NYFOS: Song of the Day (December 4)
Originally appeared on the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) website:
This week we welcome Schubert/Beatles cast member and longtime friend of NYFOS Paul Appleby to Song of the Day! You can hear him with NYFOS on Tuesday, December 8th at Merkin Concert Hall (Get tickets here). And don’t miss his solo recital at Carnegie Hall on March 16, 2016 (tickets here)!
from Paul Appleby:
Sorry these blog posts have been so long, you guys—the title of today’s song could serve as the title of these posts! Apologies, and thanks for your forbearance of today’s grand finale! Also, there will be homework as I am sending you forth with more reading assignments. But since you did so good listening to the Stockhausen and Reich and Bolcom in their entirety yesterday (you did, right?), I’m gonna go easy on you today with just one pop song (albeit two versions of it).
I am writing this blog on December 3, my dad’s birthday, and so I offer up today’s song as a little birthday tribute to him and his influence on me as a song fanatic and recital programmer. My dad’s primary creative outlet through the years has been his practice of the art of the mixed tape. If you’ve seen High Fidelity, it’s like that. Recital programming is the same beast, at least for me. I pick songs that I like and cobble them together in an order that creates a deliberate flow of songs such that their music and texts resonant so that their overtones comingle to create some kind of message and thematic meaning.
My dad’s magnum opus was nothing less than his 300 favorite songs ranked and organized into 20 or so CD’s collectively referred to as Millennial Madness (I can’t believe I just italicized that). Each CD came with an annotated track list in which the excellence of his choice in song was generously explained to all the friends and family members to whom he forced it upon gifted the collection. Liner notes, program notes…basically the same thing. I think these songs were also a way for my dad to communicate to his friends and family—and me, his song apprentice of sorts—in ways that I couldn’t understand until later in life. It’s fair to say that some of the songs he shared with me weren’t about what I thought they were, but in retrospect, they told me a story about himself that he didn’t have the ability to relate directly. It was an important lesson about how we need and how we use songs to connect to each other.
Anyway, I learned this method of communication from my dad, and I am living proof that it can be an effective one—I wouldn’t be married to my wonderful wife Jacqueline if not for one mixed tape of Elvis Costello (son of a Liverpudlian in more ways than one) songs.
When I first got to know Jacqueline, I was a junior at the University of Notre Dame and she had a boyfriend. We were both music students and had met recently working together in a chamber music concert at school on—I swear I’m not making this up—Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer. After a rehearsal (she was playing piano II), we found ourselves checking emails in the music department computer lounge and ended up having long gab session in which she totally turned me on to Radiohead. I was more or less in love from that moment on. So a few months later when her dumb boyfriend told her that he was thinking about breaking up with her (to my baby boomer readers, we call this “going on a break”), trusty Paul was there to comfort Jacqueline with a shoulder to cry on and a mixed tape (a CD or course, but the nomenclature is fixed) of sad songs by Elvis Costello to console her. I owed her a proper introduction to my favorite songster (during that period of my life) in return for her introducing me to Radiohead, after all. There was an ulterior motive, of course. There is no shortage of deliciously bitter break-up lyrics (e.g. “sometimes I think that love is just a tumor/you’ve got to cut it out”) in Costello’s catalogue, so I used songs like “Next Time ‘Round” and “In the Darkest Place” as a Trojan horse to slip in songs with unsubtle hints of my feelings in lyrics such as “I-S-T-A-N-D-A-C-C-U-S-E-D of loving you.” Not trusting Jacqueline’s commitment to words (she’s more of a harmony kind of girl), I even included a “Lyrics Quiz” of the matching format. Match the song title with the obscure lyric from the song. I didn’t point to the really obvious declarations of love, but I wanted to sharpen her ear so she’d catch those too. I entitled the mix “Ms. Misery: When Your Dreamboat Turns Out to Be a Footnote,” which managed to use lines from two different songs on the mix including today’s song of the day. Within a few weeks she was MY girlfriend.
About a year and a half later, Jacqueline had begun her arts administration career at Notre Dame’s Debartolo Performing Arts Center and had to accompany the university’s student orchestra to New York to perform a St. Patrick’s Day concert with the Chieftains at Carnegie Hall. Who should turn up as the surprise guest artist for the concert but Elvis Costello himself! Effective as that mixed tape had been, he didn’t hold the same idol status for her that would have stopped me in my tracks had I been there, so Jacqueline had no compunction about approaching him as people were milling about backstage of Carnegie Hall waiting to rehearse the concert. “Mr. Costello,” she said, “I need to thank you. I would not be with my boyfriend if it were not for you,” and she proceeded to recount the contents of the mixed tape. I don’t think she even realized how many deep cuts were on that mix—all the songs were equally unknown to her—so I must say how incredibly proud I was that she dropped titles like bonus tracks from All this Useless Beauty as well as “Everyday I Write the Book.” He was amused and pleased to hear of his contribution to our happiness, and left Jacqueline with this little present for me:
In case you can’t make out the handwriting, the inscription reads, “To Paul Glad to be of service Look after this gal Elvis Costello.” It is prized.
