List: Pop Music on Gilmore girls Saturday, Jan 27 2007 

The Gilmore girls (© 2006 The WB Television Network)

I’ve been watching Gilmore girls [sic] since its first season – that is, since 2000 – and never caught any of the popular music references. And there are a lot of references, partly because Lorelai and her daughter Lorelai (Rory) Gilmore, the girls in question, are deeply steeped in pop culture, and partly because Rory’s best friend Lane is a complete audiophile and plays drums in a rock band. There was even one episode in which the Bangles made an appearance (the girls were attending a Bangles concert in New York City) and we were treated to a bracing dose of the classic ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ as well as footage of the band ‘performing’ ‘Eternal Flame’, ‘Hero Takes a Fall’, &c.

But in the time that I’ve started exploring popular music, I’ve been rewatching old episodes and find that I get a lot more of the music-related jokes, am capable of identifying songs played on the show, and have (re-)discovered good music too.

A few of the memorable jokes and references:

  1. Rory, in an effort to persuade her boyfriend to go to her formal coming-out (into society) that requires correspondingly formal wear, makes him watch Neil Young’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction because ‘doesn’t Neil Young look cool?… If you’ll notice, he’s wearing a tux.’ Her boyfriend’s rejoinder: ‘Neil Young looks cool because he’s Neil Young, not because he’s wearing a tux.’ How true.
  2. Grumpy diner owner Luke warning his ne’er-do-well nephew Jess to knuckle down and pay attention to his studies: ‘If you’re not careful you’ll wind up like that loner at the back of the class who repeats every year and listens to Steely Dan.’ Retorts Jess sarcastically: ‘Steely Dan? Nice topical reference.’ Luke, unabashed: ‘The band may change, the guy never does.’
  3. The guitarist of Lane’s band, threatening the hapless asthmatic bass player to shape up or else: The Who bassist ‘John Entwistle’s nails were still growing when they found his replacement.’
  4. Lorelai’s immediate reaction to the lounge pianist hired by her stuffy parents for a posh Thanksgiving party – ‘He can play anything’ – was the shouted request ‘Free Bird!’, the Lynyrd Skynyrd song that is a staple request at rock concerts
  5. Taylor Doose, Stars Hollow’s town selectman, making things difficult for Lorelai when she attempts to acquire the requisite permit to set up her own inn, insists that the inn’s 18 parking spaces won’t be enough for the potentially 20 guests occupying its rooms. Lorelai argues that ‘if the parking’s not enough, we can always add more.’ Rejoins Taylor, quoting Joni Mitchell’s delightful ‘Big Yellow Taxi’: ‘So, pave paradise and put up a parking lot?’
  6. An excerpt from Rory’s high-school valedictorian speech: ‘My mother never gave me any idea that I couldn’t do whatever I wanted to do or be whomever I wanted to be. She filled our house with love and fun and books and music, unflagging in her efforts to give me role models from Jane Austen to Eudora Welty to Patti Smith. As she guided me through these incredible eighteen years, I don’t know if she ever realized that the person I most wanted to be was her.’

Songs I hadn’t known in my previous (unexposed to popular music) life, but which I actually recognized this time when played (either by the original band or by Lane’s band) on the show:

The Clash – ‘London Calling’, ‘White Riot’
The Ramones – ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’
Siouxsie and the Banshees – ‘Cities of Dust’
Pixies – ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’

Songs that Gilmore girls introduced to me:

The B-52’s – ‘52 Girls’, ‘Dance this Mess Around’
Joey Ramone – ‘What a Wonderful World’
Blondie – ‘Heart of Glass’
David Bowie – ‘Suffragette City’
XTC – ‘Then She Appeared’
Bananarama – ‘Shy Boy’
Yo La Tengo – ‘My Little Corner of the World’
Ella Fitzgerald – ‘I Can’t Get Started’


Neil Young: Rust Never Sleeps Sunday, Jan 21 2007 

I still remember the very first thoughts I had when I heard this album for the first time. I couldn’t believe my ears when faint sounds of the audience cheering and clapping came through on the first track, ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’. They went thus:

1. This is an amazingly clean recording, for a live performance. It sounds like a studio recording.

2. This is live. LIVE. He’s playing that acoustic guitar and blowing that harmonica and singing perfectly, all at once, and live.

