this point in his life and career he’s had his fair share.

Any way you slice it, “These Days” is an amazing song open to different interpretations that still retain the essential forlorn quality of the lyrics. And no matter which version you prefer, you’ve got to hand it to the author for writing one of the great rock ballads. In fact, it’s hard to believe it sometimes gets overlooked in the vast Jackson Browne canon. I suppose you could chalk this post up to making sure this gem stays on your radar in one form or another.

What we’re listening to — I’m Bad Like Jesse James by John Lee Hooker

If you’re looking for the ultimate in badass proto-gangster Blues, look no further than John Lee Hooker’s “I’m Bad Like Jesse James.” It’s hard to know where the deadly braggadocio ends and the frightening truth begins on this stone cold chiller of a track.

Adapting the tried and true murder ballad format to his patented thumping one-chord, heavily amplified blues chime, Hooker’s deep-as-a-well vocals are extra menacing. There’s no question that he’s serious as a heart attack and there’s no real subtext here even if he’s telling you to read between the lines. The message is crystal clear: You talk smack about John Lee’s woman after he’s done you a solid, you end up in the river. He’s got some boys to make sure of it — as in, four going down, but only three coming back. And, no, crying won’t help ya none. Not when the late, great John Lee Hooker’s done made up his mind that you got to go. Hard not to believe the man when he says he’s “Bad Like Jesse James,” wouldn’t you say?

What we’re listening to — Tyrone Davis

Tyrone Davis (1938 -2005) was one of the great R&B artists of the late 1960s and 1970s, even if today he may not be the first name that springs to mind. At a time when radio formats were increasingly being re-segregated, T.D. had a string of huge hits that placed high on the R&B charts, although with diminishing impact on the overall Pop charts. In another era, even just 5 or 6 years prior, he might have a been a crossover star along the lines of Sam Cooke or Otis Redding. But his artfully crafted, romantically remorseful songs ran counter to the prevailing trends in 70s-era Soul music, both in terms of their straightforward if dynamic compositions and in their almost total disregard for the red hot political topics of the day in favor of the timeless struggle for happiness between man and woman.

As so many musicians of color had before him, the Mississippi native traveled north and made his breakthrough in Chicago, where he was guided by the legendary producer Carl Davis (Tyrone even adopted that last name, changing it from his original surname, Fettson). T.D. had almost instant success at the tail end of 1960s with the pleading “Can I Change My Mind”. This breakout hit, originally a B-side, rapidly made it to #1 on the R&B charts and was #5 in Pop, minting the Tyrone Davis formula right out of the gate: a tightly arranged but not fussy horn arrangement propelling T.D.’s soulful tenor, which delivered, most importantly, the secret sauce: an inversion of the stud lover man persona into a flawed, vulnerable suitor begging for redemption.

The follow up to “Can I Change My Mind” was another stunner, “Is It Something That You’ve Got”, and then 1970’s wonderful “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time” continued this hit making formula so successfully that it gave Davis another R&B #1 (and his highest ever Pop position, #3 on the Hot 100).

From there he cranked out a series of fantastic uptempo soul ballads suffused with regret and second thoughts, filling the airwaves with sweet yet gritty pure Chicago Soul, always with a pleasing hint of his down-home country roots peeking through the worldly lyrics (for example, on 1975’s stellar “Turning Point”, we hear “toining point” more than “turning point” and “Loid, Loid, Loid” instead of “Lord”).

Davis was certainly limited by his strict adherence to simple, essentially throwback love songs, eschewing the prevailing trends in R&B music that embraced funkier, more elaborate and Afrocentric musical styles and also gave lyrical expression to political aspirations and grievances. Simply put, Tyrone Davis never made a protest song about the ghetto or racial oppression. That sort of overt social activism was not in his performer’s repertoire. And any dalliances he may have had with Disco later on did not exactly lead to memorable music to say the least. So no, T.D. will never be confused with Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, The O’Jays or Earth, Wind & Fire. But by staying true to his narrow range as a romantic Chicago soul man par excellence the best of Tyrone Davis, as typified by his standout sides for Dakar and Columbia, is really very good and well worth adding to any serious collection of classic R&B. If you’re looking to set the mood with some straight ahead romantic Soul, a selection of Tyrone Davis’ greatest hits will always get it done.

