One Perfect Song: When I Fall in Love

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“When I Fall in Love”
Written by Victor Young and Edward Heyman
Recorded by Nat King Cole
Released April, 1957

A perfect song is timeless. A perfect song is a song that spans years and generations, and will be free of style and instrumentation that identify it with a certain stylistic period. A perfect song may avoid the heavy synthesizers of the 1980’s, the lush orchestration behind a disco beat of the 1970’s, or the organ driven pop of the 1960’s. The greatness of a perfect song will be in the lyrics, the composition and the performance.

A perfect song is preserved in a moment in time. Hearing the song brings us to a time in our lives, an experience that will be filled with joy, or sorrow over a memory, no matter how fleeting. We will recall significant moments when a great song comes on the radio. There may even be a taste in our mouths, or a smell in the air.

I was not yet alive when Nat King Cole released “When I Fall in Love” in 1957. I don’t even know the first time I heard the song, but every time I hear it, it brings me to a very specific place, and it elicits very specific emotions.

“When I Fall in Love” is, on it’s face, a simple love song. Or rather, it is a song with a simple message of the importance of a love that lasts for years. The song is not necessarily being sung to, or about, anyone. “When I Fall in Love” is sung more as a mission statement. A statement of belief.

“When I fall in love,
It will be forever.”

There is no chorus in the song, and there is no bridge. There are only three stanzas and 97 words in the entire song. Only a few of the words even rhyme.

“When I give my heart,
It will be completely
Or I’ll never give my heart.”

The greatness of the song is not so much in its lyrics, but rather in its production and delivery. Nat King Cole was not the first artist to record this song, and he is far from the last. But, his version is arguably the best. His phrasing is at once gentle and confident. His vibrato seems to last forever, until the strings take over the song. Every version of this song that has been released since it was recorded by Cole has been unfairly compared to this sublime recording. It is lush and rich. There is no percussion, only a string section with a bass and a simple acoustic guitar playing gentle staccato chords to keep time with a beautiful harp playing arpeggios, softly accenting every key phrase.

In fact, the instrumentation is so perfect that almost all versions of this song that have been released since 1957 sound similar. Synthesizers are not added, big drum kits are not used. Why mess with perfection?

Nothing in this song connects it to 1957. What made song great then makes it still great in 2017. “When I Fall in Love” is a one perfect song.

One Perfect Song: Johnny Come Lately

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“Johnny Come Lately”
Written by Steve Earle
Recorded by Steve Earle
Released October 17, 1988


“I’m an American, boys, and I’ve come a long way
I was born and bred in the USA
So listen up close, I’ve get something to say
Boys, I’m buying this round.”

These first lines from Steve Earle’s “Johnny Come Lately” off his amazing 1988 Copperhead Road album could serve as an effective introduction for any American songwriter. Blues great Robert Johnson, folk troubadour Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna or Kendrick Lamar. I am here, and I have an important story to tell. I have something meaningful to say.

However, after the first lines of “Johnny Come Lately,” we realize this is not a biographical song about Steve Earle, but rather a story about an American soldier serving in London during World War II.

“When I first got to London it was pourin’ down rain
Met a Iittle girl in the field canteen
Painted her name on the nose of my plane
Six more missions I’m gone.”

The soldier arrives in London and meets a British girl. He tells the world of his love by painting the name of the girl on his plane, and he is already counting the hours and the missions until he can return to her. Later in the song he promises “I’m taking her home with me one day sir, soon as we win this war.” In the chorus, he sings of an expected warm welcome back in the states.

“But when Johnny Come Lately comes marching home
With a chest full of medals and a G.l. loan
They’ll be waiting at the station down in San Antone
When Johnny comes marching home.”

Through this song, World War II becomes connected to a shared, proud and painful past by recalling the popular “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” song from the American Civil War. Heroes were warmly welcomed home then, too. “When Johnny comes marching home again, Hoorah! Hoorah!” War to war, generation to generation, the men and women who put their lives at risk for our safety and democracy come home to celebrations of their heroism and bravery.

