Monthly Archives: July 2011

Top 20 River Songs of All Time

Last weekend a few friends and I took a three-day canoe trip down the Des Moines River in Iowa, starting in Estherville and ending up in Rutland.  Since this experience, I can’t get the river off my mind (I have water on the brain).  The journey packed a jambalaya of emotions: fear, exhilaration, calm, joy, and enlightenment.   Many around Iowa look at the Des Moines River as a dirty cesspool of cow dung and pesticides, but they’ve obviously never gotten to know those murky brown waters. Now, I can’t help but feel a connection to the river.

Realizing I need to post a blog before BDWPS.com dries up like a riverbed, I contemplated different albums I could review. Nothing excited me though, and without passion, my writing sits as lifeless as a dead fish on the banks. Instead, I followed my recent enthusiasm from my river experience and decided to write a list of the “Top 20 River Songs.” As I started compiling the list I began to realize that rivers have been the subject of many, many, many songs. And it isn’t any wonder: rivers are mysterious old souls that can look serene and inviting while hiding beneath their vast power and unpredictability. They are both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

Honorable Mention:

“River”Akron/Family
“Lazy River” Louie Armstrong
“Green River” CCR
“Yes, the River Knows” The Doors
“The River” Dutchess and the Duke
“Roll On Columbia” Woody Guthrie
“How Deep is that River” Mason Jennings
“River” Killdozer
“River of Deceit” Mad Season
“All the Gifted Children” Lou Reed
“Mississippi River” Muddy Waters
 

20. “Proud Mary” Creedence Clearwater Revival

I hate this song (probably because it has been so over-played), but I felt compelled to include it on the list. If you asked the average person to name five river songs, this song would undoubtedly come up. If I left it off the list I would be deceiving the readers based solely on my bias. I prefer the CCR version over Tina Turner’s. Then again, that’s like saying I prefer liver and onions over a Spam sandwich.  Regardless, you made the list CCR. Take your #20 ranking and roll with it. 

19. “River, Stay ‘Way From the Door” Frank Sinatra

“River, Stay Away From the Door” is a plea to flood waters to stay away from the narrator’s cabin.  The song takes on a double meaning as a plea to an ex-wife or girlfriend, asking her to stay away and leave him with the few items that he still has: his bed and a fire.  And really, that’s all a man needs, right?

18. “Dam that River” Alice in Chains

As with 90% of Alice in Chains songs, “Dam that River” is about heroin addiction. In it, Layne Staley sings of someone trying to dam the river (stop his addiction), but despite their efforts, the river still washed him away. Damn.

17. “Down in the River to Pray” Alison Krauss

There has always been a connection between rivers and religion, one that goes beyond baptism.  With “Down in the River to Pray” Allison Krauss sings about going to the banks to speak to God. And why wouldn’t she? Just like God, the river is deep and mystifying, cleansing and strong, ceaseless and never-ending. It makes you wonder why anyone who lives within 20 miles of a river goes to  church to pray.

16. “Ballad of Easy Rider” Byrds

On the “Ballad of Easy Rider,” the Byrds draw a connection between riding a motorcycle and riding a river, and I guess it makes sense.  During our trip down the Des Moines last weekend, we often didn’t know where we were or where the curving waters would take us next, but we never really cared just as long as we kept moving. I imagine this is the same experience those roving bikers felt in “Easy Rider,” letting the journey lead their way toward freedom. The only difference being (spoiler alert) we didn’t have a bad acid trip or get murdered by hillbillies.  (Side note: Bob Dylan helped write this song)

15. “River of Sorrow” Antony and the Johnsons

No other voice could pull this song off quite like Antony. His croon always captures the spirit of a desperate soul.  On “River of Sorrow” he begs the endless river to stop swallowing many things: sorrow, love, and time.  Now if only he’d tell the river not to swallow my cell phone and wallet (which it did!).

