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Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Townes Van Zandt, ‘Pancho and Lefty’ (#498)

Written by a romantic poet disguised as a quasi-homeless troubador, Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty’ is, in Van Zandt’s own words, “about two Mexican bandits I saw on the TV.”  And that’s at least partly true; the song is about two Mexican bandits, and it’s possible that Van Zandt saw them or someone like them on TV (though I’d be reluctant to stake my life or reputation on that being a fact)…

…but Van Zandt being the poet that he was, that’s not all ‘Pancho and Lefty’ is about.

It’s also about the gulf that exists between the tawdry demands of real life and the bright glories of mythology.  It’s about friendship and betrayal, loneliness and the slow cruel decline of old age.  Pancho may have met an early death, with no one around to hear his dying words, but he gets all the good press, and was at least spared the indignity of dying cold and alone and obscure in Cleveland.

Now, I strongly suspect that Townes Van Zandt, who passed away in 1997, would not have described or explained anything about his most famous song in the same way I just have.  I don’t know for certain, but my guess is that he’d say he simply wrote it down as it occurred to him, and that the song speaks for itself, independent of whatever his intentions were (assuming he had intentions).  Whatever you get out of it, I think he’d say, then that’s what’s there.

The stories tell how Pancho fell
And Lefty’s living in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
And so the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true
But save a few for Lefty too
He only did what he had to do
And now he’s growing old

I wouldn’t say that the overall tone of Van Zandt’s body of work is one of despair — there’s joy to be found too, but it’s always tempered by the certain knowledge of human failure and the looming specter of mortality. 

Hey, it might not get better, but at least one day it’ll all be over.

Michael Strum: “First off, what a rock and roll name! ‘The Late Great Townes Van Zandt’ is a wonderful album with a great title. We’ll circle back to its release year — 1972 — as we move down the list. ‘Pancho and Lefty’ is incredible fun lyrically, and quite surprising: ‘fast as polished steel’ doesn’t take you where you think you’re going, nor does its rhyming couplet ‘for all the honest world to feel’, but you walk away happy. Fun rhyme structure. ‘Pancho and Lefty’ is relaxed storytelling, comfortable with itself, with great instrumentation. Horns are a nice touch, and not overdone. This song has it all: lyrics, melody, instrumentation, production. Risking blasphemy, I’d say that the songwriting quality here recalls B. Dylan. Far too low at 498.”

Rolling Stone: An epic story-song about a bandit and the friend who betrays him, “Pancho and Lefty” became a country hit thanks to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s 1983 duet. But it’s the songwriter’s own forlorn reading, on 1972’s The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, that best conveys the doomed fates of the main characters. It begins with what might be one of the most descriptive opening verses in the country-folk canon: “Living on the road my friend/was gonna keep you free and clean/now you wear your skin like iron/your breath as hard as kerosene.” “It’s hard to take credit for the writing,” Van Zandt said in 1984, “because it came from out of the blue.”

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Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: The Supremes, ‘Baby Love’ (#499)

Signed to Berry Gordy’s Motown label in 1961, it took a few years for the Supremes — local Detroit girls Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard — to find their brand, their sound

…but when they found it, they really found it.

Between 1964 and early 1967, the Supremes produced a mind-boggling nine singles that went to #1 on the US pop charts, all written and produced by hit-makers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland.  ‘Baby Love’ is the second of these nine #1’s, following ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ and followed by ‘Come See About Me’.[1]Though ‘Come See About Me’ was actually recorded before ‘Baby Love’.

All these songs are very much of a piece, chapters in the same dreamy American romance, sugary and shimmering with hope and sensitivity.  What sadness exists here is of the High School Confidential variety, temporary as a prom dress and worn for specific effect in a specific situation. 

The Supremes were literally teen-aged girls in high school when they were signed to Motown. At the time ‘Baby Love’ was recorded, the oldest of them, Florence Ballard, was 21; Diana Ross and Mary Wilson were just 20.  So…no longer girls, exactly, but not so far distant from girlhood either.  ‘Baby Love’ was written and arranged by men, performed by women, but the proximity to the fictional tropes of girlhood and its mythical purity — ‘Baby Love’ is about as wholesome as it gets — is downright palpable, which may help explain the song’s enduring life.  It’s my understanding that actual girlhood is a savage fucking jungle of heartbreak, fear, and treachery. To be fair, a lot of actual boyhood is like that too.  Or at least it was in my experience.

