With A Little Help From My iPod
I’m in a once-familiar city that has changed in weird ways. The weather alternates between muggy and hot or wet and rainy. I know few people in town now and everything seems new, strange and even a bit complicated. The fact that I’ve had to make the trip in not very happy circumstances doesn’t make things any better. So, lying down in bed in the dark one night, I reached into the innards of an old iPod for something familiar.
I went to “Songs” and found Gloria. Ah, the Van Morrison classic, I thought to myself as I clicked play and waited with my eyes closed for Van M’s growl and characteristic speak-singing style. I didn’t quite expect what happened. The horn and guitar opening was different from the original; the three-chord format and the backbeat were missing; and the vocalist! Just who was this languid singer with a remarkable voice who seemed to have a small crowd egg him on as he sang?
Neutral MilkThis wasn’t Van Morrison. Nor was it any one of the numerous bands that I have heard cover this song. It’s an R&B classic that I won’t be surprised if at least a thousand bands have covered. Everyone, from AC/DC (yes!) to Patti Smith to Jimi Hendrix and the Doors have done this song. But just who was this guy, singing with casual, slow ease but an ease that was edged with passion? I got up and checked the display on the pod again. Robb London it said. I looked for more Robb London songs on my iPod and drew a blank.
The next morning I checked on the Internet. Nothing in the usual places but a short description on a website called GarageHangover. Besides the nice name, this I found to be an interesting place to discover garage bands of the 1960s from across the world (it even has an entry on India, but more on that later). Robb London, I found out, was a band that began in Texas as Bobby Jenkins and the Jades back in 1964. They then became Robb London and the Rogues and were around till at least 1970. The Gloria cover must’ve dropped into my iPod via some feed that I subscribe to but I just couldn’t find anything more on the Internet. Efforts are on though!
For some reason, the Robb London experience spurred me to think of an appropriate playlist for the rather unsettling stay in this town. I wanted something familiar, yet not too familiar; something that would comfort as well as surprise me; and, of course, it couldn’t be aggressive and in your face. Tall order? Well, I don’t know. Here’s what I got (you be the judge).
I would start with London’s version of Gloria. Then, I’d choose Roy Buchanan’s lovely instrumental track, Tribute to Elmore James. Somehow, I find the two legends complement each other – although there is nothing (other than their premature deaths) to suggest similarities between the blues guitarist (Buchanan) who hanged himself in a jail cell (he had been arrested for public drunkenness) at 48 and the other blues guitarist (James), known as the King of the Slide Guitar, who also died of a heart attack at 45, the tribute is a track worth listening to, Buchanan clearly composed this for someone who deeply inspired him.
I’d then throw in another version of Gloria. I’d choose Patti Smith’s version from theHorses album. Why? Because Smith is the Godmother of Punk. Because Horses is a fine album and her cover of Gloria is fantastic too. While on the subject of punk, I’d add a track by Paul Weller, the British musician (formerly of The Jam) who went from punk to a more soul-infused brand of music with his other band Style Council. I’d choose No Tears Left to Cry from his new solo album, Wake Up the Nation. It’s a sad break-up song. Well, not too sad really, because it’s a getting-over-a-breakup song. Nice.
I’d put in a love song or two on the playlist. Say, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Holland, 1945 from their 1998 album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Neutral Milk Hotel were a short-lived indie band from the US and the album I mention is a concept album based reportedly on Anne Frank, the Jewish holocaust victim. I liked Holland, 1945 for its touching lyrics and infectious tune. Here, sample some of it: ‘The only girl I’ve ever loved/Was born with roses in her eyes/But then they buried her alive/One evening 1945/With just her sister at her side/And only weeks before the guns/All came and rained on everyone/Now she’s a little boy in Spain/Playing pianos filled with flames/On empty rings around the sun/All sing to say my dream has come.’
I’d choose a couple more female singers. Liz Phair (maybe the track Good Love Never Dies). Some P J Harvey (the weirdly aggressive and sexually violent Me-Jane). And then switch to a male vocalist, a sad one from the late Jeff Buckley – The Last Goodbye. I’m sure a playlist of that sort would make my stay in this town more bearable. Oh, before I forget. The reference to India in GarageHangover? It’s a report on the Simla Beat, a battle of the bands contest that was held in 1970 and 1971. Guess who it was sponsored by? A firm that was then called India Tobacco Company. And guess which town each year’s winners went to get a recording deal? Yes, yes, you’re right. I’m right there now.