RIP Maurice White, 1941-2016

Another music great has left the building. Maurice White, the fantastically talented founder and leader of the genre bending R&B band, Earth, Wind & Fire, passed away at his home in LA on February 4th at the age of 74. The New York Times obituary is here.

Maurice White had a composer’s sense of musical innovation, applying highly advanced theories to the rapidly evolving R&B of the late 1960s and early 70s to create a funky, sometimes disco-y but always feel-good stew that was also pleasantly steeped in astrology and ancient Egyptian mythology. Along with their contemporaries Parliament/Funkadelic and Kool & the Gang, EWF made the 1970s one of the most exciting decades for innovative and creatively satisfying African-American music with immense multicultural crossover appeal. Even the band’s more disco-fied hits like “Boogie Wonderland” were undergirded by an intellectual and musical rigor that allowed Jazz, Funk & Soul influences to bubble to the surface, subtly contributing to the overall vibe of ecstatic rejoicing.

Always focusing on the positive and the uplifting, Maurice White was committed to using the power of music for spiritual explorations and personal growth and seeking to put in sonic form the transcendence that comes from a profoundly positive shared experience. EWF’s live shows were legendary and remained inspiring right up until the end, a great multihued dance party for all their fans old and new. Earth, Wind & Fire incorporated African instruments such as Mr. White’s signature kalimba along with a killer horn section and the most up to date electronic keyboards. And then their songs were elevated to the stratosphere by the soaring falsetto vocals of Philip Bailey, as well as Mr. White’s own excellent vocal contributions. Truly, the best of Earth Wind & Fire inhabits a plane of musical excellence that moves both the booty and the spirit. If you could sum up Maurice White’s philosophy of self-improvement and spiritual nourishment through the power of music in one short phrase it would have to be “Keep Your Head To The Sky”. You’d be hard pressed to find a negative, downbeat sentiment in any of EWF’s extensive canon. Even their sad songs raise the spirit. And to pull that off without devolving into sappiness and pap takes a rare skill.

Maurice White surely exhibited that skill with a rare deftness and proficiency, the kind that seems effortless but is the product of countless hours of practice and study, of drilling a large crack ensemble, all while pushing musical boundaries and laying down a challenge to his peers to raise their game or get left behind. Go back and listen to Earth Wind & Fire’s best music and you realize how beautifully well crafted and elegant this alleged “pop” dance music is. it is one of the sins of omission in music criticism that R&B music rarely gets tagged with the “art” label. But certainly the seminal performances of EWF’s best recordings rise to that level, no matter how pleasing to the ear and the pelvis they are. Sadly, the genius behind so much of their tremendous success is gone now. But the music will live on as long as we’re capable of playing it. And when we’re looking for uplift and positive vibes, as well as rump shaking good times, there are very few other bands that will satisfy quite like Earth, Wind & Fire. That’s about as great a legacy as I can imagine anyone leaving behind for the world.

Earworm of the day — This Time Tomorrow by The Kinks

Finally got around to acquiring The Kinks’ Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Pt. I on digital after never replacing my old LP of it (probably still in a box in the garage beneath 10 other boxes of CDs!). I had forgotten what a great album it is. Not only the oft-played hits “Lola” and Apeman”, two relatively rare examples of humor propelling successful Rock songs, but also the wonderfully sardonic “Top of the Pops” and the groovin’ “Powerman”. Really the whole album has this lovely, organically acoustic feel via the liberal use of dobros, Martin guitars and banjos that contrasts sharply but pleasantly with the worldly, jaded lyrics. That also leads to an interesting Roots-Americana influence on a band that is really the most archetypally British of all the British Invaders. But perhaps my favorite track on this standout 1970 album is the beautifully wistful “This Time Tomorrow.”

