ALEX MCMURRAY

Diary

02.22.2011

Alex's top 10 mix tape for the online NOLA Defender

They recently asked me to do a little top 10 list of songs with commentary and youtube links. I got it together with relative degrees of success. I couldn't find Bobby Short's "I Like The Likes Of You" on youtube, but was feeling too sick to rewrite it and there was a deadline. instead there is a great "Charlie" fragrance commercial from the late 70s featuring Bobby Short. "I like the Likes of You" by Mr. Short is available on itunes.

My tastes were pretty pedestrian coming up. Still are.

 

1.  "Hammond Song"  The Roches

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EA-U5H4VoX8

 

This has been my favorite record almost since the first time I heard it in the Fall of 1986 in the middle of the night stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic at midnight on the Connecticut Turnpike. At the time I was a devotee of a record by a west coast a-cappella group called The Bobs. In the most teenage of ways, there was a specific ritual one had to go through involving smoking a lot of pot and having a primo tape deck to properly listen to the Bobs record. I was working my way through my whole set of friends and they were getting a little tired of this until this night that my friends Megan and Wendy and I commandeered a family vehicle and secretly drove from New Jersey to visit some friends who were freshmen at Emerson College in Boston. Megan had this tape of her sister's with her and said that if i liked the Bobs, then I'd probably like the Roches as well. She put the tape in the player and after the first song "We", an amusing summary of the Roche sisters' showbiz career thus far, came "Hammond", perhaps one of the most gorgeous moments of harmony singing ever put on tape. In the song the singer and her friends are worrying about a friend who seems to be drifting into dark and turbulent waters. It still crushes me to this day. The whole record, produced by Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame, is an acoustic gem done in a style he describes as "Audio Verite". The Roches are three sisters from "deepest New Jersey" and spent some time in Hammond, LA, which presumably inspired the name of the song. The New Jersey/Louisiana connection had no significance for me at all in 1986, though.

 

2.  "Rivers of Babylon"--The Melodians

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-5E6_qtXAw

 

The soundtrack album from the 1972 film The Harder They Come soundtrack must be one of the most influential records of all time. Desmond Dekker fired the opening salvo in 1969 with "Israelites", which became the first international Jamaican hit. Before Bob Marley made reggae a household word this little record found its way into many a teenager's hands in the States. In the 1970s it seemed like they gave out bongs and rolling papers in high school health class. Where I grew up in New Jersey in the Seventies and Eighties kids in my class (of 1987) all had older siblings who came up in that weird time after the sixties when drugs became pervasive and widespread across the whole social strata in your typical high school, and before the Reagan clamp came down and punk was still a distant rumbling. I got turned on to this record at Friday night jock parties my friends and I would sneak into. After all the football players left (they had a curfew for Saturday morning's game), my friends and I would be the only boys left with all the girls and what was left of the beer. I'd dig around in the hostess' older brother's crate of records until I found this one. It became the soundtrack of countless Friday nights. That today I get to play in a rock-steady band only adds to the delight.

 

3.  "Blitzkrieg Bop"  The Ramones  from the LP "It's Alive"

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1oLQ55IfPA

 

This record is the soundtrack of several automobile accidents incurred in the mid Eighties in New Jersey and Massachusetts with my cousin Raymond. It seemed that every time there was some kind of collision between whatever cars we were in and whatever automobile or object we came in contact with, this was the tape that was playing. I saw the Ramones about four times, the first time at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ and the last time at Jimmy's in uptown New Orleans. They were a great live band--always played the hits as well as their latest single. If anything they only got faster as the years passed (a fact belied by Johnny Ramone in the 2005 documentary "End of the Century" in which he described his own desire to get through the songs in ever-shorter running times). I bought my original copy of the LP at Tower records in NYC in about  '85 or '86. I lost it at some point and Davis Rogan kindly replaced it with his own copy one birthday (thanks Davis). As much as I love the first Ramones studio LP and "Rocket to Russia", to my ear they just don't compare to the excitement of the live double LP, recorded at the Rainbow Theatre in London on new Years Eve 1977-78 when they were the undisputed heavyweight champions on American Punk Rock. Today for me this record isn't so much the sound of automotive mishap as the perfect demonstration of bubblegum pop executed with Gestapo tactics.