I searched in vain for a list of who played what on ‘Baby Love’, in the hopes of confirming what my ears were telling me (is that a goddamn vibraphone?).  All I know is that members of the Funk Brothers, Motown’s legendary backing band, played on the song, and that it was produced by Holland, Dozier, and Holland.  Still, it has all the hallmarks of the Motown sound.  I’ve yet to categorize exactly what those hallmarks are, but no one’s going to mistake a Motown song for anything else, that’s for certain.

Michael Strum: “Is there anything more American than the Supremes? Listening to them makes me profoundly happy. I feel the same way watching Michael Jordan highlights or reading about the Apollo program. It’s exhilarating to see people do something as well as it can be done. That’s what we get here: this is as well as pop music can be done. The production, the musicianship, the execution; it’s all simply first-class. I think the talent and skill presnt is unassailable, even if this isn’t your cup of tea. Excellent selection.”

Rolling Stone: Diana Ross wasn’t the strongest vocalist in the Supremes, but as the Motown production team discovered, when she sang in a lower register, her voice worked its sultry magic. Berry Gordy instructed the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team to come up with something that replicated “Where Did Our Love Go,” the Supremes’ first Number One single. He thought the result wasn’t catchy enough and sent the group back into the studio. The result: the smoky “Oooooh” at the start. “Baby Love” went to Number One too, the first time a Motown group had topped the charts twice.

References

References
1 Though ‘Come See About Me’ was actually recorded before ‘Baby Love’.
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Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Kanye West, ‘Stronger’ (#500)

Aaaaaaaand right off the bat, we’ve got Exhibit A on why this blog is called the Opposite of Cool, and why I was so relucant to write on music in the first place.  If I were a judge, and this a legal case, I’d be obliged to recuse myself.

Because this song…I don’t get it. 

And not getting it — not getting Kanye West, for fuck’s sake, who’s practically the poster child for modern pop celebrity — makes me question my qualifications for writing on pretty much anything recorded in this century. 

It’s not that I dislike ‘Stronger’ so much as I just don’t get it.  It doesn’t register with me.  I don’t feel awe, nostalgia, revulsion, anger, or admiration listening to it; just a vague dissociative bemusement.  It’s a story from an unfamiliar tradition told in a language I don’t understand.  I don’t have an in with this material.  I don’t know what I’d connect it to, if indeed it connects to anything other than Kanye West’s obsession with Kanye West.

What I’m running into here, I think, is the ubiquitous narrative of celebrity.  Most notable musicians have a celebrity narrative — a weird mix of legend, gossip, history, and trivia — that’s woven in and through their actual art, and it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to separate story from output.  I’ve never had anyone speak to me about Jay Z’s music without telling me Jay Z’s origin story — you get the sense that what Jay Z actually recorded is almost beside the point — the same way almost no one will (or can) tell you about Hank Williams’ songs without including details about his unhealthy habits and untimely death.

Where Kanye West comes into this is that I’m realizing, listening to ‘Stronger’, that I have neither investment in, nor familiarity with, this particular celebrity narrative.  (Right or wrong, for better or for worse, when I think of Kanye West, I think Kim Kardashian and MAGA hats and George Bush not caring about black people.)  And that’s an issue here, because looking at the lyrics of the song and watching the video, my sense of it is that ‘Stronger’ is specifically about Kanye’s celebrity narrative; what was then (2007) the latest chapter in the Ongoing Saga of Kanye West, Celebrity.

I guess you had to be there.

Michael Strum: “There are things about Mr. West that I really like: his Chicago pride, his ear for production. He might have the best ear for a hook that I’ve encountered in this century. His Daft Punk renaissance here is skillfully envisioned and executed. Lyrically, there’s some fun and creativity, and also a couple of things that veer into ‘offensive at best’ territory. There’s good and also some bad, which seems, fitting, but it’s entertaining, and more interesting for the imperfections and opportunities. In that way, a highly appropriate opening number!”