14. “Ol’ Man River” Beach  Boys

You knew “Ol’ Man River” would make the list. It’s a staple of the river song catalog and has been performed by artists such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Ray Charles, but my favorite version comes from the Beach Boys off their album “Friends/20/20.”  It’s probably inappropriate to like their version the best considering it originated as a slave song with lyrics like “let me go away from the white man boss.”  Oh well, I’m a sucker for Bryan Wilson harmonies.  I guess I would draw the Beach-Boys-slave-song-line at “Strange Fruit” (although I imagine it would even be pretty incredible).

13. “Pissing in a River” Patti Smith

I first discovered this song when I read Nick Hornby’s Songbook. In the chapter on “Pissing in a River” he recounts an incredible show he caught of Patti Smith and how her performance of this song still remains in his mind. Hornby says it best: “…the song was called ‘Pissing a River’; and it was played on guitars, and it lasted four or five minutes, and its emotional effects depended entirely on its chords and its chorus and its attitude. It’s a pop song, in other words, and like a lot of other pop songs, it’s capable of just about anything.”

12. “River Euphrates” Pixies

In “River Euphrates” the narrator finds himself stranded, out of gas, on the Gaza Strip. I used to think his solution was to ride a tire down the Euphrates river, which would be pretty sweet, but doing research for this blog I discovered that he actually says “Ride the tiger down the River Euphrates!” Riding a tiger down a river?! And I thought riding a tire was bad ass.

11. “Five Feet High and Rising” Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash has several river based songs (“Big River,” “Run Softly Blue River”) but the one I like the best is “Five Feet High and Rising.”  I love how the song goes up a key each verse, a subtle touch that adds to the narrative. Plus, Cash somehow makes a disaster like a five foot flood sound fun.

10. “Watching the River Flow” Bob Dylan

When I started compiling this list, Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow” was one of the first songs to come to mind, but when I searched through my i-Pod for the song, it was nowhere to be found. “What album was it on?” I wondered, searching one album after another. Then I realized I first heard it on his second edition of greatest hits, which I didn’t load to iTunes for redundancy reasons. With all of Dylan’s bootlegs and rarity albums you’d think there would be another place to find this great song, but it has only be seen on that one greatest hits compilation. It’s a testament to Dylan’s songwriting talents; an awesome song like “Watching the River Flow” is just a leftover.

9. “Shenandoah” Pete Seeger

A song about as old as America’s rivers themselves, “Shenandoah” once served as a shanty for river men and has changed over time as people from across our great nation changed and added lyrics to fit their region. Over the years, the name “Shenandoah” in the song has represented a plethora of things: a river, an Indian chief’s daughter, and a small Iowa town.  Pete Seeger’s version is my favorite. While others spruce their recording up with orchestra swells and back-up choirs, Seeger captures the folk soul of the song simply with his voice and a guitar (there’s also a live version with a banjo - yes, a banjo).

8. “Black Water” Doobie Brothers

“Black Water” has an upbeat, blue grass feel that captures the sensation of rolling down the river with friends, taking the experience all in.  It also hearkens back to Huck Finn’s journey down the Mississippi on a raft and how those black waters led his way. Some have suggested that the black water represents anything from bong water to moon shine, but I tend to believe it is simply about the Mississippi River. And if it is about drugs or alcohol, why are they riding on a raft? Does that symbolize a bean bag? And are the catfish pot brownies?

7. “Whiskey River” Willie Nelson

I don’t think there is an actual Whiskey River, but the metaphor is pretty obvious. With a broken heart, Willie turns to whiskey to wash away his pain and take his mind off of his problems for just a while.  The river makes for a great whiskey analogy because while riding the Des Moines we were disconnected from the real world of responsibilities. It was just us and that amber current (Note to self: bring a bottle of Jack next year).

6. “River Guard” Smog

This song always reminds me of “Shawshank Redemption.” Not that there are any rivers in the film, but Bill Callahan’s story of these prisoners being free for just a moment conjures up the image of Andy Dufresne and his gang drinking beers on the rooftop, finding joy and freedom for an instant. The river serves that same purpose in “River Guard,” giving these criminals a chance to be “unburdened and relaxed.”