 

 

4. Dreamin-- Sun Ra

 

fast forward to 2:48 to skip to this track  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Re7FG2Zeos

 

From Sun Ra-The Singles. Not everyone knows that back in the day Sun Ra was producing these slightly bizarre doo-wop sides, but they're a lot of fun. My wife turned me on to this one which was a favorite of hers and soon became a favorite of my own as well. It is featured on the closing credits of a film she made and years ago she was kind enough to make a tape of the 2 CD set for me complete with all the song titles. Not only that but she lent me her walkman (we weren't married at the time) to take to Europe with me on a trip. All I had to listen to was this Sun Ra tape and Blonde on Blonde, so that's what Amsterdam sounded like to me then. The Tin men did this one on our first CD.

 

5.  Paper Wings--Gillian Welch

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9KdzDu9rPs

 

Jeff Treffinger turned me on to Gillian Welch at the little soundboard at the Mermaid. Apparently Emmylou Harris was raving about her over at Kingsway Studio, where Jeff often worked. This had to be about the time that the Fingerbowl did our first recordings over at the Mermaid which produced the 12-song demo we sold on cassettes at shows. Of course what struck me first was that beautiful voice and then T-Bone Burnett's sparse and strange production really knocked me out. I thought I knew a little something about country music (I'd been to Mudbugs, after all), but this was like country music from Outer Space. Oddly, one hears none of her partner David Rawlings' trademark acoustic lead lines and distinctive harmony singing, which have since then become my favorite part of their act. That 12 song Fingerbowl demo somehow found itself into the wrong hands and one day we woke up with a record deal. The A&R man from the label came down from New York to get us started on our first CD. At lunch in the quarter one day he asked me what I'd like our record to sound like and I mentioned the Gillian Welch record. He said he hadn't heard it and I invited him over to my place to check it out. I played "Paper Wings" for him and he asked me why on earth would I want to sound like that. I should have seen trouble on the horizon.

 

 

6. "I Like The Likes of You"  Bobby Short

 

"Charlie" fragrance ad. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Sn8H42FZcI

 

Bobby Short at the Cafe Carlyle  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTFs9n_xotA&feature=related

 

Sometimes life just hands you stuff. One Tuesday night in about 1992 I had WWOZ on the radio and the DJ for the Governor's Mansion started playing these renditions of standards by singers I'd never heard before. The sound of Bobby Short's voice woke me up immediately and I put a blank cassette in the player, as I often did then, to record the rest of the show. "I Like the Likes of You" just knocks me out. The verse is so nutty--that melody is flat-out weird, but Mr. Short delivers it (as always) with such perfect diction, that he lends an air of dignity to this otherwise throwaway novelty song by Vernon Duke and "Yip" Harburg from 1933. Also on that radio program were songs by Mabel Mercer and Mae Barnes and I kept that cassette for years and forced it on people when they came over late at night. (my roommate for several years Jonathan Freilich can't stand the sound of it. Only Donald "Mad Dog" Waits late of DBA shares my enthusiasm for Mr. Short). I never though of it as "Cabaret Music" until years later when I was going throughout the stacks at some record store and came across a box set called "The Ertegun's New York Cabaret Music". All the songs from my cherished tape were there. The DJ that Tuesday night all those years ago was just plying the best stuff from the 4 CD set. Most of it is a little dull, but the Bobby Short, Mae Barnes and Mabel Mercer stuff is wonderful. Turns out that Ahmet and Nesui Ertegun, socialites that they were, lived in that rarefied air so often described in songs of this type, and recorded their favorite Manhattan cabaret singers for their Atlantic label. On my birthday in 2004, my wife and I were lucky enough to make the pilgrimage to the Cafe Carlyle in New York to hear Bobby Short play not long before he died. He wasn't in great voice but he was pretty game and was kind enough to sign my "Bobby Short is K-R-A-Z-Y for Gershwin" CD.