Rolling Stone: Explaining the tighter, broader-reaching songs on his third album, Graduation, Kanye West said, “I applied a lot of the things I learned on tour [in 2006] with U2 and the Rolling Stones, about songs that rock stadiums. And they worked!” West found the inspiration for his most grandiose statement to date from Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” which he sampled and reshaped. West is a big fan of the French duo: “These guys really stick with the whole not-showing-their-faces thing. Just amazing discipline — that’s straight martial-arts status.”

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Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Intro

I get questions.

Not that Opposite of Cool is exactly inundated with them, you understand, but questions do get asked on occasion.  (Amusingly, they’re almost never about anything OoC has actually discussed.)

The most common question I get is, How much is your comic book collection worth?  (Answer:  I’ve no idea.  No clue whatsoever.  Probably not much?  If you’re looking for value, you should go into real estate, diamonds, gold, arms smuggling, or heroin.  Those things have real dollar value.  Comics are just a mess of cheap paper held together with staples.  There’s no money in comic books.)

The next most common question is something along the lines of, How much are these Batman / X-Men / Spider-Man comics I’ve got from the early 90’s worth?  (Answer:  Unless they’re signed or have golden tickets to Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory stashed in their pages, probably less than what you actually paid for them in 1991 or whenever.  Comics follow the same laws of supply and demand as everything else, and everyone in the English-speaking world who ever thought of turning a profit through comic books acquired the same Batman / X-Men / Spider-Man comics that you did.  Supply exceeds demand, which means they’re not worth squat.)

And after that, the question I get most often is:

When will Opposite of Cool tackle music?  

I’d always intended that the answer to that question would be never.  I had (and still have, even if set on I’m ignoring them) a couple good reasons for this:

  1. I have no real expertise concerning music beyond my own unreasonably strident and snooty opinions.  Said opinions are largely the result of a decade spent working at Tower Records alongside my unreasonably strident and snooty (and much beloved) co-workers, who I’m afraid bear some measure of both blame and credit for whatever sonic aesthetic I’ve managed to cultivate (or failed to cultivate).  I’ve no hidden reservoir of musical knowledge, gossip, or insight from which to draw, which I fear will render much of what follows little more than a superfluous exercise in style and creative profanity.
  2. There’s also the matter of age and temperament.  To wit:  I remain all but certain that popular music as an art form peaked in 1973 and has been heading steadily downhill ever since, like unto a fiery meteor.  More, I’ve entered a phase in life where I recognize maybe one in five musical guests on Saturday Night Live.  I’m saying, I don’t exactly have my finger on the pulse of this particular artery of pop culture.  (And while we’re on this subject, I want you and your hooligan friends to take your arrthymic hip hop and your White Claw drinks and get the fuck up off my lawn.)

Still…at the behest of friend, contributor, and gentleman Michael Strum, I’ve (unwisely) acquiesced to writing about the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  It’s likely there will be other contributors as well, particularly for songs or performers (or, hell, entire genres) where I might be especially out of my depth.  We’ll see.  I haven’t looked ahead more than seven songs or so, so I’ve no idea what to expect.

I hope you’ll join me and Michael (and other poor, doomed fools to be named later) on our long day’s journey into night.  See you there.

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Marvel

Loki, Ep. 6: For All Time. Always.

It’s the end (for now) of our episode-by-episode look at Loki.  As always, spoilers lie in wait, threatening evil and ruin.