5. “River” Joni Mitchell

I find it strange that Joni Mitchell’s “River” has become a Christmas song. It was never intended as such. Sure, it speaks of decorations and songs of peace, but the message is anything but joyful.  Joni wrote “River” about the remorse she felt when thinking back on the daughter she gave up for adoption. Instead of most songs on this list that speak of flowing waters, Joni wants a frozen river to “skate away on.”  That’s a Canadian for ya.

4. “Down By the Water” PJ Harvey

What happened under the bridge is still in question, but there is no doubt that innocence was lost.  Whether it was the narrator who lost her childhood to sexual abuse or her actual daughter, she stands on the banks of the river and begs the fish (Christ) to bring back her purity.  The fact that many think this is just another riverside murder song shows just how much depth there is in PJ Harvey’s songwriting.

3. “Take Me to the River” Talking Heads

This is originally an Al Green song, and as much as I respect Mr. Green, I prefer what the Talking Heads did with it. The Green version was based in religion with him turning to the waters to wash away his sins.  In a genius move, David Byrne took these lyrics and tweaked them to be about a lover who the narrator can’t resist. He’s willing to give up everything just for her to “dip (him) in the water.”  Leave it to Byrne to make baptism sound racy.

 2. “Down by the River” Neil Young

One of Neil Young’s most mysterious songs, “Down By the River” has a chorus of “Down by the river, I shot my baby.”  This would suggest that this is another song about a riverside murder, but the rest of the trippy lyrics speak of “taking a ride” and being dragged “over a river.” While Young has stayed pretty mum on the subject of the song, some have suggested that the river represents heroin (a motif discussed earlier with “Dam the River”) and he’s shooting himself up in order to take the ride. Again, it’s probably just about a river, but it’s fun to think about.  Whatever the case, it’s a damn catchy song with distinctive guitar break-downs throughout.  Just like a river, Young’s guitar solos are always erratic, fierce, and unrelenting.

1. “The River” Bruce Springsteen

As with most Springsteen songs, “The River” tells the story of the struggles of adulthood.  This particular song tells the story of a couple who has been together since high school, spending their youth down at the river swimming and sunning.  As the song progresses both the river and their lives change with time. By the end, the river that once tied them together and brought them joy is gone.  It’s hard to imagine a river dying; about as hard as it is to see teenage dreams dry up.

9 Comments

Filed under Top Songs Lists

Video Clip of the Week: Chad VanGaalen “Peace On the Rise”

Not only do I love Chad VanGaalen’s “Peace On the Rise,” but the video has become a borderline obsession in recent weeks. I find myself thinking about the scenes from the video constantly, trying to figure out exactly what is going on.

Check it out below (I have more to say after your viewing as to avoid a spoiler alert):

Pretty trippy, right? But it’s not wacked-out in the same way as J. Mascis’s recent video for “Not Enough” which seemed more about just being zany than actually conveying a message. No, I can’t help but feel these two alien’s odyssey to another planet for magical seeds/eggs has a purpose beyond simply being bizarre. VanGaalen also does all the drawings for the video, so this wasn’t some artists creating an interpretation; this is his message in visuals. If you look at some of his other videos, the storyline is pretty straightforward. In the case of “Peace On the Rise,” not so much.

“Molten Light” for example is just two rapist/murderers getting haunted by their victim. Simple enough:

The video starts with two hippie/tribal/aliens preparing for a journey to another planet in search of what we later find out to be some type of seed/egg that a craw-dad looking bug secretes. This task does not seem to be for their tribe or as part of some job because their send-off consists of just the two of them in a modest little spaceship. As they lift-off, a wide shot of the landscape exposes a bumpy, red surface that almost resembles a brain.

