Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Hey Hey Johnny," songs for dead celebs

An old friend of mine used to keep a list of people who should have been shot instead of John Lennon. It was a very long list and he tended it with a maniacal fervor.
Of course, there were men like Kim Jung Il, Idi Amin, the since decapitated Saddam Hussein and other tyrants bedeviling the planet about 25 years ago.
But there were also numerous garden variety miscreants who, I felt, certainly didn’t deserve ballistic ventilation. I remember his list included one wobbly NFL kicker for the Detroit Lions whose scattergun field goals had cost my friend a small fortune in ill-considered wagers.
It’s wrong, of course, to talk about the need for more gun violence on a day so marred by tragic gun violence, but I always think about him and his list on December 8.
I was too young to be moved by the grief tsunami that swept across the country 30 years ago this evening.
Of the Beatles, he’s probably only my third favorite behind Paul and George, which is like finishing last since who cares about Ringo (in fact, I think Ringo was on my friend’s list).
My favorite solo song of his is “Watching the Wheels,” but the rest move me very little. And I maintain all the best and most tuneful Beatle songs were Paul’s creations (“Hey Jude,” “Penny Lane,” “Yesterday,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “Eleanor Rigby”).
And then there’s the whole Yoko Ono thing. We have, as a nation, watched her for more than 40 years and no one has yet to figure out what he saw in her.
Lennon’s hailed for his devotional fatherhood to Sean, but no one ever mentions how he abandoned his first family and never paid a minute’s worth attention to his first son, Julian, who released a fine album I recall from about 1985, and seems to have grown up normal despite John’s cold absence. 
Still, I’m fascinated by Lennon and understand my friend’s list wholeheartedly.
Why him?
His contributions were incomplete. It was Lennon I thought of after Paul’s recent diss of George Bush. McCartney praised Obama and hinted it was great we had a president who knew how to read.
Conservatives howled because, well, that’s what conservatives do best.
My first thought was, “You guys ought to be glad some one shot John Lennon. I wish he’d been around as we were ramping up to fight this goddamn ridiculous Iraq war. Man, he’d have been raising holy hell.”
We lost so much when we lost him -- and the music wasn’t the half of it.
That’s what I lament about his death. We lost an agitating jester.
I never let this day pass without playing the two great songs written to commemorate his death and life. They are monumental works and I still struggle to get through them without wiping tears.
The first is “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny),” written by Bernie Taupin and Elton John, who was one of Lennon’s best friends and with whom he made his last concert appearance.. 
It’s a fascinating friendship. Elton bet Lennon that if his version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” went No. 1, Lennon would have to perform at Madison Square Garden with him. It did and their lively version of, ironically, Paul’s song, “I Saw Her Standing There” is Lennon’s last live performance.
Elton performed “Empty Garden” once and couldn’t make it through. Propelled by a heartbeat rhythm, the song is so plaintive, so heart wrenching, it combines rage and grief to create something beautiful. He’s never played it again.
The other is “All Those Years Ago” by George Harrison. It’s the flip side of the Elton song.
It’s a bouncy delight about the joy he knew by being friends with John when it was just the four of them bouncing around in the van as it rolls across the English countryside. It’s the side of John Lennon even Yoko never knew.
How he wrote a song this beautiful, this euphoric, about something that had to be so devastating to him leads me to believe angels exist and they love to dance.
Here’s a short list of other worthy songs inspired by dead celebrities:
  • “Candle in the Wind,” Elton John, about Marilyn Monroe. It pained me when he and Taupin re-wrote the lyrics to commemorate the death of Princess Diana. Seemed kind of cheesy. Still does.
  • “American Pie,” Don McLean, about Buddy Holly and, really, the death of era. Still one of the most compelling pop songs ever and the best to over-analyze in the company of good friends and a warm bong.
  • “Song for Sonny Liston,” by Mark Knopfler, about the legendary boxer. Knopfler is one of the best storytelling songwriters. This 5:07 song makes me want to read books about Liston.
  • “American Roulette,” by Robbie Robertson, about James Dean, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe. Concussive beat, stinging guitars and urgent vocals make this feel like an ambulance ride to the ER after an OD.
  • “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” by Drive-By Truckers, about Ronnie Van Zant, George Wallace and Bear Bryant.” Man do these guys cook. This starts at a simmer and burns to a boil. Every southern band is compared to Lynyrd Skynyrd.   It’s time to start comparing bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Drive-By Truckers.
  • “Alcohol and Pills,” by Todd Snider about Hank Williams Sr., Elvis, Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons and Jimi Hendrix. Another cautionary tale: “Alcohol and pills, it’s a cryin’ shame. You think that they’d have been happy with the glory and the fame. But fame don’t take away the pain. It just pays the bills. And you wind up on alcohol and pills.”
  • “Family Tradition,” by Hank Williams Jr. about Hank Williams Sr. I don’t know if Hank III has updated this one, but I’d buy it. You can’t go wrong with any of the great Nashville Hanks. Dallas Wayne has a great song that describes the blueprint for a really great night. It’s meant for Senior, but could apply to any of the Williams boys: “Crack the Jack and Crank the Hank.”
Imagine the fun.


shrink on the couch said...

My husband frequently laments, "why did all my favorites have to die young?" Lennon, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Duane Allman, Marvin Gaye, Andy Gibb (kidding).

"Lennon’s hailed for his devotional fatherhood to Sean, but no one ever mentions how he abandoned his first family and never paid a minute’s worth attention to his first son, Julian"

I think of this all the time. I read a biography of Lennon that highlighted all of his neurotic shortcomings. It seems that his relationship with Yoko overshadowed everything in his life, including his first born.

But he was one helluva songwriter.

Chris Rodell said...

What's wrong with Andy Gibb? Ha.

I don't know why the human failings of Lennon are overlooked. Do we really need to deify him?

It was such a sad waste.

Suldog said...

You hit the nail on the head with the "agitating jester" line. That was what he was superb at doing, ruffling the feathers of the holier-than-thou. He most definitely would have been on the front lines of protest concerning these ridiculous military adventures we're involved in.

Chris Rodell said...

Yeah, Steve Earle did his best to fulfill that role, but he's too blunt. Lennon was so deft. No one's stepped into that role, except maybe Stephen Colbert, but he's too easy to dismiss. Lennon had real credibility. We do miss him.

Averil Dean said...

I'm with you about the Candle in the Wind rewrite. Very cheesy, but you couldn't say so out loud.

Chris Rodell said...

Elton fascinates me, Averil. My first album was "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" so I grew up with him, although you could argue neither of us has grown up (especially him).

He blubbered through that whole rendition. I couldn't say it was cheesy back then, either.

I saw a news show recently that showed him playing tennis. It was one of the funniest things I've ever seen. He's utterly unpretentious.

Liked all your guest bloggers this week. Do get in touch if you ever want me to spell you with a post from days gone by. I'd be happy to help out.



Unknown said...

Fantastic read, Chris. Ryan Adams’ SYLVIA PLATH is another good one.