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Delirious desire

It’s easy to understand why we remember songs when we’ve heard them dozens or hundreds of times. But there are also songs that seize a permanent spot in our memory despite being heard only, say, four or five times.

For me, one of those songs is “Say You” by Ronnie Dove. It barely cracked the Top 40 in late September 1964. It was the last track on the B-side of Ronnie’s Right or Wrong LP — kind of a weird position for a single… The follow-up single, a cover of Wanda Jackson’s great “Right or Wrong,” and a bigger hit, was the last track on side A. (Incidentally, Wanda’s song is another of those I heard only a handful of times back in the day, but never, ever forgot — like “Say You,” it’s one of my favorites.)

“Say You” is a great-sounding Nashville record (maybe recorded at Studio B, like Dove’s “Right or Wrong”? Listen to that gorgeous echo chamber…). But I think what made the song stick for me was the vocal delivery. Even as a kid in ’64, I sensed something unusual in its emotional intensity, seemingly relaxed and frantic at the same time.

“Say You” is a fantasy (“I think you’re gonna be my girl”), but it’s not just some guy dream-dream-dreaming in the privacy of his own home. It’s a story with a real setting (a party, a nightclub?) and real characters: a guy named Ronnie and a “girl” across the room (we don’t know her name, ‘cause we haven’t been introduced). There’s the awkwardness of a first encounter: “I know we’re strangers, from different places… don’t be afraid…”

It’s all about desire, and desire is one of the most sung-about topics in all of music. Sometimes, though, desire gets expressed in a way that’s almost out of control. Delirious desire. (But more precisely, the feeling of out-of-control-ness is artfully simulated — this is, after all, art.) It has the emotional intensity (and the Bolero bridge, and the climactic high note) of a Roy Orbison ballad, but Roy’s voice is more controlled. Roy never sobs, even when he’s “Crying.” Johnny Ray sobbed. Timi Yuro sobbed. And Ronnie Dove sobs, after the line “I know we’re strangers from different places….”

I think what has given this song staying power for me is the sheer expressiveness of Ronnie Dove’s vocal. All the many nuances — the matter-of-factness of “my name is Ronnie,” the mix of self-assuredness and doubt in the line “I think you’re gonna be my girl,” the Elvis-like lilt of “I’ll treat you tenderly,” the evocation of a hallucinatory scene, almost swooning in desire:

Tonight, mister moon
Shines his light
Tonight, be mine
Let me hold you tight
Tonight your lips
Glisten so bright
I think you’re gonna be my girl

The background singers seem to provide a happy ending: “Say, you are my girl” — but is it real or are we still in the fantasy?

If you’ve forgotten this song, or haven’t heard it in a long while, it’s well worth revisiting. I recommend headphones.

Listen to Ronnie Dove’s “Say You” on YouTube

Silence

I know one thing for certain: silence will not present itself unbidden amid the noise of the world. If I want it, I have to make space for it, and there is always a choice to make that space. … And in our time now, every decision in favor of silence is profound, even if it involves no more than deliberately turning away other things for hours or days in a week.
Jane Brox

The Internet is Television

The internet was once only about sharing information on a peer-to-peer basis. Inevitably, every aspect of the web is now commodified. The techniques of TV-makers to capture and control audiences are the same ones used by Facebook, Google, et al., strategies that are getting so much negative attention now. Techniques like encouraging passive consumption, addiction, and a feeling of “missing out” when not tuned in. Not to mention the use of captured personal data for profit (TV could only envy this degree of eyeball-mining — their version was the primitive Nielsen rating system).

The web has brought huge benefits into our daily lives. But under capitalism, the expense of maintaining the web had to be underwritten by advertising. So, like TV, the web became a vast marketplace.

I think that the re-emerging trend toward personal blogs (or websites) can be a way to start re-emphasizing the pre-commercial, purely communicative promise of the web.

Detective series

I haven’t watched mainstream television (news networks, sports, sitcoms, talk shows, etc., etc., blah blah blah) for decades. But I very much like watching (mostly British) TV detective series, e.g., Luther, Intelligence, Broadchurch, Vera, George Gently, The Killing, Happy Valley, Marcella, Line of Duty, Wallander, and Shetland.