The two arrive at their destination and sit around a fire, a commonplace act for weary travelers throughout time.  But then, as they stare into the blue embers, one of the travelers suddenly slips into what could only be described as a trip. His eyes float out of his head and he soon transforms into a full on hallucination. This moment is punctuated by the lyrics “We can sit around this fire, and let our spirits ride on out.”  We later see them smoking some form of cigarette but I’m not so sure they are druggies. Is this some type of spirit quest?

The travelers go on to seek out the bird that happens to feed on the bug in question.  Upon finding one, they vacuum up the bugs Ghost Busters style. The next image is of the aliens next to a waterfall, with one rubbing a sonar device against the other’s head (this device is connected to their little vacuum box).  In an instant, the one receiving the cat scan transforms into a giant version of the bug they sucked up. Did this guy want to be a bug? Or is his partner tricking him in order to feast on him or the GIANT eggs/seeds he creates? Are the seeds a form of drug and the other alien runs a drug cartel?  Or is the alien like a transsexual, always feeling deep down that he was meant to be a giant bug?  Have they simply gone crazy from the “interstellar space that got broken in” to their psyche? The lyrics speak of regret, so maybe becoming a giant bug is some type of sacrificial suicide?

Then, just as you’re trying to figure out why this guy wanted to be a giant bug, the screen jumps to 40 seconds of the trippiest cartoon imagery ever assembled: a melting tree, pyramids, smoking coffee mugs, faces coming out of faces.  Has he died? Is this heaven? Hell? Or has becoming a giant bug led to the worlds greatest trip?

We’ll never know any of these answers, but I will take comfort that now you, the reader, will be haunted by “the same dream every night” the same way I have been since first viewing this video. Enjoy the torment!

Leave a comment

Filed under Video Clips

Honky-Tonk Angel

Every 4th of July that I’m back in Iowa, my mom and I take a trip over to Okoboji to peruse the flea markets.  This year was no different with my mom and I making the annual trip over to the lakes to walk past table after table of rusted signs, antique china, and baseball cards (a Texas flea market is much different in content, usually featuring used clothing, black market DVDs, and economy-sized boxes of Chiclets).

As a toddler I went with because I had to, as did my brothers, but as we got older, my siblings quit going while I continued tagging along with my mom.  While my mom has always gone in search of what ever rusty gold she can find, I’ve went over the years for different reasons. In middle school I searched for David Robinson cards to add to my collection (today, my 150 Robinson card collection is probably worth a buck fifty).  After college I still willingly went along, now searching for old pint glasses (Schlitz, PBR, Hamm’s, etc), but this collection petered out when I realized that pint glasses aren’t much fun without beer inside them.  The past few years I’ve gone with my mom just for tradition’s sake, but this year I had a new collection in the works: vinyl.

Writing this blog made me curious and I was pleasantly surprised to see that a Robinson rookie card goes for around 20 dollars.

You would think being a music enthusiast I would have jumped on the vinyl train long ago, but I always found myself blindly satisfied with CDs.  This of course all changed with the dawning of the i-Pod.  I found myself buying CDs that I’d rip to my computer and never touch again.  As much as it pained me, I realized I needed to move to MP3s. They’re more eco-friendly and don’t fill up shelves at the house. Despite this realization, I couldn’t make the switch. The idea of paying money for something you can’t tangibly hold in your hands didn’t set well with me. Plus, I couldn’t part with the experience of reading the liner notes, analyzing the lyrics, and exploring the artwork.

When I discovered many labels now include download codes with their vinyl, I found a solution: not only was I still getting the MP3s, but I got the added bonus of having a bigger package to adore. Plus, when listening to the music at home, I always opt to hear it on the record player because it just sounds so much more better.

This shift to vinyl soon became an obsession, and now I’ve slipped into the role of record collector.  Despite the lack of free MP3 downloads with used LPs by Charlie Parker, Run DMC, and Willie Nelson, I couldn’t help myself but to hear the classics in the form that they were meant to be heard.  Being a new hobby, this was my first year searching out old records at the flea market, and I left with 20 albums including Black Sabbath’s “Sabotage,” Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Smash Hits,” the album that changed my life as a 14-year-old kid.