3. Eeks. I hope there isn’t going to be audible cheering and clapping all throughout the recording.

No worries on that last account. I understand that the audience track was removed from what was indeed a series of recordings made of new, unreleased songs that Mr. Young was trying out on a previous tour. But Rust Never Sleeps is more than just a pioneering effort. Had it been a conventional Neil Young studio effort (if there is such a thing), it would still have been an astounding musical achievement. Especially that guitar-playing. This is the album that made me want to learn guitar. Whether acoustic or electric, I didn’t care – and there’s plenty of both on the album – I just wanted to be able to produce the gorgeous/ferocious combination of sounds that was assailing my ears.

Not that Rust Never Sleeps is all harsh on the ears. I wasn’t paying full attention on first listen, but I got a vague feeling that the songs were getting more and more fierce/wild/loud/fast as the album progressed. It was quite a surprise to find out subsequently that the album had in fact been neatly split into acoustic and electric halves, coinciding nicely with the two sides of a vinyl record in, ahem, the days of vinyl. I listen to it in CD form, of course, but it’s still a nice idea. At any rate, it showcases to good effect the two (main) sides of Mr. Young’s musical personality – elegiac acoustic folk and heavy electric rock – as became apparent to me the more of his albums I heard.

I like both sides. Both sides of Rust Never Sleeps and of Neil Young’s musical personality, that is. The acoustic portion of Rust Never Sleeps has some of the most lovely music he has ever written and performed, in particular the gorgeous bridge of ‘Ride My Llama’, which juxtaposes jerky, rhythmic acoustic guitar and bass and the silky-smooth unison singing of Mr. Young and Nicolette Larson to incredible polyphonic effect. But ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Sail Away’ have no less beautiful, though simple, melodies and arrangements. The appeal of the really loud electric half, with its distorted guitars, occasional feedback and extended soloing (never mind if it sometimes consists only of repeated single notes) is more… visceral. Crazy Horse, Mr. Young’s usual ‘back-up band’ (although I don’t think the term does them justice) are tremendously sympathetic in their playing and vocal harmonies. And I’m very fond of the percussive clapping used in ‘Welfare Mothers’ (at least, I think it’s clapping): I wonder just who did that; perhaps the stagehands were roped in? Plus, the huge contrast between the two versions of what is essentially the same song – the acoustic album opener ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’ and the electric album closer ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’ – is a wonder to behold.

Rust Never Sleeps is also special to me because this is where I first recognised Neil Young’s wonderful and essential lyrical weirdness. He is real knacky where the music is concerned, but he’s no slouch with the words either. The songs on Rust Never Sleeps are tied together loosely by a few motifs, including Native American history, time travel, a long journey, &c, and sometimes they come together in a bizarre but highly pleasing mix of imagery. To wit, ‘Pocahontas’:

I wish I was a trapper, I would give a thousand pelts

To sleep with Pocahontas and find out how she felt

In the morning, on the fields of green

In a homeland we’ve never seen

And maybe Marlon Brando would be there by the fire

We’d sit and talk of Hollywood, and the good things there for hire

And the Astradome, and the first tepee

Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me

The idea of a long journey – often an allegory for the artistic quest – is not exactly ground-breaking in rock music. But few, if any, have written about it in such an interesting manner, I think. From ‘Thrasher’:

It was then that I knew I’d had enough

Burned my credit card for fuel

Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand

With a one-way ticket to the land of truth

And my suitcase in my hand

How I lost my friends I still don’t understand.