Encapsulating the yearning and ennui inherent in the constant touring of the Rock ‘n Roll lifestyle, the song is 3:21 of musical bliss. From the jet engine opening to the wonderful banjo-guitar-piano interplay to the always excellent Ray Davies’ heartfelt but never maudlin lyrics, “This Time Tomorrow” is one of the great life-on-the-road Rock songs. It also fits in so well with Lola‘s leitmotif of all around disenchantment with the music business at large. After all, whenever you start doing something for money it loses a lot of its charm and romance, its bright-eyed innocence & enthusiasm. But the paradox is that Ray Davies and the Kinks’ very jaundiced reflections on their life as professional musicians vis a vis Lola Versus Powerman produced such a sparklingly gorgeous pop ballad. And like the best of The Kinks, it sounds as good and fresh today as it did 45 years ago. That’s writing what you know even though you may be sick to death of it and still turning it into gold.

RIP Glenn Frey, 1948-2016

What a strange and sad start to this new year…

Glenn Frey, one of the founders of the Eagles who, along with Don Henley, was a core member for the band’s entire existence, has passed away. He was 67. The NY Times Obituary is here.

Below are some of the most Glenn Frey-centric Eagles hits. Yes, they’re certainly straight ahead Album Oriented Rock that you’ve probably heard 8 million times by now. But they exhibit pretty damn good musicianship, wonderful harmonies and the hooks still catch 40 years on. There’s also a certain 70s zeitgeist infusing the music that few other bands have retained without seeming terribly dated or bombastic.

Frey served as singer, songwriter and guitarist for the Eagles, one of the most successful Rock acts of the 1970s, a radio staple and still one of the biggest selling bands ever. Frey, a Detroit native, and Henley, a Texan, apprenticed in the burgeoning early 1970s California singer-songwriter scene, including stints together in Linda Rondstadt’s backing band, before striking out on their own and founding the Eagles. Their genius was to mainstream Gram Parson’s “Country Rock” fusion and turn it into Top 40 radio gold. Frey admittedly learned much of his songwriting craft from Jackson Browne, perhaps the ultimate singer-songwriter of that period, famously living above him in LA and absorbing his hard working compositional technique, which featured endless repetition on piano and endless cups of tea. The two would later go on to co-author one of the Eagles biggest smashes, “Take It Easy”.

What hasn’t been said about the Eagles already? For one of the best documentaries on their big time Rock ‘n Roll lifestyle, as well as the particular disfunctional dynamics of their ever-changing membership through the years, check out the epically comprehensive History of the Eagles. And for one of the funnier and most obsessive analysis of any documentary you will ever read, check out the great Bill Simmons take on History of the Eagles over at his Grantland site. His OCD dissection of the film and the band is the definitive take and probably one of the most enjoyable pieces of Rock journalism that I’ve read in a long time, even if it is all vicarious.

So another Rock ‘n Roll great has exited the stage. Even if the Eagles divided critical opinion back in the day, with New York and Mid West-based pundits regularly bashing them for their slickness, perceived sexism and very California-ness, such arguments seem quaint in era where a music magazine like Rolling Stone regularly puts American Idol winners on its covers. Take away the carping of the critics and the band controversies and the music remains solid, well made and enjoyable because it’s generally not going for grandeur just excellence. It survives and still thrives on its own merits and a greatest hits compilation belongs in any serious Rock fan’s collection at the least. Looking back, the Eagles go down as one of the very best of their hedonistic and slightly paranoid era and if they had only made “Hotel California,” actually an atypically dark and cryptic song for them, they would still have an entry in the Book of Rock. But they had a ton more hits and great tunes and so they’ve surely earned their own chapter. And Glenn Frey was a big, big part of that.

What we’re listening to — David Bowie

Still missing the man but reveling in the music. Here’s to a life well lived and a true Rock ‘n Roll innovator determined never to repeat himself. Now that he’s gone I think we can really see his impact on our culture at large was even more important than was generally thought on a lot of levels.

RIP David Bowie, 1947-2016

The great Rock ‘n Roll icon David Bowie has passed away at the age of 69 after a year and a half battle with liver cancer. Somehow this feels liken an especially shocking and premature death. Bowie represented youth and eternal transformation for so long it doesn’t quite seem possible that he embarked on his final journey and left the rest of us behind to face a duller, grayer world without him.