Then, there’s a twist. We learn that this story is not being told by the soldier, but rather by his grandson.

“Now my granddaddy sang me this song
Told me about London when the Blitz was on
How he married grandma and brought her back home
A hero throughout this land.”

The soldier did get home safely. He married his British bride. He was celebrated upon his return, and they had a family. They had a grandson.

The narrator is thinking about his grandfather as he himself returns home from the Vietnam war and realizes that the chain is now broken. The narrative has changed. Soldiers return home from a war that the people did not support or understand. The pride of the civil war is missing. The victory elation that followed World War II is missing. People are angry. They are apathetic.

“Now I’m standing on a runway in San Diego
A couple Purple Hearts and I move a little slow
There’s nobody here, maybe nobody knows
About a place called Vietnam.”

America is difficult. Our story is constantly changing and evolving. Families connect to the story of our country across generations, and those experiences are interpreted through vastly perspectives and opinions. I don’t know that the story of our country and its families, now evolving through more than 150 years, has been ever been captured more effectively than Steve Earle has done in “Johnny Come Lately.”

This song, our country…a story about family, war and the patriotism and passion that connects us all. So listen up close, I’ve got something to say. Boys, I’m buying this round.

Check out this short 10 minute documentary film about Steve Earle recording “Johnny Come Lately” with Celtic Punk band The Pogues in North London.

One Perfect Song: Sweet Child o’ Mine

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“Sweet Child o’ Mine”
Written by Guns N’ Roses
Recorded by Guns N’ Roses
Released April 17, 1988

I was working at The Wiz in Georgetown (in Washington D.C.), an east coast based chain of CD/Cassette Tape stores when I was a junior in college, back when there were record stores in every shopping mall and on almost every commercial street corner. Being a lifelong music fan, I was thrilled to finally get paid to be surrounded all day by music. Music I knew, music I was discovering, music I could recommend, music I could dismiss with a now qualified upturn of my nose.

My responsibilities took me from the stock room, to the sales floor, to the cash register. Music was loudly played over the store sound system all day. Depending who was working, what time of day it was, it could have been anything from Jazz to Neo-Soul to Country Western to face melting Heavy Metal. It was a blast.

Located in an old brownstone storefront on Wisconsin Avenue, our store had three floors. The basement was dedicated to classical music, the main floor to popular music, and the top floor was for everything else. It was a bright sunny spring day, and I was running up the stairs to help a customer. I am not a big heavy metal, so I had not been paying very close attention to the new album that was playing that day. Loud guitars and screaming vocals are fine, I suppose…just not my cup o’ Joe.

Then, all of a sudden I heard the bright, clear clarion call of an anthemic guitar solo intro blasting throughout the store. It was as simple as a musical scale, but more complex. It grabbed my attention immediately, and I could not help but to think to myself at hearing the first few notes “this song is going to be a huge hit.”* I did not know the name of the song, I did not know the name of the band.

Escalating in harmonics and intensity, the crystal clear arpeggio continued. A bass guitar comes in to lead the melody along with a rhythm guitar followed by the drums. We are now into the song.

I’ve never thought of heavy metal music as a platform for evoking romantic sweetness, tender childhood memories or a longing for things we once had and will never have again, but this song was different.

“She’s got a smile it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
Where everything
Was as fresh as the bright blue sky
Now and then when I see her face
She takes me away to that special place
And if I’d stare too long
I’d probably break down and cry.”

Frank Sinatra could never be this vulnerable. Marvin Gaye could never be this nostalgic. Who of us can’t think back to a memory from our childhood that makes us feel good and safe as soon as that memory washes over us? Who of us can even come close to describing that feeling?

“Her hair reminds me of a warm safe place
Where as a child I’d hide
And pray for the thunder
And the rain
To quietly pass me by”

The guitar arpeggio continues in different forms throughout the song, but when the original melody returns, it serves as a sweet reminder of where the song came from, just like we remember our own sweet childhood memories.