The above evokes the most important idea in Rust Never Sleeps: that the artist must vigilantly fight the temptation and tendency to stagnate. Even the album title serves as a rather lyrical admonishment: Wikipedia informs me that ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ was the slogan of an anti-rust paint, Rustoleum. This theme, together with the acoustic/electric split, makes for quite a concept, and is itself fully embodied in Neil Young’s work on this album.

Rust Never Sleeps was released in 1979 (strangely enough, in the same year as my favourite album London Calling). The musical event which provoked Mr. Young’s reflections was, of course, the rise of punk rock in the late 1970s. Punk rock was anti-establishment in both its musical style (short, loud, ferocious, simple to the point of simplistic) and lyrical preoccupations (aggressively rebellious, politically and socially aware, and sometimes anarchic). It was uncomfortable and uncomforting, a direct counterpoint to the popular music that came before, and emphatically not inclined to rest on its laurels. A secondary musical event was perhaps the 1977 death of Elvis Presley, himself a pioneer in his prime. So Neil Young pays tribute to those newcomers – like the Sex Pistols – who were, at that point, forcing established artists like himself to keep staying relevant or suffer artistic death:

The King is gone but he’s not forgotten

This is the story of a Johnny Rotten

It’s better to burn out ‘cause rust never sleeps

The King is gone but he’s not forgotten

And to underscore the crucial importance of guarding against artistic complacency, Mr. Young made it the subject of the album’s ‘bookends’, viz. ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’ and ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’. The late Kurt Cobain may have shared this belief, including a now infamous line from the former – ‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away’ – in his suicide note. (I say ‘may’ because there is controversy over the rather romantic suggestion that Mr. Cobain killed himself because he simply could not deal with the massive and unexpected success of Nirvana.) And I did quite a double-take when I re-watched the film High Fidelity (one of my favourites, in part because of John Cusack), and finally recognised the line, coming out of Jack Black’s mouth while his character Barry was ranting to Cusack’s character Rob:

‘Rob. Top 5 musical crimes perpetrated by Stevie Wonder in the ‘80s and ‘90s: Go. Sub-question: is it in fact unfair to criticise a formerly-great artist for his latter-day sins? Is it better to burn out or to fade away?’

That line, that theme, and Neil Young by extension, have certainly entered pop culture. A funny incident occurred the other day. I mentioned to a colleague that Mr. Young’s 1970s retrospective compilation album Decade was going for a rather exorbitant price in a music shop in Singapore, and my colleague replied: ‘Oh, but Neil Young is rather esoteric, isn’t he?’ Well, perhaps he’s considered esoteric here. But even though 10 months ago I myself had never heard of Neil Young, I find it funny now to hear him spoken of as if he weren’t a Major Artist in the history of popular music. Rust Never Sleeps plays a big part in that.

Neil Young: Comes a Time Sunday, Dec 10 2006 

There was a time when I’d play only the title track of Comes a Time, without listening to any of the other tracks. I had heard the entire album once through – just once – before I started this pattern, deliberately ignoring the temptation to listen to the rest of the album. For a temptation was what it was. I was supposed to be studying for exams and/or writing my dissertation and am one of those unfortunate souls who is unable to do much that is productive while listening to music. Simply put, music doesn’t remain ‘in the background’. Even the stereotypical soothing classical music – say one of Bach’s cantatas – get me singing along with everything, waving my hands in what I think is conductor-fashion and generally acting silly.

So, while putting on the song ‘Comes a Time’ takes only 3 minutes out of my work, putting on the album Comes a Time would take about 40 minutes. In my responsible mood, the choice was clear-cut. I’d lit on that particular song as my sample of choice because of the utterly striking chorus:

Oh, this old world keeps spinning round

It’s a wonder tall trees ain’t laying down.

