Saturday, November 5, 2011

Respect the Nonsense

When I say softly! Slowly!

An obvious part of my vocation is speaking in front of groups. I even get invited to the occasional speaking engagement outside of my normal Sunday gig. A few weeks back I was at one of those events and when I began to speak I realized my voice was nearly gone. I immediately knew the reason. On the way to the venue, alone in my car, I sang along to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" at the top of my lungs.

I mentioned that to the group and the reaction was...mixed. I was gobsmacked. I mean, who wouldn't sing this at the top of their lungs? Turns out a lot of people wouldn't. But I'm still baffled. It's arguably the greatest pop song ever.1

1. I'm talking "pop song" here. Second and third? "Billie Jean" and "Raspberry Beret". And I'm not even a real fan of Elton John, Michael Jackson or Prince. That's how good these songs are.
Now the interactive part. Click play:

Yep. You've heard it. Recorded in 1971 the song didn't even crack the U.S. Top 40 when it was released as a single. But it aged well and got extra traction in 2000 when it featured in a key scene in Cameron Crowe's film Almost Famous. And the reason it's awesome is not brute subjective. A classically trained musician goes into (at least to me) fascinating detail here why the song is pretty close to perfect. I've listened to this song a thousand times but when the pedal steel kicks in near the end of the first verse I'm hooked. Again. 

Near the end of the second verse a choir floats in. Chills. When we finally get to the chorus (at an astonishing 2:30 into the song) I'm completely at the song's mercy. And singing really, really loud.

I find myself singing in the car a lot lately. Not sure what to make of that. Other than "Tiny Dancer", I have a few other alone-in-the-car favorites and they flex genre. There was never a more bloated and pretentious band than Styx but "Come Sail Away" is choice for a car-window-rattling scream out. That in spite of stunningly nitwit lyrics that sound like they were written in a sixth grader's composition book. What, they're not angels? "We climbed aboard their starship and headed for the (falsetto) skyyyyyyyyy!".2

2. I once saw Styx, Journey and REO Speedwagon on the same bill. It was Death by Power Ballad. Styx didn't even play "Come Sail Away" but they did play "Babe". Journey? This was before "Don't Stop Believing" found new life as a semi-ironic musical staple. Yes. There was a time.
The only man possibly cooler than Frank Sinatra was Bobby Darin and "Beyond the Sea" kills it from behind the steering wheel. Big Band syncopation, lush strings, irresistible beat. I highly recommend it. Same with "Sweet Caroline", a Neil Diamond standard. It's impossible not to "sing" the brass parts in the chorus. I think I'm getting pretty good at it.

Charles Lamb was a British writer and contemporary of Jane Austen in the Georgian era. He suffered from intense bouts of mental illness and found refuge in a group of London friends and fellow writers including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. He wrote, 
'Tis the privilege of friendship to talk nonsense, and have her nonsense respected.
Foolish and inveterately adolescent behavior is rightly scorned. But I think Lamb is correct to see some nonsense as respectable and maybe even (as he likely found) therapeutic. 

That's what I'm going with. This is certainly nonsense, but I like the visceral rush, I spare others and I'm fairly confident I have a lot of company.

Respect that.

"Tiny Dancer" in Almost Famous

"Come Sail Away" - Styx

"Beyond the Sea" - Bobby Darin

"Sweet Caroline" - Neil Diamond

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  1. Just for comparison:

    Sweet Home Alabama - Lyrnyrd Skynyrd

    Donkey Riding - Great Big Sea

    Man of La Mancha - Linda Eder

    Beyond the Sea - doesn't really matter who :) (This was "our song" even though Allen and I refused to publicly admit we were dating.)

  2. Over-the-top rock & roll is perhaps my favorite guilty pleasure. And Neil Diamond has perfected the genre. Listening to his live record hammers this point home: You cannot hear "Sweet Caroline" without being caught up in his spell. To hear the crowd singing, and imagine how perfectly, unimprovably happy they must have been in that moment– it brings chills.

    The pinnacle is probably just before the last chorus when he screams "You've got it now!"
    Because prior to that evening, it's unlikely the people who purchased $75+ tickets to see Neil Diamond had been familiar with the chorus of "Sweet Caroline."