There are so many things that can make a song great. The sincerity of the lyrics, the skill of the musicians, the honesty and commitment of the singer. But music can also be satisfying in the way it surprises us. The unexpected turn of a phrase, or the guitar solo that takes twists and turns we never expected. A smart ass lyric that makes us smile. The smash of a cymbal out of nowhere.

“Sweet Child o’ Mine” breaks down at the end with a completely different melody and new direction. A dissonant coda tagged on to a perfectly melodic song. Repeating the lyric “Where do we go, where do we go now, where do we go?” The rhythm guitar scrapes along, like knuckles on a concrete sidewalk. Singer Axl Rose screams in perfect control, wondering where to go next. Guitarist Slash brings everything back by repeating the clarion melody, a guitar riff for the ages. Extending the dark, dissonance a bit further, the video for “Sweet Child o’ Mine” is a grainy black and white rehearsal film, which serves as a perfect anti-narrative to sweet, wistfulness of the song.

Whenever I hear Slash’s opening salvo on “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” I see myself on the staircase at The Wiz. The bright sun is shining on me, I am at a job that I love, and I am hearing one perfect song for the very first time.

*I’m glad to say I was right. When I first heard the guitar intro to “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” I thought to myself the song would be a huge hit. The song peaked at #1 in the United States, and  it is listed by Rolling Stone magazine as #198 on the list of the 500 Greatest Songs.

One Perfect Song: Tears of a Clown

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“Tears of a Clown”
Written by Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Hank Cosby
Recorded by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles
Released 1967

“Smokey Robinson is America’s greatest living poet.”

Though this quote has been attributed to Bob Dylan, it has never been confirmed that our modern day Bard actually uttered these exact words. It may have been him, it may have been his manager, or it may have just been a creative journalist with a wild imagination. But whether these words actually came from Bob Dylan or not is ultimately irrelevant. The quote is compelling. Whoever said it has a good point.

“So take a good look at my face
You’ll see my smile looks out of place
If you look closer, it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears”

Tracks of My Tears, 1965

“Try to get yourself a bargain son
Don’t be sold on the very first one
Pretty girls come a dime a dozen
Try to find one who’s gonna give you true lovin'”
Shop Around, 1960

“I don’t like you, but I love you,
Seems that I’m always thinking of you.
Oh, oh, oh, you treat me badly,
I love you madly, you really got a hold on me.”
You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me, 1962**

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles was one of the first acts to sign to the Motown label, and in addition to leading the Miracles, Robinson wrote and produced hits for other artists, and eventually became a label executive. His name was attached to dozens of the greatest songs in the history of rock and roll, either as a performer or writer, and he continues to perform to this day.

“Tears of A Clown” was first included on the 1967 album Make it Happen, but was not released as a single until 1970. Thematically, this song breaks no new ground. The character in the song may look happy, but since breaking up with his girlfriend, he is very sad. That is the whole song. If Smokey Robinson tried to sell this song in a pitch meeting, no doubt it would be rejected immediately.

But “Tears of a Clown” is a monster.

Orchestrated to sound like it is being heard outside the big tent of a circus, it prominently features both a penny whistle and bassoon. Two instruments not normally heard in rock and soul hits of the 1960’s. It starts at full throttle, and goes full speed for a powerful 2:39. It never slows, it never falters.

