No Stairway? Denied?!

Well, not anymore! Led Zeppelin fans rejoice for there is hope shining like a candle at the end of a very, very long tunnel. Now you ask how this could be? John Bonham and John Paul Jones have been residing in the hallowed halls of Rock ‘n’ Roll Valhalla for decades now. And Jimmy Page and Robert Plant dashed the hopes of fans everywhere when they abandoned their last collaboration in 2009 and since have been focusing on solo projects that often stray far from their rocking roots. So how can a devoted Led Zep fan aspire for something more? Has hell frozen over? Have the laws of time and space been irrevocably altered? (Cue Peter Venkman!) Hardly! But Led Zep fans from back in the day may not believe their ears when they hear this little track.

What song could possibly have gotten my classic rock-obsessed mind into such a tizzy? Well my friends, I am referring to the surprisingly epic song entitled Little Black Submarines. What’s that you say, you can’t place it? Well, I can assure you that you will not find it on any Led Zeppelin bootleg recording and it has not been languishing on a shelf somewhere deep within the BBC vaults for the past 30 years. No, this song is from a little American rhythm and blues revivalist duo known as The Black Keys. Now you might be confused as to how anyone could manage to get these two bands mixed-up. Sure they do share some of the same blues and folk influences and they both employ masterful instrumentality, finely honed lyrics, and a production standard that screams quality. Yet there is some distance between the two of them, from their subject matter to their style, as well as their stage presence . But if an old devotee happened to push play on this track unwittingly, they’d swear it was everybody’s favorite blues rock Brits circa 1971. Don’t believe me? Well, first let’s start with a refresher for those of you lacking in your music education.

Now I don’t know if Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney consciously set out to make their Stairway to Heaven, but this is essentially what they have accomplished with Little Black Submarines. The words of the tragic singer who asks to be reconnected with his (lost?) lover border on the fantastical and the complicated circular style in which the lyrics are delivered belies their simplicity. Sure, they may lack the Tolkien-esque mysticism of Led Zep’s best known track, but they do come pretty darn close. And the stark contrast created between Auerbach’s soft-voiced intro–accompanied only by acoustic guitar–and the grandeur of the full-force percussion and roaring riffs of the climax easily matches the majestic transformation that takes Stairway from a whisper to a howl over the course of its 8 minute length. The only thing missing is Plant’s unmistakable wail at the finale, although this is somewhat alleviated by the addition of three female back-up singers. But unlike Stairway, Submarines benefits from the missing weight of Led Zep’s formidable pedigree and at the much more manageable length of just over 4 minutes, the song has the ability to become more accessible to a general audience. And the best part is that The Black Keys pay such beautiful tribute to these gods of rock without losing their own identity in the process. At no time does the song feel forced or overblown.

In the end Little Black Submarines stands as a beautiful song, a fitting tribute, and something that fans of Led Zeppelin can fearlessly play in guitar stores everywhere.

How do you say goodbye?

A recent parting of the way has gotten me thinking about songs of grief and songs of goodbye. Despite my constant obsession with music, and my musings here about the uses and meanings of music in our lives, I have never had a song specifically for someone who died before. After the recent loss of a (second) loved childhood pet, one that affected me more than I had expected, a song immediately jumped to mind. It was one I hadn’t heard for quite some time, but the poignancy of it (and the memories it brought to the surface) was almost enough to make me cry all by itself.

It was shortly after this that I realized what a first this was for me. I started going back over all the deaths that had touched my life, trying to think of songs associated with those people. But nothing came to mind. In most times of grief, music has left me alone with a sharp and marked silence. This is true of other sad experiences like break-ups, both romantic and plutonic. Suddenly every song I hear is hollow; just doesn’t ring true. Or worse it is a constant reminder of what has been lost and I can’t stand to listen to it. This is the first time that a song has bridged that gap, not only reminding but consoling. And as such, it is worthy of documenting.

