Lyle Lovett: If I Had A Boat (1987)
This song, which opens Lovett’s second album Pontiac, is a perfect example of how unusual contemporary Country music can be. If I Had A Boat is a reverie set in the Far West, that imaginary world made universal by movies and television. But this song takes us in a very bizarre, childlike, almost Fellinesque western dream, right from the start (full lyrics here):
If I had a boat, I’d go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony, I’d ride him on my boat.
And we could all together go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat.
The image is striking, but this is no ordinary cowboy:
If I were Roy Rogers I’d sure enough be single
I couldn’t bring myself to marrying old Dale.
It’d just be me and Trigger, we’d go riding through them movies
Then we’d buy a boat and on the sea we’d sail.
As I’ve written elsewhere, US Southern popular culture (of the Country variety) seem to be essential to Pop culture, from Roy Rogers and Elvis to Hank Williams, Britney, Duck Dinasty, Taylor Swift and Honey Boo Boo. Lovett (who, despite the haircut, went on to marry Julia Roberts in 1993) seems much more aware and intellectual (he holds bachelor degrees in both German and Journalism), yet he is precisely in the same tradition – which sometimes produces unexpected gems, like this tune.
Creedence Clearwater Revival: Proud Mary (1969)
CCR have a special place in my heart, for a very good reason. I’ve always loved New Orleans music, those Bajou beats, second line drumming, etc. My problem was that I wasn’t from there, and as a european I felt it would be an unacceptable cultural appropriation to make it my own. Then, in my teens, I discovered CCR, which I really liked. It took me a few years to realize that they weren’t from Louisiana, or even from the South. They were four kids from California who liked the music so much, they became Southern (starting with their accent). In my mind that meant I could finally play the Blues without feeling like a clown.
Proud Mary is their biggest hit, but by no means the only one. CCR sold tens of millions of albums, their songs are still a staple of American Radio, and have been covered by everyone – Proud Mary in particular: five versions of the tune made it in the charts, from CCR’s own in ’69 to the Glee Cast’s in 2009. But Proud Mary went beyond: it was appropriated by Ike & Tina Turner, (who were from the South, AND black) who took their incendiary rendition of the song☊ to #4 in 1971. They employ a simple but very effective trick: start slowly (miraculously slowly, in some live versions♾), and then explode in a fast, Rhythm’n’Blues finale. It became one of Tina Turner’s hallmark tunes, performed in every show from 1971 until she retired.
Is Proud Mary about a boat? The answer can be found in the very informative Songfact page: “In the beginning, Proud Mary had nothing to do with a riverboat. Instead, John Fogerty (CCR’s main writer) envisioned it as the story of a woman who works as a maid for rich people. It was (bassist) Stu Cook who first introduced the riverboat aspect of the song. The idea came to him as the group watched the television show Maverick. John agreed that the boat seemed to have something to do with the song. When he wrote the music, he made the first few chords evoke a riverboat paddlewheel going around. Thus, Proud Mary went from being about a clean-up lady to a boat.”