“Now if there’s a smile on my face, it’s only there trying to fool the public.
But when it comes down to fooling you, now honey that’s quite a different subject.
But don’t let my glad expression, give you the wrong impression.
Really I’m sad, sadder than sad.”
It is as if he is wearing clown make up, with a crudely drawn smile. To the outside world, he is happy and carefree, but inside, he mourns his lost love.
“But don’t let my glad expression, give you the wrong impression
Really I’m sad, oh I’m sadder than sad
You’re gone and I’m hurting so bad
Like a clown I appear to be glad (sad, sad, sad, sad)
Now they’re some sad things known to man
But ain’t too much sadder than, the tears of a clown.”
The happy music continues to play, in sharp contrast to the tragic story. The bassoon is thumping deep underneath the happy whine of the penny whistle. The Funk Brothers rhythm section, featuring the legendary James Jamerson on bass, continues to move forward at a breakneck speed.
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The cadence and rhyme of every line, every word is perfect. The smile on my face should not convince that I am happy. “I’m sadder than sad. I’m hurting so bad.” This song is a tragedy only a clown could identify with. In the brilliant bridge, he explains himself, with a reference to one of the great tragic clowns.
“Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid.
Smiling in the crowd I try, but in my lonely room I cry,
The tears of a clown.”
There is never a moment in the song we don’t believe the pain and unhappiness. Smokey’s performance is passionate and breathless. This song becomes the template for every rock and roll circus song that followed. Whether Bruce Springsteen is singing ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” the Talking Heads are tempting fate with the “Democratic Circus,”or The Band is celebrating with “Life is a Carnival,” nobody comes close to the mood and desperation of Smokey Robins. Okay…maybe Springsteen comes close.
Smokey Robinson triumphs over pain and sadness in this song. Like so many great works of art, his suffering results in great music. The last lines of the song can almost be read as a guide book to writing great lyrics.
“Don’t let my glad expression, give you the wrong impression
Don’t let this smile I wear, make you think that I don’t care
‘Cause really I’m sad.”
This is great rock and roll, and Smokey Robinson is truly one of our greatest poets.
**So many clips found on YouTube, especially of older acts, are live lip-synced performances from TV shows, or just show still images of the musician, or the song lyrics as the song plays. This clip of “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me” is refreshing, because it is an actual live performance. In this one short clip, the raw power of these singers is laid bare. Smokey loosens his tie and squirms and squeaks as the horns blare and the Miracles dance and sing behind him. Take a few moments to watch. Time well spent.

One Perfect Song: No Surrender

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“No Surrender”
Written by Bruce Springsteen
Performed by Bruce Springsteen
Released June 4, 1984

There is something special about your teenage summer nights. Tapping on your buddy’s window late on a Saturday night long after everyone in the house is asleep, because you absolutely have to talk. Driving around your hometown, looking in vain for something to do before giving up and going to the McDonald’s drive-thru. Cruising with the radio blaring, windows down and singing along to songs of hope and desperation.  “….1, 2, 3, 4, the highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive…”

It was during this time of my life that the album Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen was released. I had listened to Bruce Springsteen before. Seemed like everyone had a copy of Born to Run. I had not yet had the opportunity to explore The River or Darkness on the Edge of Town, and I was just getting into the loose and jangly Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.

But Born in the U.S.A. was different. It was big and loud. Bombastic. A protest party album like I had never heard before. I pumped my fist to “Born in the U.S.A.” I sang along to the sha-la-la chants in “Darlington County” and I stood in front of my mirror, pretending I was on stage with “Dancing in The Dark.”

But, for some reason, the song “No Surrender” was different from all other songs on this album. From the very first time I heard “No Surrender,” it sounded familiar, almost timeless. I could have sworn I had heard this song before. Was it the tune? The lyrics? The sentiment? Even more so than any track on Born to Run (one of the finest albums of all time), I felt that “No Surrender” captured the spirit, the longing, the happiness, desperation and dreams of my teenage years.

“Tonight I hear the neighborhood drummer sound
I can feel my heart begin to pound
You say you’re tired and you just want to close your eyes
And follow your dreams down”

A visceral connection to his community is created through music. There is a breathtaking excitement as his heart begins to pound. He realizes his dreams are within reach. The summer night is filled with magic and promise.

“Now young faces grow sad and old and hearts of fire grow cold
We swore blood brothers against the wind
I’m ready to grow young again.
And hear your sister’s voice calling us home across the open yards
Well maybe we could cut someplace of our own
With these drums and these guitars.”