Though one couldn’t say he had been a major musical force for over a decade, Bowie always seemed omnipresent in the ether of Rock music and pop culture. He was so far ahead of the curve in terms of gender bending, performance art and sonic experimentation that the public and critics never really had time to catch up with him before he was on to the next thing. This made high critical praise somewhat scarce in his most productive period of rapid-fire evolution during the 1970s but his legion of fans almost always loved his chameleonic ways and rewarded him with a lot of big hits. From his breakout “Space Oddity” where he jettisoned his folk rock persona in favor of cryptic, beautifully operatic sic-fi, which perfectly dovetailed with the zeitgeist of the Space Race; to his first really fully realized persona, the androgynous Ziggy Stardust on the amazing Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars that helped move Glam to the forefront of Rock styles for a time thanks to Mick Ronson’s sizzling guitar licks on such high octane classics as the title track, “Suffragete City” and “Starman”; the less popular but still very good follow-up Alladin Sane, which featured the swinging “The Gene Jeanie” and the scorching “Panic In Detroit”; Bowie’s prescient farewell to Glam, Diamond Dogs with the immortal “Rebel, Rebel” and searing title track; and Young Americans, creating a chapter unto itself by putting Ziggy to rest and delving deeply into R&B and Soul by recording the album at Philadelphia’s Sigma Studios with a large backing band of Rhythm & Blues aces — it produced the two classics that bookend the album, “Young Americans” and “Fame”. Looking back, any critic worth his salt would have to conclude that after all the typical handwringing during those days over what was or wasn’t “authentic” Rock ‘n Roll this amazingly productive period goes down as some of the best and sonically well made music of that or any other era. Listen to it again now and I think you’ll find that most of it hasn’t dated at all. There is a crispness there, a clean feel in production and arrangement, in lyrical content and vocal delivery that just doesn’t age. It’s youth, it’s sexuality, it’s euphoria, it’s empathy. In short, it’s immortal.

For another artist, this prime early-mid 70s period would have been enough and they would have been satisfied to coast and tour on these hits for years to come. But Bowie, like all the greats, had more to give and more skins to shed. He donned the mantle of the Thin White Duke for 1976’s Station to Station, a sort of continuation of the extraterrestrial persona he created in Nicolas Roeg’s cult sic-fi classic, The Man Who Fell To Earth. But he was also battling a serious cocaine addiction and Bowie’s behavior became increasingly erratic. So despite the success of hits like “Golden Years” and “TVC15” Bowie abandoned the problematic Thin White Duke and made an unexpected physical move, first to Switzerland and then to West Berlin to get clean and get away from the hothouse environments of LA and the UK. He subsequently entered what could arguably called his most fascinating period. Collaborating for the first time with Brian Eno, as well as his most regular producer Tony Viscointi, Bowie produced Low in 1977 and then rapidly followed that up the same year with Heroes and finally Lodger in 1979. These formed his “Berlin trilogy” and while the hits were harder to come by due to the challenging nature of the music — “Sound and Vision” on Low, the title track from Heroes — they are astonishing breakthroughs in Rock music. Low and Heroes in particular are of a part of the best Alternative music of the 1970s: uncompromising, innovative in production and arrangements and appropriative of percolating musical trends — in this case, the synthesizer revolution being spearheaded by Krautrockers like Can and Kraftwerk — in the finest sense of those words. It is also fair to say that Bowie would never reach those kinds of creative heights again.

But, as such a visually trendsetting and provocative artist, Bowie remained more than relevant at the dawn of the MTV era, with the heavily played videos for “Let’s Dance, “China Girl” and “Modern Love”, all from Let’s Dance (1983), co-produced with Bowie by Chic’s Nile Rodgers. In fact, Bowie was an inveterate collaborator producing and gaining inspiration from Iggy Pop and Lou Reed — on the latter’s Transformer (1972) it was difficult to tell who had influenced who more. And in the 80s Bowie made a veritable fetish of collaboration: “Under Pressure” with Queen in 1981 then a string of pop hits with Tina Turner, Mick Jagger and Pat Metheny. It was almost as if he were now relinquishing any dominant persona whatsoever and preferred to be just part of a team of players, not the star. His decision to be in the band Tin Machine but not as the true frontman seemed to confirm this new reluctance to put himself forward, carve off new facets and expose himself in the highly Brechtian manner of years past.