It’s not just the words there. It’s the combination of the imagery and the falling melody line: Neil Young and Nicolette Larson’s harmonies really do describe a spiraling downward trajectory over the second half of each of those lines. Which makes me feel, for some reason, as if I’m surrounded by a circle of tall evergreens – pines, because the shape of their branches reminds me of the jagged harmonies – with the sunlight filtering down through the branches, while I’m standing in the centre and getting dizzy. Is there any ongoing scientific study of such combined effects of music and words on the brain? They feel like a new sense in operation.

Suffice it to say that Comes a Time (the album) is shot through with such beautiful imagery, especially relating to nature, which is especially complementary to the sweet, wistful acoustic love songs – folk tinged with country – that constitute the majority of this album. This must be a Canadian thing. It is a pet theory of mine that Canadian artists, growing up with such scenic beauty around them, can’t help but show it in their work. The last song on Comes a Time bears out this theory, too: it’s a cover of ‘Four Strong Winds’, a quintessential Canadian song written by folkies Ian and Silvia Tyson. Yet the words on this album aren’t dripping with gorgeousness in the way Ms. Mitchell’s sometimes are. They’re simple enough, but usually laced with what I’ve come to think of as Neil Young’s essential weirdness and a bit of wordplay, making them vividly memorable. Thus:

Comes a time

When you’re driftin’

Comes a time when you settle down

Comes a light

Feeling’s liftin’

Lift that baby right up off the ground.

Similarly, from ‘Lotta Love’, which is quite amusing:

So if you look in my direction

And we don’t see eye to eye

My heart needs protection

And so do I…

The gorgeousness is reserved for the arrangements. The opening track, ‘Goin’ Back’, exhibits what I think of as the absolute pinnacle of prettiness in popular music. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not loaded with the usual instruments that people nowadays seem to think are necessary to make a song pretty: orchestral strings, tinkling chimes, &c. Again, as with the best of Neil Young, it’s simple enough – a few acoustic guitars and feather-light percussion, plus a bit of harmony vocals – but conceals complexity and no little musicianship that become apparent on repeated listens. You start to discern the individual melodic lines of the guitars, weaving shimmering cant and descant, picked rapidly but with gentle clarity. Yet the guitars aren’t even the star attraction. Yes, they get their chance to shine, but there’s no soloing, and the main melody left to the vocals. Everything is… well-balanced. The whole comes up, truly, to something more than its parts.

Not unlike the song’s author, who on his best days gives equal importance to both the music and the words and therefore comes up with something wonderful. The decision to add a one-time, isolated, extended electric guitar riff about mid-way through the Crazy Horse collaboration ‘Look Out for My Love’ – a punchy, muscular, squelching, rum riff – was absolutely inspired.

Comes a Time isn’t consistent all the way through. There are two songs I don’t particularly care for, even though they do have merits, because they rather distract from the overall tone of the album. The exaggerated feel that ‘Field of Opportunity’ has – from the extended metaphor to the very country tune, the fiddling (yep, it’s definitely called a fiddle, not a violin, in this case) and even the nasal voice that Mr. Young adopts – is a bit jolting. Still, you can’t help but to wonder at the exact meaning behind the lines ‘In the field of opportunity it’s ploughing time again/There ain’t no way of knowing where these seeds will rise or when’. Then there’s the diverting ‘Motorcycle Mama’, an incongruously gritty blues rocker with larger-than-life vocals courtesy of Ms. Larson and larger-than-life lyrics courtesy of Mr. Young (‘Motorcycle Mama won’t you lay your big spike down?’). But these songs are not grievously annoying, and even better, they’re easy to skip since they’re back to back.

So, high marks overall to Comes a Time. Sweet and substantial.

Neil Young: After the Gold Rush Saturday, Oct 28 2006 

I love Neil Young. He’s absolutely one of my musical heroes, being so cranky, weird, and uncompromising, but with a sense of humour. He’s bursting with personality, which is what makes his songs so fantastic, I think: if your music is about (ugh) personal expression, then you had better have a darn interesting self. What’s more, he pairs his strange and wonderful lyrics with the most amazingly memorable tunes, and then plays and sings the hell out of them.