The Kingsmen: Louie Louie (1963)
This is one of the most iconic pieces of 1960s teenage Pop culture, not so much for what it says, but for what it could say. Written and recorded by Richard Berry in 1957, it became a huge hit with the Kingsmen version in ’63. These were still early years, and much of the public opinion was against the (relatively new, and very controversial) music that young people loved so much. Condensed from Wikipedia:
“The Kingsmen transformed Berry’s easy-going ballad into a raucous romp, complete with a twangy guitar, occasional background chatter, and nearly unintelligible lyrics. Their version spent 16 weeks on the Hot 100. A factor in the success of the record may have been the rumor that the lyrics were intentionally slurred by the Kingsmen to cover up the alleged fact that they were laced with profanity, graphically depicting sex between the sailor and his lady. Crumpled pieces of paper professing to be the real lyrics to Louie Louie circulated among teens. The song was banned on radio stations in many places in the United States. The FBI started a 31 month investigation into the matter and concluded they were unable to interpret any of the wording in the record.”*
With over 1600 official covers (and counting), each decade has had its own Louie Louie: Richard Berry’s☊ in the 50s. In the 60s it was The Kingsmen’s, followed by The Kinks, Otis Redding, The Beach Boys, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Troggs and countless others (I’m just listing the VIPs). The one 1970s version is without a doubt Motörhead’s☊ (1978), although it was also performed by Led Zeppelin, The Flamin’ Groovies, MC5, Toots and The Maytals, The Stooges, Nick Cave, Blondie, Lou Reed, John Lennon, Frank Zappa and dozens more. In the 1980s, the Louie Louie to be remembered is by Black Flag♾ (1981), with Dez Cardena (and later Henry Rollins) improvising the lyrics. Other illustrious 80s versions are by the Grateful Dead, Joan Jett, The Fat Boys, Bob Dylan & Tom Petty and the Sisters of Mercy. For the 90s I’d pick Iggy Pop’s☊ (American Caesar, 1993) with political and satirical lyrics. This version was used during the opening credits of Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story and in Jim Jarmusch’s film Coffee and Cigarettes, in which Iggy plays himself. In the 90s, the tune was also covered by Young MC, Robert Plant, The Three Amigos and many others.
In August 2003, 754 guitarists played a ten-minute rendition of Louie Louie at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Washington. This event was part of the annual LouieFest in Tacoma. Other annual events have included the Louie Louie Parade in Philadelphia and the Louie Louie Parade & Festival in Peoria, IL. April 11th (Berry’s birthday) is International Louie Louie Day. In the 2000s it was also covered by Todd Snider, Bruce Springsteen and The Smashing Pumpkins. A search for Louie Louie on YouTube gives “about 986,000 results” (including this one♾).
*What is clear is that there’s a boat involved: “A fine little girl, she waits for me, me catch a ship across the sea, me sail that ship all alone, me never think how I’ll make it home.”
Bob Dylan: When The Ship Comes In (1964)
One of my R’n’r anecdotes is the time the sax player of a band I played with briefly (a very original character, who believed the bandanna he wore on his forehead absorbed the drugs he took the night before, and released them the next day) was refused admission in a hotel restaurant because of his appearance. He walked right out, sat down on the curb and wrote a song against that hotel. According to Joan Baez, When The Ship Comes In (The Times They Are A Changin’, 1964) was written for similar reasons. But Dylan being Dylan, he forgets about the incident and the song becomes one of his judgement-day tunes (he wrote very powerful ones, the best perhaps being the title track of this album).
Oh the time will come up, when the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin’
Like the stillness in the wind ’fore the hurricane begins
The hour when the ship comes in
Oh the seas will split and the ship will hit
And the sands on the shoreline will be shaking
Then the tide will sound and the wind will pound
And the morning will be breaking.
The song is very long and full of detail (he must have been really pissed off), and it has no happy end.
Oh the foes will rise, with the sleep still in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’
But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal and know that it’s for real
The hour when the ship comes in.
Then they’ll raise their hands sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands
But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered
And like Pharoah’s tribe they’ll be drownded in the tide
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.
You can find this and all of Bob Dylan’s lyrics in the very well curated official website bobdylan.com. Also, you can watch Baez and Dylan perform the song at the 1963 March on Washington. Yes, the one where Martin Luther King gave his famous I have a dream speech (imagine being the guy for whom the song was originally written).
Randy Newman: Sail away♾ (1972) This is the ultimate immigration song, written from the point of view of the human trafficker: “In America you’ll get food to eat, won’t have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet. You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day, it’s great to be an American”.
David Crosby: The Lee Shore♾ (1971) Besides being an “architect of harmony” (definition by Bob Dylan), Crosby was also the captain of his ship, the Mayan♾ (sold a couple of years ago). Many Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tunes were written on this sailboat, including Wooden Ships☊ and Southern Cross♾. This crafty tune belongs perfectly in Crosby’s repertoire, quirky yet very sophisticated.