The Widow Hopkins

December 14, 2011

During my twenties, I put my college degree to good use working in a large record store.

There was a row of small stores near, the closest of which had a revolving door of tenants. One day, it was a jeweler; the next day, a head shop.

In one of its incarnations, it reopened as a clothing store, a small boutique favoring vintage stuff from the ’60s, threads that might have been worn in Swingin’ London.

As the world had finally caught up to my sartorial sensibilities with grunge, I had little reason to peruse the store’s wares, never even venturing in until I accompanied Tree Boy, a friend who was a bassist, arborist, photographer, and occasional nude model.

(“the trick is to remain flaccid, yet life-like,” he would tell us)

I wandered around the small store idly as Tree Boy chatted with the woman working there, a willowy, older woman with long, red hair and fair skin who was attired in a manner that reminded me of Stevie Nicks.

Bored, I finally shuffled over to retrieve Tree Boy and he introduced me to the woman.

She had an accent and her name was Moira.

The two chatted for a few more minutes and, from the context of the conversation, I surmised that she was married to a musician.

After we left, as I trudged back for the rest of my shift, Tree Boy confirmed that Moira had indeed been married to a muiscian.

“Moira was married to Nicky Hopkins.”

Oh, I knew the name and some of the credits of Moira’s late husband, but it was over drinks that The Drunken Frenchman educated our usual group from the record store on the staggering list of legendary albums and songs featuring Nicky Hopkins on piano.

(staggering being a staggering understatement)

“We must keep an eye out and see that no harm comes to The Widow Hopkins,” The Frenchman said gruffly, his furrowed brow betraying a lack of confidence in us, his younger compatriots, as he raised his glass.

(I’m not sure what harm The Frenchman believed might occur or what help she might need from drunken slackers, but he certainly seemed resolute in his oath)

You’d see Moira in the record store on occasion and she’d often spend a minute or two in pleasant conversation with us clerks. She seemed like a genuinely lovely person.

During one night of drinking, there was a debate regarding the difference between a jig and a reel with the idea proffered that, because of her heritage, we should ask Moira.

(an alcohol-infused idea that, fortunately, we realized was a bad one)

I haven’t seen Moira in years, but I hope she’s out there, somewhere, doing well with the spirit of The Frenchman keeping her from harm.

Here are four songs – from the multitude of possible choices – on which Nicky Hopkins performed…

Rolling Stones – Sympathy For The Devil
from Beggars Banquet (1968)

If I had to choose one song from The Stones, the hypnotic, menacing Sympathy For The Devil is the one.

John Lennon – Oh Yoko!
from Imagine (1971)

John Lennon did more than a few songs inspired by his devotion to Yoko Ono and I’ve always loved the playful Oh Yoko!.

The Who – Getting In Tune
from Who’s Next (1971)

For all of their ferocity, The Who understood dynamics as on Getting In Tune which opens with a gentle simplicity before building to a crescendo.

Ringo Starr – Photograph
from Ringo (1973)

I’m sure that I heard Ringo Starr’s Photograph at some point over the years, but I truly become acquainted with the song from hearing it often on Sirius’ ’70s channel. Ringo might have been the funny one, but he’s more than capable of delivering the lovely, wistful song with all of the pathos required.


Harpsichord Everywhere

February 19, 2011

Often the dots of the universe connect in a surprisingly delightful and unusual manner.

Like sleep-addled groundhogs, Paloma and I poked our heads out last weekend, peered about, and realized that the tundra had thawed, leaving us with peerless weather and warmth.

We headed out.

Paloma manned the Sirius satellite radio that she had gotten me for Christmas, delighting in the array of options and searching for The Smiths.

Momentarily, she idled on the ’70s station long enough for the screen of the radio to display Maureen McGovern – The Morning After (’72) and the opening notes of the hit from the The Poseidon Adventure to play.

“I like that song,” I told her. “It has harpsichord in it.”

She quickly moved on, unswayed by the lure of the harpischord.

I vaguely remember The Morning After from the time, though I do remember the slew of ’70s disaster flicks – Airport ’75, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno – that featured all-star casts and would air as The ABC Sunday Night Movie.

A few days later, I happened to read Lawrence Welk, Pop Star over at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’. I read with interest as Paloma and I will often watch when we come across an episode of The Lawrence Welk Show.

JB noted that the song Calcutta, Welk’s Number One hit from 1961, features harpsichord.

Harpsichord.

I had to do a bit of sleuthing to find more songs with harpsichord.

There were a number that I immediately recognized, songs like Simon & Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair/Canticle, Mamas & Papas’ Monday Monday, Yardbirds’ For Your Love, Paul Muriat’s Love Is Blue, The Beatles’ Piggies, and Partridge Family’s I Think I Love You.

I might be able to bang out a few chords on guitar, but I’m not a musician. I don’t think that I ever really pondered the harpsichord I was hearing in those songs.

I’m not even sure that I knew that what I was hearing was harpsichord.

However, to paraphrase Marcia Brady, I don’t know how to build a clock, but I know how to tell time and, though I might know little about the harpsichord, I can still enjoy what it brings to a song.

Here are four songs with harpsichord…

Asia – Ride Easy
from Anthologia: The 20th Anniversary/Geffen Years Collection (1982-1990)

I was completely smitten with Asia’s self-titled debut in ’82 and – somewhere – I still have a poster of the album cover. That poster inspired me to suggest the Asia dragon as potential artwork when Paloma was searching for something to cover a tattoo.