We are older now, but that time of dreams and hopes was just yesterday. Through this music we play and listen to, we can get back to that time. This is not about nostalgia. This is not about sentiment. These “drums and these guitars” connect us to something larger than ourselves. This music reminds us that we are here today because of who were were yesterday. We can still connect to that passion. We can still do great things.

From time to time, Bruce Springsteen takes requests during his concerts. These requests may be a rarely played song from his catalog, or it could be a song that he loves made famous by another artist. On September 9th, 2016, a sign was held high during a Springsteen concert in Philadelphia. “Skipped school today. Our parents thought we could learn more than a 3 minute record.” The sign was made by a college student who asked to play “No Surrender” along side Bruce and the E Street Band. Bruce obliged.

A clean cut kid jumped up on stage and was provided a guitar. He stood next to Bruce and took a wide stance. He looked out at the audience, and a wry, knowing smile appeared on his face. The band began the song, and in front of an audience of 30,000, the kid became a rock and roll star. With the confidence of a veteran and the swagger of a preacher sharing a truth his congregation must know, he played and sang along side Bruce like he had been in the E Street Band since 1972. This moment, this un-scripted completely spontaneous event, became the perfect embodiment of “No Surrender.”

“Now on the street tonight the lights grow dim
The walls of my room are closing in
There’s a war outside still raging
You say it ain’t ours anymore to win
I want to sleep beneath
Peaceful skies in my lover’s bed
With a wide open country in my eyes
And these romantic dreams in my head.”

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The American dream, and the dream of every kid trying to do more, trying to make sense of the world, trying to do something great has perhaps never been better expressed in song than “with a wide open country in my eyes, and these romantic dreams in my head.”

No retreat. No surrender.

One Perfect Song: If I Had a Boat

“If I Had a Boat”
Written by Lyle Lovett
Performed by Lyle Lovett
Released 1988


Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player in the history of the sport, announced his retirement from the game on October 6, 1993. He was only 30 years old, and he had just led the Chicago Bulls to three NBA championships in a row.

After only 9 years in the NBA, Jordan’s legacy was solid. The city of Chicago was unified in their support and love of Jordan, and the three championships that the Bulls brought to the city provided an unbridled level of enthusiasm, electricity and joy the city would not see again until the Cubs won the World Series in 2016.

In announcing his retirement, Jordan said he was deeply affected by the murder of his father just three months before. He lost his desire to play the game. He was done. The city felt like they got punched in the gut, but there was also a palpable level of understanding and sympathy. Jordan had experienced unbelievable victory and tragedy. He was famous, he was rich, and he lost his hero and role model. He walked away.

Driving into work the day after Jordan’s retirement announcement, I was listening to WXRT, the finest radio station in the city of Chicago. Morning host Lin Brehmer was reflecting on Jordan’s retirement after the news, and then he played a song in honor of Jordan’s decision. A sweet, picked acoustic guitar melody followed by a wry, wise voice.

“If I had a boat, I’d go out on the ocean.
If I had a pony, I’d ride him on my boat.
And we could altogether, go out on the ocean.
Me up on my pony on my boat.”

351a4906-8429-4ebd-8401-f2eab9480df8If  I Had a Boat” by Lyle Lovett, released in 1988, perfectly captures the sense of peace and serenity only brought about by escape and adventure. Being able to get on your horse and ride out of town, wherever you wanted to go to, even on a boat, where you could ride your pony endlessly at sea.

Lyle Lovett was part of a movement of country based singer-songwriters who found fame in the mid to late 1980’s. Along with Lovett, artists like Steve Earl, Nancy Griffith, John Hiatt and Dwight Yoakam slathered their country music with heavy doses of folk, rock and even jazz and soul to create something completely new. Lyle Lovett found fame with hipsters, yuppies and country traditionalists. Sporting an ungainly tower of curly hair on his head with a mouth jaggedly gashed between his nose and chin, Lovett has a face only radio could love.