Well, I know this now. But there was a time that I thought of him as a sort of countryish musician with a formidable reputation (and there was a long time before that when his name meant nothing to me). I put off listening to him because whatever country-tinged music I’d heard before simply didn’t appeal to my tastes. But the first time I tried After the Gold Rush, I just found myself wholly bemused: even with my prior prejudices, I really liked the very countryish, in-3/4-time, ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’. How could I not, with that melody? Then the title is incredibly pithy and it’s got delightful lyrics:

I have a friend I’ve never seen

He hides his head inside a dream

Someone should call him and see if he can come out

Try to lose the down that he’s found.

Well, those prejudices are no more; After the Gold Rush sort of opened the way to country music for me. And I got over Neil Young’s much-remarked-upon nasal tenor (occasionally alto, occasionally off-pitch) vocals pretty quickly, too; it’s just part of him and I don’t think a conventionally good voice is a pre-requisite for good music. Anyhow, all 33 minutes of After the Gold Rush is beautifully written and arranged – whether harmonica-laced country, acoustic folk-rock, piano balladry, or electric rock – and very well put together. Despite the variety of styles on display, the album is remarkably cohesive. Plus, it flows beautifully, right down to the order of the songs. Who else but Neil Young would have thought to ease the transition from the scathing rocker ‘Southern Man’ to the wailing cover of the country song ‘Oh, Lonesome Me’ with the totally apt 1 minute 20 second interlude that is ‘Till the Morning Comes’? (Complete lyrics: ‘I’m gonna give you till the morning comes/I’m only waiting till the morning comes.’)

‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ must be one of my favourite Neil Young songs. Melody, check. (I’m sure I can’t have heard it more than twice during my 20-odd years in the pop-wilderness, and of course I didn’t know whose song it was; and yet the first time I heard it properly on ‘After the Gold Rush’ the tune just leapt out of my memory. How does he do it?) Lyrics, check. (‘Blind man running down the side of the road with an answer in his hand/Come on down to the river of sight and you can really understand’) And, perhaps most importantly: spirit, check. In the face of a desolate landscape, the narrator advises:

Don’t let it bring you down

It’s only castles burning

Just find someone who’s turning

And you will come around.

(!) I’m not quite sure what exactly he means here (which is par for the course where Neil Young is concerned)… but all the same I like it very much indeed. Completely lovely song.

I understand that some people (whom Southerners might call Yankees) admire ‘Southern Man’ a great deal, especially in the context of the 1960s civil rights movement. Well, the lyrics are certainly powerful:

Southern man, better keep your head

Don’t forget what your good Book said

Southern change gonna come at last

Now your crosses are burning fast

Of course, we must question the implication that all Southerners are racist hypocrites. Reluctance to eliminate institutionalised racism and so-called redneck attitudes, post-civil rights revolution, weren’t and aren’t limited to the South. But I suspect that Neil Young was well-aware of that anyhow, and was deliberately playing on well-entrenched stereotypes. (Interestingly, ‘Southern Man’ was written apparently after he got beaten up for his long hair while travelling in the South.) After all, contrary to the myth about a feud, he was good-natured about Lynyrd Skynyrd’s riposte in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ (another song I’m very fond of):

Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her

Well, I heard Old Neil put her down

Well, I hope Neil Young will remember

Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow

Apart from the slightly dubious note struck by the lyrics, the music of ‘Southern Man’ alone is pretty great. The song doesn’t mar the listening experience of After the Gold Rush in the least, not for me, anyway. It’s not just one of my favourite Neil Young albums, it is also a good way to get into his music; though I love Rust Never Sleeps best, After the Gold Rush is more accessible. And no, ‘accessible’ is not a pejorative term.