 

 

6.  "Garden State Stomp"  Dave Van Ronk

 

  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_PCQ0yTxY0&playnext=1&list=PL749A446FB69F804C

 

This is my Jersey Pride coming to the surface here. The text of this number contains only the names of municipalities in the State of New Jersey. Having spent my first eighteen years there this one has great resonance for me. Growing up in New Jersey is, well, it's not like being from most other places. One aspires only to get the hell out. Old Mr. Boss wasn't lying when he wrote those songs back in the 70's. In the feel-good hit of 1998, Todd Solondz's "Happiness", a jaded novelist played by Lara Flynn Boyle declares that to live in the state of New Jersey is to live "... in a state of irony". Van Ronk captures that irony perfectly here simply by reciting a list of typically preposterous Jersey towns. Freilich turned me onto this one back when we were living on Barracks. Like so many others both welcomed and unasked for. There's an even better live version out there on a record called "Laugh tracks Vol. 2".

 

7.  "They Say It's Wonderful"  John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXyGUfLKAYk

 

Although i bought this record for its definitive version of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" it is this the opening track that I have the most affection for. When the Circle Bar opened they let me bartend Sunday nights and play on Wednesday nights. Whether I was closing the bar myself on Sunday or with Caroline on Wednesday, this CD was played without fail at last call. It's a perfect song for a Sunday night saloon, when the last of the boys from the bus station are making their way back up the street. Johnny Hartman's gorgeous voice is smoother than velvet here and comes on like a caress. One can actually feel oneself exhaling.

 

 

8.  "Intro/It's A New Day So Let A Man Come In And Do the Popcorn"   James Brown

 

from  "Revolution Of The Mind"   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiLAjLKqT44

 

For a few weeks this was the soundtrack of a place where I lived in the early 90's with two other guys in the Marigny we called "Unction Junction". This one will blow your head clean off. From Danny Ray's incredible introduction of Mr. Please Please himself, through "It's a New Day…" and beyond, the message is clear: The Party is HERE!!! James BROWN!

 

9.  "This Year's Kisses"  Nina Simone

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nh5adqNX5G8

 

I don't know what it is about this great Irving Berlin tune, but it always makes me feel good. It might be due to the sequencing of the album. "Kisses" is preceded by "For Myself", a semi schmaltzy "My Way" kind of tune complete with Las Vegas arrangement and "Feminine Mystique" subject matter. That one is followed by a quite harrowing version of Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown" that sees Ms. Simone accompanied by a lone acoustic guitar. After all this strum und drang  "This Year's Kisses" breaks through the clouds and by the time we are through the unforgettable piano solo, the second bridge and the triple ending we are quite convinced that Nina will land on her feet. Viva Nina!

 

10.  "Blood In My Eyes"  Bob Dylan

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nz542iQchN4

 

Dylan is as huge to me as he is  to anyone, and I'll never forget first "hearing" Dylan in the otherwise abysmal 1979 movie "More American Graffiti". I was ten years old and somehow they'd secured the rights to "Like A Rolling Stone" to play over the closing credits. But we've all heard that song a few times. At another point of Mr. Dylan's career, the early nineties, he had doubts whether he would ever write again and here he did an interesting thing: He put out two LPs of "cover" songs 1992's "Good As I been to You" and 1993's "World Gone Wrong". That these "covers" were some of the classic American folk songs he'd cut his teeth on in the early sixties makes this to me a cool record. A lot of folks talk about "going back to the roots", but few go this far back down that road. All the stuff we have come to expect from Mr. Dylan is on those records: love, lust, longing, passion, violence, bitterness, betrayal, redemption, tragedy, farce and the rest. This particular cut is one by the Mississippi Sheiks, one of the most popular string bands of the '20s and '30s. I found this record on an unmarked cassette in my car around '94. A James Booker bootleg was on the other side and I could never place what was this strange recording of Dylan singing all this old stuff. The mystery was solved in some record store at some point.