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Monday, July 19, 2010

Mary, Queen of Rock

Rock music has a way of canonizing women's names. The Allman Brothers, for instance, have immortalized the wild beauty of Jessica, the haunting elusiveness of Melissa, and the romantic mystery of Elizabeth Reed. Fleetwood Mac have imparted Sarah with a tinge of occult mysticism. Just mention Roxanne and watch all of the thirty and forty-somethings falling over themselves to imitate Sting's wailing tribute.

No name, though, holds as sacred a place in rock music as Mary. Do a little bit of casual research and you'll find that no other name comes close to Mary in terms of the number of references in rock music.

But why the collective obsession with Mary? In a medium designed for the sole purpose of rebellion and the expression of rage, Mary is remarkably steady, pure, and establishment. Mary is the girl next door, not the exotic "Candy" whose room you can only visit in the mythical darkness on the edge of town. But maybe that's just the point. Invoking the name of a Mary in any song seems to lend it a sense of biblical reverence, of epic significance that exists outside the song itself. Even the Monkees, as trivial as their bubble-gum pop comes across, successfully capitalized on the power of Mary to create a song that remains powerfully singable today.

And, for the record, real-life Marys seem to hold up their end of the bargain. I've never met a Mary I didn't like; I've also never met a Mary who deviated all that far from the musical archetype. So, here's to Mary - a grand old name: the greatest "Mary references" in the history of rock.

 5. Jimi Hendrix - The Wind Cries Mary. Ok, so I have no idea whatsoever what he's talking about. But it sure sounds awesome, doesn't it? Try any other name in place of Mary - it just doesn't work.

4. Jim Croce - Salon and Saloon. I bet you don't know this one. And that's a shame, because it's quite a haunting, beautiful song, which isn't hurt by the Jim Croce mystique, either. (Croce died way before his time in a plane crash. As a result, his songs, which might have gone down as pleasant little ballads, now sound as if they are sung by a ghost with tons of unfinished business).

"Strange we should meet here
Seeing off our friends
It's hard to draw the line between
Beginnings and ends
Oh, Mary, Mary, must you go so soon?
We must be a sight to see
Salon and Saloon
I'll look you up soon
Maybe sing you a tune"

I love the contrast between Salon (the urbane Mary) and Saloon (the grizzled singer). She could be a Diane, but Mary makes her, and the song, much more accessible.

3. Steely Dan - Rose Darling. Of the dozens of bizarre inside references that characterized the Steely Dan's music, the mention of "Snake Mary" in Rose Darling is my favorite. It's so cool because it presents the listener an enigmatic puzzle - how to reconcile the the two opposing images. Bonus points for the Michael McDonald background vocal, too.

2. The Beatles - Let it Be. Who uttered the immortal "words of wisdom"? It wasn't Paul McCartney - it was Mother Mary, of course. To me, this song is just as spiritual as any church hymn, and has become part of the way I deal with life's setbacks. I'm sure others have similar feelings about it, and have taken comfort in the image and words of Mother Mary.

1. Bruce Springsteen - Thunder Road. Could there be any real question about #1? I mean, at least in terms of the artist? It must be Bruce. Somewhere along the line, the Boss must have met a Mary who really got stuck in his consciousness. There's Mary's Place - the bar that pulses with the glorious sounds of gospel vocals and big band horns. There's Mary Queen of Arkansas. In "The River," Springsteen relates the story of how the protagonist and Mary met in high school, and how the economy took its toll on their relationship.

But it's the Mary of Thunder Road who best embodies the dreams and frustrations of everyday Americans. The Mary who, like the girl next door, can't truly suppress the fact that even she is Born to Run.

Can't believe I didn't include Proud Mary? Have other Mary songs you feel should be on the list? Share them in the comments!

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Voice Like Chocolate

I've always been intrigued by the interaction of the senses. For years, I've been visiting and revisiting sections of Diane Ackerman's "A Natural History of the Senses," and I'm consistently fascinated with her explanations and insights. I'm also taken with the concept of synesthesia - the idea that we can hear colors, or see sounds. I've always experienced music this way, especially in terms of colors. In my world, most jazz tunes are bright red or muted yellow; the music of Bruce Springsteen is blue and violet; the Saturday Night Fever era Bee Gees, a bright purple.

I was recently reading up on Joni Mitchell's beautiful 1974 hit, "Help Me," and I was struck by this quote from the "Page a Day 365 Tunes Calendar": "It simmers on the verses, an on the bridge --when Joni an her backing singers repeat 'Didn't it feel good?' -- it erupts into a convergence of guitars, woodwinds, and sax that hits your ear like Pop Rocks in your mouth, tangy bursts of tonal color fizzing around everywhere." It's an amazing  description that perfectly captures the essential experience of the song across multiple senses.

Some musical elements are best described in terms of sound. Tom Waits' voice is raspy, Sade's smooth and mellifluous. Trumpets blare, and a Les Paul through a Marshall amp sounds pretty much like a buzzsaw. Other sounds, though, defy description through auditory means alone.

Cat Stevens is a great example of this. I guess it would be fair to say that his voice is pretty, or emotional, passionate, and rich. But, at the most intense moments, it cracks and crackles imperfectly; I'd imagine that a voice teacher would attempt to iron these wrinkles out of Yusuf Islam's vocal quality. And, on "Father and Son," you can hear him struggling awkwardly, almost comically, at the upper end of his range. With all of its flaws and inconsistencies, though, Cat Stevens' voice can really reach beyond your ears and into your soul, triggering emotional longings you didn't even know you had. That's why I like think that Cat Stevens has a voice like chocolate - dark chocolate. Like dark chocolate, it's bitter, it's sweet, it's good for you, but if you consume too much of it, you'll feel the repercussions in the pit of your stomach.

Do you have any musical flavor comparisons? Feel free to share them in the comments.