Chamath Palihapitiya

The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.
Former Facebook VP Chamath Palihapitiya

Paul Butterfield Blues Band, “Mary Mary” (1966)

For aspiring musicians in the 1960s, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was hugely influential. If Bob Dylan turned rock into “music for adults” on a lyrical level, the Butterfield Band did the same thing musically.

The band had a ferocious, street-tough sound, best heard early on in What’s Shakin’ cuts like “One More Mile” and “Good Morning Little School Girl.” The performances on their first full (eponomously-titled) Elektra album were great, but despite the instruction on the back of the jacket to play it loud*, the sound itself, the production, was a tiny bit distant, as if you were standing at the back of the club. What’s Shakin’ put you right at the front edge of the stage. (I don’t think Butterfield achieved that degree of in-your-face toughness again until 1969’s Keep On Movin’, produced by Jerry Ragovoy.)

The first album was straight blues, pure Chicago. Sam Lay was probably the best blues drummer in the world at that point, but when he took ill on tour in Boston, the band recruited a jazzier drummer, Billy Davenport, to take his place. The band’s musical landscape was broadening; the landmark second album, East-West, features traditional blues (Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues”, Muddy Waters’ “Two Trains Running,” and the probably public domain “I Got A Mind to Give Up Living” and “All These Blues”); New Orleans R&B (“Get Out of My Life, Woman”); hard bop (“Work Song”); modal jazz-raga-acid-rock (the title cut); and an old-style jazz ballad, “Never Say No,” that would be at home on a Billy Eckstine (or Billie Holiday) record.

Then there’s “Mary Mary.” The Monkees’ version of this Michael Nesmith tune is cute, it’s bubblegum. The Wrecking Crew (and Micky Dolenz on vocals) play it straight for the band’s teen audience; Micky delivers the vocal in a dry, non-syncopated style that seems disconnected from the lyrics’ plea. There’s even a pseudo-oriental cliché guitar riff. I’m not trying to slag the Monkees; I enjoy listening to their early hits. But when we step over to the Butterfield “Mary Mary” the contrast is unavoidable.

On the East-West “Mary Mary,” a snare cracks and we’re right into heavy. This song got bluesified. The G-A-D bass and guitar unison riff feels ominous; it brings tension every time around; it’s the call to the harmonica’s and fuzz guitar’s response. The Charlie Chan guitar riff becomes organ swell into barrelhouse piano. The song feels more A minor than A major; any thirds are somewhere between C and C# — that’s blues territory for sure. The “pop-iest” element is the backing vocals, washed in reverb, right out of a girl-group arrangement.

The blues harp is the most voice-like instrument, and Butterfield’s solo is as impassioned as his vocal. This is serious, grown-up stuff:

What more, Mary, can I do
To prove my love is truly yours?
I’ve done more than any clear-thinkin’ man would do.

As I said, the Monkees’ audience were teenyboppers, and their “Mary Mary” is a boy singing to a girl. Butterfield is a man singing to woman.

Billy Davenport nicely lifts the final verse with a 16th-note ride bell groove, then it’s the organ swelling to the song’s climax: one of the most electrifying guitar solos of the day. This was pure Bloomfield; Les Paul bridge pickup right into a Twin Reverb with the volume at about 8 (yes, Mike revealed his settings — a rare occurrence in those pre-web days — in the legendary Hit Parader interview). You have to understand — to hear a guitar sound like that coming off vinyl grooves in 1966 was mind-blowing!** The solo and the song fade, making a statement: when The Paul Butterfield Blues Band does a pop song, they mean business.


* “We suggest that you play this record at the highest possible volume in order to fully appreciate the sound of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.”

** Two peak examples of this kind of spine-tingling blues solo: Bloomfield’s “I Got A Mind to Give Up Living” and Eric Clapton’s “Have You Heard.”

Listen to The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s “Mary Mary” on YouTube

Listen to The Monkees’ “Mary Mary” on YouTube