The song in question is Cinnamon Girl from Neil Young’s 1969 album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. The goodbye is for Cinnamon, my cat. Our cat really. She was an equal opportunity kind of cat. If you were human and had the ability to feed her, she’d yell at you until you went in the back room and did her bidding. Didn’t matter who you were or if you even knew what she wanted. A sweet and lovable cat at times, Cinnamon was more roommate than pet, as I found out during undergrad when I moved into her domain. I had given up my old bedroom in favor of a private entrance, some more privacy, and my mother’s dreams of having a sewing room. It just so happened that this was the room Cinnamon had claimed for herself. I quickly discovered that living in close quarters with this cat was.. well… interesting. And often noisy. Mostly I remember  not being able to move my legs in the night without kicking her, having commandeered her own spot of the bed. And yelling at her. Cinnamon was a champion debater and always had to have the last word. Unless you gave in and gave her what she wanted, she’d keep bugging you with a shrill meow every step you took.

But she was still a sweet girl and in time we struck a truce of sorts. Despite moving out several years ago, she still occupies a soft spot in my heart. She had been sick for a while, and may have realized that it was time to go. She passed in her sleep on the old couch in her room at the age of about 16, right about the time my dad started contemplating taking her to the vet. She hated the vet and I am glad she was spared one last visit. She had a good life for a cat and she will be missed. Her connection to this song is mainly through her name and the fact that I would sing it to her sometimes. But there were a few lines that kept repeating over and over in my head last week as I dealt with the news she had passed:

“I wanna live with a Cinnamon girl

I could be happy the rest of my life with a Cinnamon girl.

A dreamer of picture, I run in the night

You see us together chasing the moonlight.

My Cinnamon girl.”

This song has been covered many times and by a wide variety of artists, from Smashing Pumpkins, to Type O Negative, to Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs (of the Bangles). Here it is in the original form.

Do you have a song that reminds you of someone now gone?

Eating Crow: Or How I Learned to Love the Cover Song

Okay, I have a confession to make… when I was a teenager, I hated cover songs. Truly and passionately. On principle. In my view, cover songs were simple counterfeits that could never compare to the original intent, feeling, or talent of the artist who created them. End of story. I was young and idealistic, I know. This was probably some of that music-snobbery i was accused of around the age of 16 or so. I persisted in this notion for several years and the good intentions of several well-meant gifts went unappreciated (although to be honest that elevator Muzak album of Beatles covers truly was horrid).

But I finally did come around… eventually. Although in truth it was not because I became older and wiser and finally gave cover songs a chance. No, it was the realization that several songs I adored were actually *gasp* covers themselves. The examples started to pile up and soon I could no longer stand by my fervent ideology. I embraced the cover song and discovered a whole new world of musical delights.

Which brings me to today’s little presentation. A case study (if you will) of Lovesong by The Cure. Originally released in 1989 on their album entitled Disintegration, this is a perfect example of British New Wave at it’s finest. Dark and melancholy, with just the right amount of pop sensibility to make it palatable to a main-stream audience. There is a bit of epic about it as well, bringing to mind images of star-crossed lovers vowing to love each other despite that world war or deadly plague or angry father. The video, however,  has the band moping around in the depths of some cave. Somehow doesn’t do the song justice. But for reference’s sake, here you go:

This is the original and by my 16 year-old ideology, it should be my favorite version, right?

Wrong. My favorite cover of Lovesong was performed by 311 for the 50 First Dates soundtrack in 2004. Taking the song in a different direction, they infuse it with a bouncy, almost reggae quality and add a slight echo to the vocals. It is slower than the original version and sweeter. It becomes a song of devotion, conjuring up images of crowded dance-floors that are suddenly empty when the eyes of two people meant to be together meet across a room. This even happens in the video!

I love this version, not just because it is beautifully performed and masterfully produced. Not just because Nick Sexton is hot as hell in the video. But because it was the first song I danced to with my husband at our wedding. (I’m biased. So shoot me.)

There are many, many, many covers of this song. And I’m sure they are all valid and vastly different. But I recently came across another version worthy of mention. Covered by British songstress Adele earlier this year, she brings a sultry and intimate feel to the song. With understated accompaniment and an amazing voice that ranges from softly crooning to belting out at the top of her lungs, she takes a familiar song and transforms it. It has a seriousness that the other two versions lack.

Songs like Lovesong ( and its many incarnations) show that a song can morph and come to possess a range far beyond their creator’s original intent. They can certainly  sway the certainty of a serious teenager standing by a silly conviction. Or they would have if they’d been around when I was 16…

Do you have a favorite cover song?