The album my mom found at the flea market

While scouring the tables of boxes, my mom looked around to pass the time. At one point she walked over to me with an album in hand.  “I remember this Kitty Wells album from when I was a kid. I used to love the song ‘Honky Tonk Angels.’ My brother used to play it all the time.”  The mention of her brother Gary caught me off guard. Gary drowned 13 days after his 21st birthday back in 1962.  My mom witnessed it. As you can imagine, this was pretty hard on her.  As always with music, that record brought memories back to the surface.

I encouraged my mom to buy the album, and she did.  As we walked on through the tables of antiques, mom continued discussing my uncle’s love of music. It seemed the sight of that old record had dusted off memories she’d not visited for a while. She talked about the huge collection of records he bought over the years with the money he earned as a barber. She remembered all the concerts he used to head into town to see: Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Patsy Cline.

My mom still has some of the signed photos he bring home for her as a kid including this Patsy Cline. Unfortunately, they got water damaged in a basement.

Something about it all seemed eerily similar, and I knew why.  The pile of records, the concerts, the love of music – it all added up. Driving home, one question haunted me: how could my Uncle Gary, a man I never knew, be so much like me?  Yes, his love of music rubbed off on my mom who raised my brothers and I on a steady diet of Joni Mitchell and Buffalo Springfield, but to the level that Uncle Gary did? The level that I do?

I began to question my thoughts.  How could I possibly even get my uncle’s music-obsession gene? Where did he even get it? My grandpa, who took over the farm at age 14, never seemed to be a music fanatic, and my grandma listened exclusively to the Statler Brothers (“Mama Sang Bass” will forever bring me back to riding in my grandma’s car).  Maybe the music-obsession gene skips generations and somewhere 100 years back one of my ancestors was as obsessed with John Phillip Sousa as I am with Sonic Youth.

Sonic Youth with Sousa on the drums.

Back at home, I continued thinking about Gary with my questions moving away from “Why?” to “What if?”.  What would he be like today? How would my life be different if I had known him? Would he have regaled me with stories of meeting Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline?  What would he have thought of Bob Dylan? Neil Young? Iggy Pop? All unanswered questions.

A week later, these thoughts would still circle my brain like a needle on a record. It didn’t help that my mom left the Kitty Wells record sitting on the kitchen counter, and each time I saw Kitty’s face looking back at me, I couldn’t help but think of Gary.  I finally decided to listen to the album that had raised so many memories for my mom and so many questions for me.

I put the needle on the vinyl like I’ve done so many times before, and listened to the crackling of the record. I wonder if he enjoyed that sound as much as me – the anticipation that comes with it.  And then Kitty Wells appeared.  Her voice wasn’t beautiful by any means. Nasally, a tad flat, yet it didn’t bother me. In fact, I liked it; there was substance to it. It had soul. And soon, that emotive voice filled the rooms and halls of my parents’ house while filling the void of uncertainty in my mind.  No, I never knew Uncle Gary; but in that moment, I knew that he still somehow lived within that music and within me – my honky-tonk guardian angel.

Uncle Gary with my mom and Aunt Sally up above on the rocks.

2 Comments

Filed under Music Ramblings

Video Clip of the Week: Bill Callahan in Iowa City

I should probably call this the “Video Clip of the Month” since it has been so long since I’ve posted anything.  I also intended to post this video on Friday as a 4th of July themed post (Callahan is playing “America!”) but again, I didn’t get it posted. I apologize for this.  Without Wi-Fi in my current location, my opportunities to post is varied, so bear with me the next few weeks.

Enough groveling; here’s a clip I filmed of Bill Callahan performing “America!” in Iowa City last week. He put on a great performance, but even more impressive was the work of his guitarist.  With what looked to be 30 pedals at his feet, he created one strange guitar sound after another.

Leave a comment

Filed under Video Clips