(she didn’t find the idea as grand as I did, but, then again, she wasn’t a fourteen-year old boy in 1982)

Yet, grand is an appropriate description of the quartet’s debut album and it shouldn’t be surprising that a band whose drummer had a gong would find room for harpsichord, too.

Ride Easy was the b-side to Asia’s first hit, Heat Of The Moment, and not included on their debut album much to my dismay at the time as I’d only get to hear it when I’d punch it up on a jukebox.

Maureen McGovern – The Morning After
from Have A Nice Decade: The ’70s Pop Culture Box

I seem to hear The Morning After at least once a week while listening to Sirius’ ’70s station on the morning commute to work and that’s fine by me.

There’s something about the song that I dig. Maybe it’s the sheer melodrama of it all, but, if you’re going to have a theme song about a luxury liner capsized by a massive tidal wave – and Ernest Borgnine is in the cast – I suppose that it’s no time to be timid.

Rolling Stones – Play With Fire
from Big Hits: High Tide And Green Grass

I fully admit that The Stones have been phoning it in for so long now that it has affected my view of them. And that makes it all the more astounding when something pre-Goats Head Soup pops up on the iPod.

Play With Fire is truly menacing and menace is a vibe which The Stones were once as capable of capturing as well as any band ever has.

Jellyfish – The King Is Half-Undressed
from Bellybutton

I discovered Jellyfish when the record store where I worked received a promo copy of the band’s debut, Bellybutton, in 1990. The psychedelic album cover was eye-catching and the music earned the group from San Francisco comparisons to greats like Queen, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, XTC, and Cheap Trick.

Despite plenty of swooning by critics, Jellyfish was unable to find mainstream success and would split up after just one more album, 1993’s Spilt Milk, but the group has continued to loom large in the hearts of power pop devotees for the past two decades.

Be forewarned, I listened to The King Is Half-Undressed the other morning as I hadn’t heard it for awhile. That was two days ago and I still haven’t been able to get it out of my head.


Saturday Mornings With Casey

February 20, 2010

Growing up in a household with no older siblings and with parents who had merely a passing interest in music, I didn’t have familial influences when I began to listen to music.

In junior high, music was a big topic of conversation as teammates fought for control of the stereo in the locker room with Billy Squier, Van Halen, and Led Zeppelin being in heavy rotation. There was music on the bus rides to games and meets with rock stations tuned in during football season and – with girls on the team – Top 40 during track season.

Slowly I began to develop my own interests and it was Casey Kasem who first provided me with information and knowledge that wasn’t so easily found before the advent of cable, the internet, and electricity.

(though I had no idea that I had met Casey years earlier on Scooby-Doo)

It was January of ’82 when I first stumbled across Casey on a cold, snowy Saturday morning with a broadcast of American Top 40 on WRIA 101.3 out of Richmond. I was familiar with the concept of musical countdowns from listening to Q102’s Top Ten at 10 most nights (though as the station was in Cincinnati and in the Eastern time zone and we were in the Central, it was actually 9 for us).

From that point on, American Top 40 was appointment listening on sleepy Saturday mornings, though, if I missed it for some reason, I soon found several other stations that broadcast the show each weekend.

The show was a chance to hear a lot of my current favorites – songs that were showing up on crude mix tapes I was recording from the radio – as well as songs with which I was not familiar. With no concept of radio playlists or the other basics of the music industry, though, I was often puzzled.

There were songs that I heard constantly on the stations to which I listened which were not in the Top 40 or that ranked far lower than it seemed they should. Conversely, there were songs which I wasn’t hearing much (or at all) which were moving toward the top of the chart.

It was an education, a chance to learn some of the history of pop music and about some of the iconic artists as well as more trivial items that Casey would offer up during each week’s show.

Maybe it’s been the snow and slush we’ve endured the past few weeks, a winter unlike most I’ve experienced over the past twenty-years, which has made me think of those early months of ’82.

Some of the songs I was hearing Casey count down this week in 1982 as, more than likely, I was sprawled out on my bed listening on a cold Saturday morning…

Rolling Stones – Waiting On A Friend
from Tattoo You

Personally, I’ve always thought that Waiting On A Friend was one of the Stones’ finest post-’70s moments. The song is so casual and the vibe so laid-back that it’s always welcome when it pops up on shuffle.

Apparently it was the first video by the Stones played on MTV (with reggae great Peter Tosh hanging out on the steps). Casey well might have told me about jazz legend Sonny Rollins providing the saxophone.

The Police – Spirits In The Material World
from Ghost In The Machine

Though I had just started diving full-on into music in late ’81/early ’82, I was well familiar with The Police. Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic was deservedly huge and my friend Beej was already a massive fan from their first three albums, so I heard them through him.

If I had to choose a top five from The Police, Spirits In The Material World would have a good shot at making the cut. It sounded so eerie and otherworldly, and it’s so concise, clocking in at just under three minutes.

Quarterflash – Harden My Heart
from Quarterflash

Thanks to Casey I know that Quarterflash got there name from…I think it’s an Australian saying…yeah, I had to look it up. “It came from an Australian slang description of new immigrants as ‘one quarter flash and three parts foolish.'”

The song was catchy and seems to have retained a bit of a presence.

(and lead singer/saxophonist Rindy Ross had a certain appeal to us at the time)

Huey Lewis & The News – Do You Believe In Love
from Picture This

I hear the name Huey Lewis and I have a Pavlovian moment and think Marin County. It seemed like every time I heard Casey mention the band, he noted that they were based in Marin County.

(or, that’s what I remember)

I had an unusual pizza with clams as a topping in Marin County once and I didn’t see them.