Years ago, back when I’d find myself in a movie theater two or three times a week, I took in a late showing of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004).  It was a week night in a suburban theater, so but for one other fellow way on the other side of the room, I had the place to myself.  If you’re unaware or have never seen it, Passion concerns itself with the last day of Jesus’ life, culminating with his crucifixion.  Gibson’s movie runs 127 minutes, including credits, and I’d wager that at least 90 of those minutes are given over to flesh-shredding, blood-spattering, bone-cracking mayhem and torture of the most graphic sort.  If mainstream American filmgoers have ever been exposed to a movie more relentlessly cruel and violent than this one, I can’t imagine what it might be.  There are virtually no concessions to audience expectation.  Passion‘s dialogue is primarily in Aramaic, a dialect that very few people still speak…and by some accounts I’ve read, Gibson had to be persuaded to add subtitles!  Nor are there any accommodations made to catch anyone up on the story or provide any context.  If you know the details and the principle characters surrounding Jesus’ arrest and death, great; if you don’t, too bad.  I remember sitting there in the theater, watching this deeply strange and unsettling film, and thinking:  Who the fuck is this movie for?  Like, seriously…who’s the intended audience for this thing?

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Marvel

Loki, Ep 5: Journey into Mystery

Our episode-by-episode examination of Loki continues, served up with a side of spicy spoilers topped with a hot ‘n unholy scoop of more spoilers.  Beware!

What are we doing here?

Had you taken yourself to a comic book store to find some Loki-related material on the day that the fifth episode of Loki was released, the most recent comic you’d have found featuring the God of Mischief would’ve been Mighty Valkyries #3 (Aug 2021).  Released three weeks before, it was written by Jason Aaron and Torunn Gronbekk, with art by Mattia De Iulis, Erica D’Urso, and Marcio Menyz.  In that book, you’d have found Loki enmeshed in a scheme cooked up by Karnilla, former Queen of the Norns and current co-Queen of the Dead, to create new life — new gods — down in Hel.  Oh, those tricky Norns!

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Marvel

Loki, Ep. 4: The Nexus Event

Welcome to our continuing episode-by-episode examination of Loki.  As always, there are spoilers ahead.

Writing Opposite of Cool is a weird mix of love and assessment, investment and detachment.  It usually involves an attempt to accurately view a given thing while standing eyeball-deep in the middle of it.  Film adaptations need to be assessed on their own merits, but when it comes to Marvel, my own intimate familiarity with the source material makes comparison between print and film versions unavoidable.  I’m almost always fighting the urge to deal with the show I wish I was watching instead of the show in front of me.  It’s possible I’d like Loki a lot more if I were coming at it without any prior knowledge…though let’s allow that without prior knowledge, I probably wouldn’t be watching it in the first place.

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Marvel

Loki, Ep. 3: Lamentis

Welcome back to our episode-by-episode examination of Loki.  Spoilers, you say?  Why, yes…and plenty of them!  So be sure to watch the episode first.

With a title like ‘Lamentis,’ a reasonable person might well anticipate this episode of Loki would be all about regrets and the paths not taken.  If you make no claims to being reasonable, I’ve got some good news for you:  the title refers to a planet, and that’s it.  None of that tricky subtextual foreign movie shit going on here, no sir.  What you see is what you get.  No more and maybe even a little less.  And if you do make claims to being reasonable, well…you can go ahead and check your high-falutin’ notions about theme and metaphor at the door.  Trust me, you won’t be needing them.

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Marvel

Loki, Ep. 2: The Variant

Welcome back to our episode-by-episode examination of Loki.  Fair warning, there are spoilers ahead.

Before we start, let’s recognize that Disney’s anti-piracy game is strong.  Whatever brief window there was that allowed me to take screenshots to better explain the visual tricks of the trade is now apparently closed.  I’ll do my best to work around it, but alas…things were a lot easier when I could just grab what I was looking for right from the scene in question.

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Marvel

Loki, Ep. 1: Glorious Purpose

Welcome to our episode-by-episode examination of Loki. Be warned that there are spoilers ahead.

One of the downsides that come with adapting comic book source material into live action movie material is an often unpleasant and entirely unavoidable clash with realism, defined as the quality or fact of representing a person, thing, or situation accurately or in a way that is true to life.  The great strength of comics as a medium lies in its capacity to manipulate perception in specific and distinctive ways:  to distort time at will, expanding or compressing events for narrative effect; to play fast and loose with the visual properties of objects and people (an obvious plus for super-hero stories); and the incorporation of more than one point of view at a time, something I think might be unique to comics.