Now, the subtitle of this mix tape is something that I took immense pride in when I learned Jacqueline had shared it with the man himself, not just because it is clever and funny and perfectly deployed (if I say so myself), but because I was flouting the conventional wisdom among Elvis Costello fans and critics that his “Everyday I Write the Book”—and the entire Punch the Clock album for that matter—was shallow, over-produced pop that was not worthy of his talent. Perhaps because I’m just young enough, I was never aurally enmeshed in the synth excesses of the 80’s and the cynical commercialization of pop music that a lot of 70’s singer-songwriter fans perceived in 80’s pop. For example, I don’t remember my dad ever pointing to the songs on that album as exemplar’s of Elvis’ talent, so in this case I will allow myself to take full credit for the insight that “Everyday I Write the Book” is a wonderfully crafted, first rate song. I think a lot of baby boomers were led off the scent by the shiny surface of the song and so dismissed it as an artistically compromised grab for wider commercial success. I think by now the record is clear that Elvis Costello has never sought that kind of success but has always pursued songwriting styles and sounds that intrigued him and that he wanted to learn from as a songwriter. But I think he must have been discouraged so much by the reaction of his fans to this song that he came to hate it. That’s what he told fellow songwriter Ron Sexsmith when he asked Elvis if he didn’t mind him covering it when they toured together a few years ago. Costello now credits Sexsmith with teaching him “how to sing it” and he tends to do it like this when he performs it these days (in this case as a duet with Ron Sexsmith)
Even Elvis Costello himself fell victim to the trap of mistaking his own song for its arrangement. But I can honestly say that I prefer the original version! Its sound world evokes the insouciance of the lyric’s clever wordplay, and this hilariously campy video featuring Charles and Diana stand-ins underscores that youthful irreverence.
This has been the nature of the mainstream ever since blues and rock’n’roll took over our concept popular music. Since the music and its arrangement on a recording represent a version of the core harmonic progression and melody that is the song. To my mind, it is of little value to cover a song just to recreate the recording you learned it. The interesting thing is when a new version— like Ron Sexsmith did with our song of the day—changes the atmosphere, the instrumentation, the affect of the song in order to explore corners of it that the original version entails in its DNA but doesn’t make manifest in its original arrangement. In praising the Beatles’ songwriting in 1968(!), Ned Rorem makes this point brilliantly in analyzing the sophisticated compositional structure lying under the surface of the their eminently approachable recordings (thanks to Steve Blier for bringing this article to the attention of the cast of our Schubert/Beatles program).
When it comes to “Classical” music, there is only one set of specifically written notes values and rhythms that a perform can choose from for “Die Taubenpost,” for example, because the song exists entirely on paper in the precise way the chords are voiced the rhythms laid out. The song is expressly the music on the page, not a performance of it. For deeper reading on this idea, consider this essay by composer and musicologist John Halle. For me, love of the Beatles’ songs predated my love of Schubert, but these essays help me understand why they carry equal import to me despite their essential differences.
What inspired me to pick today’s song is that Elvis Costello is currently doing press to promote his new book, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink (which I plan on reading as soon as I finish this damn blog), and I listened to his recent interview on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron. It’s a great interview for hard core Costello fans and neophytes alike because he discusses music and songwriting in amazing depth in a short time. One thing he said made me holler in agreement when he mentioned that some criticized his album King of America for being too country and others criticized his album from the same year (1986) Blood and Chocolate for being too distorted to which Elvis replies, “it’s such an idiotic thing. It’s just music. There’s nothing to fear.” I guess that quote sums up what I’ve been trying to say all week. Franz Schubert and Paul McCartney are just people like you and me, and their music is just music. So come to our Schubert/Beatles concert on Tuesday at Merkin Hall and enjoy some music!
p.s. Another shout out goes to my dear friend John Welsh and his own version of Millennial Madness, the Welsh 100. It’s a great, fun, longwinded read and it reflects my own taste in pop songs rather closely for the hardcore Applenuts out there (hi mom!) who care to know. John is my dear friend since 5th grade. Of all our dorky adventures along the way through high school and college, our proudest is undoubtedly our Elvis Costello/Radiohead cover band (you get the significance of these two bands by now). It was just John on guitar and me on piano, and although we never performed anywhere other than our living rooms (I think his mom Jackie might be the only person to ever hear our versions of “Karma Police” and “Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head”) we were nonetheless our favorite band.]