Odd looking though he is, he always appears on stage impeccably dressed in a suit and tie with a large multi-racial band of the best musicians in the business behind him, including famed 1970’s studio wiz Russ Kunkel on drums.

But Lovett has always been about more than just a unique look and traditional music in a contemporary style. He is one of the best songwriters of the last 30 years. He is a virtuoso musician, he has a beautiful voice, and everything is firmly grounded in excellent songwriting.

“If I were Roy Rogers
I’d sure enough be single
I couldn’t bring myself to marrying old Dale
It’d just be me and Trigger
We’d go ridin’ through them movies
Then we’d buy a boat and on the sea we’d sail”

It’s as if Michael Jordan is saying “the Chicago Bulls will not keep me tied down, neither will our three championships. I just need my pony, and my boat. Together, we will get out of here.” The songwriting skill continues with what is might be this excellent songwriter’s very best lyric.

“Now the mystery masked man was smart
He got himself a Tonto
‘Cause Tonto did the dirty work for free
But Tonto he was smarter
And one day said Kemosabe
‘Kiss my ass I bought a boat
I’m going out to sea'”

After he left basketball, Michael Jordan played minor league baseball, and then returned to the Bulls and led them to an amazing additional three championships. He retired again, but even as an elder statesman of basketball still talks about maybe one day playing professional basketball again. He probably will, because what Michael Jordan does is always on his terms in his own way.

Kiss my ass, I’m doing what I want to do. I’m going out to sea.

One Perfect Song: Just My Imagination

“Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)”
Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
Performed by The Temptations
Released 1987


1373828383_220px-classic_5_temptations_circa_1965The song begins with just a simple, quiet guitar that sounds like a lonely man slowly shaking his head back and forth, maybe in disbelief. The bass line provides the heartbeat followed by the strings, adding color and sadness. High pitched harmonies with a hint of vibraphone culminate in the scene being set.

“Each day through my window I watch her as she passes by.”

And then the fantasy begins. “I say to myself, you’re such a lucky guy. To have a girl like her, is truly a dream come true. Out of all the fellas in the world, she belongs to you.”

Suddenly, the fantasy is over and reality sets in. “But it was just my imagination, running away with me.” Still alone. Staring out his window. Watching.

This was The Temptations at their very best. Eddie Kendricks taking the gentle lead vocal with lush harmonies behind him. Ironically, this would be their last number 1 hit. Health and personnel conflicts had begun to plague the group and would soon tear them apart. But, before the inevitable end of the group, they recorded this; a perfectly tragic opus.

The fantasy continues. In perfect harmony, the entire group hits the first word as they tell the rest of the story. “Soon…”

“Soon we’ll be married and raise a family. A cozy little home, out in the country, with two children, maybe three.” Another chorus, and then the music builds in anticipation to perhaps the best bridge in popular music. Reality crashes in on the fantasy with anger, with frustration, with confession. Temptation Paul Williams sings the first line, followed by Kendricks.

“Every night, on my knees I pray. Dear Lord, hear my plea. Don’t ever let another take her love from me, or I will surely die. Her love is heavenly. When her arms enfold me. I hear a tender rhapsody. But in reality, she doesn’t even know me…”

The orchestration and harmonies are lush and beautiful, with a slight speed up to a triplet under “tender rhapsody” only to slow down as Kendricks painfully draws out “she doesn’t even know me” as the rest of the group comes in to remind him, “but it was just my imagination, once again…”

Brilliant.

For the careful listener, there are subtle orchestral and harmonic treats throughout the song, and what could have been a simple tale of jealousy and longing becomes something so much more.

One by one, original members of The Temptations dropped out of the group, replaced by others who mimicked the original recordings on stage. For decades, faint copies of The Temptations performed hits like “My Girl,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “I Can’t Get Next to You.” But the performances were rushed, and rote. There is nothing to suggest the heart, and the heartbreak, that can be heard in original recordings like “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me).”

“I tell you I can visualize it all
This couldn’t be a dream,
for too real it all seems.”