Even past his prime, Bowie remained exceedingly active with a mania to create and work on art, film and music with other artists. But it is for his amazing achievements of the 1970s that Major Tom, Ziggy, the Man Who Fell to Earth, The Thin White Duke and the Berlin Lodger will always remain in our collective cultural consciousness. It is a result of those indelible, seminal creations and the vibrant music that emerged from his constant pushing and probing that Bowie’s passing seems so very abrupt and shocking. The characters he birthed remain alive in our minds today even if he sloughed off those particular personas years ago. Driven to create, Bowie could not help but become restless with his creations and retire them in favor of something and someone new. The pace of his self-reinventions during the decade of the 1970s is head-spinning when viewed in retrospect. Perhaps he got tired of always portraying “the other”, some kind of semi-alien creature, a product of but not a part of our society as a whole, reflecting back at us like a deliciously distorted mirror. Eventually I imagine he just wanted to be David Bowie and maybe even just David Robert Jones, an artist yes but a flesh and blood human being with “regular” tastes and moods, a two-time father and a more down to earth bon vivant with a supermodel wife. But by playing out his artistic impulses prior to that in a very public, very theatrical way, Bowie managed to fuse Rock ‘n Roll with performance art to create something that was both sonically and visually new, exciting and ultimately extremely satisfying. He seemed like nothing so much as a one man self-propelled cultural explosion for a while there, where he might baffle you with his choices but it would always be imperative that you keep up with whatever Bowie was doing, wearing and singing.

And so the best of his work still remains. The great artist leaves behind the works he has created for the masses to enjoy even as he himself must inexorably move on to the next phase of his creativity driven not to repeat himself. But the works remain for our enjoyment, the same as a given period of work for Bruce Nauman or Richard Serra or any truly innovative fine artist. David Bowie created more than his fair share of genius works through pain, experimentation, self-exploration and pop culture telepathy. The best of what he leaves behind can only be called great art. To listen to the best of Bowie is to be transformed and swept up, not just to a time or place in our past but to timeless moods and the very vibrations of life itself, and that’s why it doesn’t really age. It just keeps orbiting the Earth and dropping in for occasional visits, a transporter beam to sonic bliss, vicarious thrills and unconditional understanding of our own unique strangeness and individuality. Just like Major Tom, David Bowie is still out there somewhere and always will be.

Happy New Year from Man’s Fine Life!

We at MFL would like to wish a Happy New Year to all our loyal readers and occasional visitors. We really appreciate you stopping by in 2015 and wish you & yours all the very best in 2016.

Our New Year’s Resolution is to keep on marching to the beat of our own drummer and expanding our horizons to all things interesting and gentlemanly and then hopefully sharing that with you. What’s yours?

What we’re listening to — Spirit

A classic 1960s psychedelic two-hit wonder, Spirit roared out of LA in 1968 with the exceptionally propulsive, catchy and self-assured “I Got A Line On You”, one of the great hits of the decade.

Featuring stinging guitar work by their shaggy frontman, the perfectly named Randy California, and the inspired backbeat of middle-aged bald-headed powerhouse Jack Cassidy, Spirit put hard rock front and center in their classic hippy come on. “Line” eschewed their usual mystical, trippy approach for straight ahead power pop and enhanced by by their eclectic visual appeal as a unit the result was a Top 25 hit in the USA.

But the band was simply too idiosyncratic for any sustained pop success, constantly experimenting with word poems and extended musical meditations with titles like “Fresh Garbage” that pleased the faithful but not the masses. They did have one more great hit up their sleeves, California’s beautiful “Nature’s Way”.

Released in 1970 and channeling the justifiable environmental concerns of the counterculture into one epically lovely and well constructed ballad, “Nature’s Way” is another all-time great by the band. It could also be seen as Spirit’s swan song, as they would only make a limited commercial impact after that. But in addition to these two stone classics, Spirit produced a lot of worthwhile music during their halcyon days at the crossroads of the death of the 60s and dawn of the 70s. If you’re an aficionado of that particular period of Rock history and like the way the band comes across on these two hits you could do worse than to explore further with a greatest hits package. Spirit may be an acquired taste but their music still packs a heady, distinctively organic punch unlike so many of the other ersatz studio creations of the period. There’s never any doubt whatsoever that this was a real band along the lines of a Jefferson Airplane and not a manufactured product like the Association. And that makes Spirit well worth delving into if the psychedelic era is your scene.