Here’s a perennial favorite that has come around again and again, becoming a hit every few years thanks to new artists covering it for a new listener generation. Everyone knows this song, though everyone most likely has a different version that they think of as being the definitive one. I think that it’s a pretty easy choice to say that Ben E. King’s 1961 original is the foremost and the best. It’s pretty dang hard to improve on any Motown original; Motown had the very best songwriters and musicians on payroll, rolling out hits with the professional efficiency of the auto industry that gave the label its name. The miracle of Motown was that, with the sheer concentration of talent they employed, it was impossible to make a bad record. That’s why, though not many people may remember Ben E. King’s name, they can recognize his biggest hit from the first notes. That’s the staying power that everyone else who tried to put their signature on the song was hoping for, with varying degrees of success. For me, the only other version worth listening to was John Lennon’s, which couldn’t match the funkiness but made up for it in sincerity.
Ella Fitzgerald may well have been the most prolific jazz singer of all time. She released dozens of albums over forty years, and her recordings of the Great American Songbook cover hundreds of songs. Amid all that, it’s hard to keep track of which songs were recorded when or how they were released or which album contained what. I recently discovered the 1961 album Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! I’d never heard of this record before, nor most of the songs on it, though two or three were familiar. And it is one of the best records I’ve unearthed in a long time. I’m sure that Ella Fitzgerald was incapable of making a poor recording, but she sounds impeccable here. Maybe Verve upgraded their studio equipment that year, or someone did a bangup job on the remaster, or maybe it’s just the effect of hearing songs I’ve never heard before, but I couldn’t help being blown away. It’s hardly novel to be blown away by the sound of Ella’s voice, of course, she’s been blowing ’em away since she first stepped into a recording studio sometime in the 1930’s. But there’s no feeling that she’s singing from across the decades; these songs sound vibrant and it feels as though they were recorded yesterday.
This is why the Rolling Stones were the best of the British blues bands. They play blues like their brakes and their steering don’t work. It’s always ride or die with them. Besides their sloppy garage band vibes, there’s always Mick Jagger’s cheeky insouciance. He’s bad and feels absolutely no shame. He will make you a bunch of doe-eyed promises and then forget them all for the first bottle-blonde who walks up to him. That rake’s confidence has carried Jagger through decades of scandals, and the little flies still can’t wait to hop right in. It is, of course, irresistibly sexy.
Simon & Garfunkel’s great trick was to blur the boundaries between contemporary songwriting and traditional music. They made pop hits out of songs that had been in the culture for hundreds of years. They also wrote original songs that sounded like they’d been lifted straight from a psalm. This one I’ve always thought was an arrangement of something from a literary archive, or the Bible, or some other repository of ancient words. But apparently Paul Simon wrote it himself. Of course, Simon was not always above taking credit for things that already had an author, so you never know where a studious young poet such as himself may have found an inspiring parable about a hungry little bird.
You will pry my Doors LPs from my cold dead fingers, world. We might be moving further away from the kind of unhinged rock star megalomania that Jim Morrison represents. We’ve come to realize that Morrison was kind of a bad person, and very definitely a sick person, and maybe we shouldn’t hero worship sick, bad people. Still, Morrison remains the Platonic ideal of the mentally unstable genius, and that shit is catnip for the romantic and sexual imagination. The entire premise of Morrison’s Messianic persona was that he was living life on a different spiritual level – not necessarily a more elevated one, but definitely removed from the ordinary realms of experience – and he could take you there, and though the journey might be difficult for you, you would emerge a changed person. That promise was fulfilled for fans who felt that the music had changed them in some way, in the safety of their own home. It was a much rougher journey for people who had the misfortune of actually having Jim Morrison in their lives. According to John Densmore, being in a band with Jim was very much like being in an abusive marriage, and that seems to be the general consensus. But the mystique of the very unstable genius persists, because we still want someone to take us through to the other side, against all better judgement.
In 1969 David Bowie caught his first big break when the release of Space Oddity coincided with the Apollo 11 space mission and subsequent moon landing. That event was greeted with worldwide celebration and optimism about our impending Utopian technofuture. What Bowie tapped into was the opposite of that, the creeping suspicion that all that technological innovation would bring nothing but sorrow. Every step of human progress, of course, has always been shadowed by the fear that technological dehumanization. The introduction of the printed word led to fierce debates about how all that pesky knowledge would cause widespread delinquency and endanger people’s souls by leading them away from God. Or whatever. The tech may change but the conversation is always the same: the availability of new gadgets will destroy human empathy, reasoning ability, social circles and fine motor skills, creating a society of mindless sad robot-people adrift with no sense of purpose or ability to form meaningful connections with one another. Space travel is that, placing quite literally alienated humans alone in an environment where they have no business ever existing. The image of the lone astronaut floating through the void has been as haunting and disturbing as the idea of colonizing new worlds is gung-ho and exciting. It also makes a powerful metaphor for the various alienations we experience in normal life; the office cubicle, the MRi machine, the commuter vehicle, the empty McMansion, the prison cell, the nuclear submarine – they’re all symbols of untethered lonely lives lived by people who might as well be in outer space.
You can’t have a movie about sad people set in the 1960’s without Simon & Garfunkel’s famous refrain about loneliness and alienation. It’s just one of the rules of Lazy Writing 101. Which cheapens the magic of the song with overfamiliarity. Setting aside what I like to call The Cameron Crowe Effect*, try to listen to it like you haven’t heard it a thousand times before. Is there really a better ode to being young and mildly disgruntled? It’s the very, very specific brand of sadness that comes from being a young person who thinks the reason they’re so lonely is because they’re too special for the boring old world around them, and they feel alienated and at loose ends but not too much because they probably have really good taste in scarves. You can see, of course, why everyone wants that sentiment in their movie.
*Cameron Crowe is a film director known for using pop songs as a substitute for character development.