Song In My Head #79: “I Want Someone Badly” by Shudder to Think featuring Jeff Buckley

Most mid-’90s music lovers became Jeff Buckley fans because of a song; “Last Goodbye,” say, or his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I may be the only person who first appreciated him due to an unusual magazine article where he was not the interview subject, but rather the interviewer. Might as well start at the beginning…

It was spring quarter 1996 at Stanford, and finals were looming ahead. I was particularly worried about the Poetry and Poetics exam, which would not be an exam at all. Rather, students were to memorize Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and write it down in its entirety. I read and re-read the poem for days, but somehow it wasn’t sticking. I remember my friend Scott calling me the night before the final, occasionally interrupting our lengthy discussion of the Posies and Big Star with a stern but kindly “Are you sure you shouldn’t be studying?” (He’s a working musician himself now, which seems proper.) The next morning’s final revealed the truth I had repressed all week: I only remembered bits and pieces of the poem. (The mental block, apparently, was permanent. Today I looked up the poem, and aside from the “Tell me, Ramon Fernandez, if you know” line, I might as well have been reading it for the first time. Yikes.) My TA was sympathetic, and promised to take the rest of my class work into account when grading the final. Even so, I was pretty upset. I figured I’d flunk out of school shortly, and might as well do what I always did to cheer up. I hopped the campus shuttle to Palo Alto’s University Avenue.

After lunch (Chinese at Jing Jing, as I recall–funny how I can remember that, but not the blasted poem), I decided to browse the newsstand at Borders (formerly the historic Varsity Theatre, currently the Hanahaus coworking cafe), since that was an option in those days. I flipped through the new issue of Mojo, where an appealingly odd sidebar caught my eye. Juan Garcia Esquivel, 1950s space-age composer turned 1990s lounge-pop revival icon, had granted a phone interview from his home in Mexico. The man asking the questions happened to be the up-and-coming singer Jeff Buckley. Buckley’s enthusiasm jumped off the page, thoroughly charming me. As he grilled Esquivel about the minutiae of various song arrangements, I felt myself grinning for the first time in days. I knew that the wheelchair-bound Esquivel was currently undergoing painful physical therapy due to various back injuries, yet the older man’s warm, upbeat demeanor was impossible to ignore. His mind was percolating with future songs and projects, and the article ended with him proclaiming “I’m in a very good mood today.” Needless to say, the whole story put my problem into perspective. (Recently, I learned that the conference call was organized by rock journalist Barney Hoskyns. I actually met Hoskyns at the 2015 ALA conference in San Francisco, but didn’t know to tell him this anecdote at the time. Given the fangirling I was doing over his books that day, it’s probably just as well.)

I bought the magazine, and became a fan of both artists. I ended up receiving a decent grade in the class, too, though somehow the situation didn’t seem so dire by then. Music has a way of fixing things, even though, as we know, it can’t fix everything. Even today, it somehow seems impossible that “I Want Someone Badly” was released more than a year after Buckley’s tragic death. I keep checking the album liner notes and Wikipedia, but they feel like typographical errors in my head. (Yes, I do know the truth. In a lifetime of reading, four books fall into the “I Cried Inconsolably, Even Though I Knew What Was Going To Happen” category so far. David Browne’s Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley  is the first.)

That’s right, a song is why we’re here, and it’s an intriguing one. “I Want Someone Badly” comes from the First Love, Last Rites soundtrack of summer 1998. (The movie is an Americanized adaptation of the Ian McEwan short story. I haven’t seen it, but have always been curious.) The songs were portraying oldies that the characters heard on the radio, so they encompassed various musical styles. The guest vocalists included everyone from Liz Phair to John Doe, but the music itself was written and performed by Shudder To Think. (Band members Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson have flourishing soundtrack work to this day, and I’ve always wondered if this project planted that seed.) The song itself is understated and spare, giving Buckley full room for a powerful (yet not overblown) performance. (Since no other singers are credited, I have a feeling the doo-wop backing vocals are an equally impressive double-tracking.) I remember thinking it strange that such an amazing song was flying under the radar, which is probably why it appeared on the expanded reissue of Buckley’s breakthrough album Grace in 2004. I still hit “repeat” often when I play this one, which I guess is as good a tribute as any…

Song In My Head #78: “Walk With A Winner” by Gene McDaniels

A few days ago, I was shopping at San Jose’s Streetlight Records and heard this song playing. “Is this Scott Walker?” I asked the manager. She started to laugh hysterically, since someone had asked her that very question five minutes earlier. “It’s Gene McDaniels,” she revealed. (Turns out we weren’t that far off, in a way. Apparently the Walker Brothers released a version of Burt Bacharach’s “Another Tear Falls” in 1966, four years after McDaniels sang it in Richard Lester’s film It’s Trad, Dad!) She noted that she was playing the Gene McDaniels album in order to figure out where to shelve it. I can understand her dilemma, since the late singer-songwriter’s career encompassed jazz, protest songs, soul, psych, and pop. (For what it’s worth, the store put on Veruca Salt’s first album after the McDaniels record finished, and the segue worked really well.) “Walk With A Winner” was first released in 1965, and has turned up on several compilations since…

RSD 2017: Still Trying To Get Out

I had a prior engagement in the morning, so I didn’t get to Streetlight’s Record Store Day festivities until noon. I thought about getting the Cheap Trick release, but couldn’t remember if those alternate mixes were already on  the Sex, America, Cheap Trick  boxed set. My head was turned by the Television Personalities re-release, but the lack of extras had me feeling frugal. So, I opted for the RSD Filthy Friends 7-inch single (featuring Corin Tucker, Scott McCaughey, and Krist Novoselic, among other members of the Pacific Northwest rock elite). “I’m tapering off at last,” I thought smugly (though I reserve the right to reconsider those records someday if they’re still on the racks).

Then I impulse-bought New Pornographers and Blondie singles on the way out. Sigh. Baby steps, right?

Team USA wins the IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championship!

The victory was even more hard-won off the ice. The US women had confronted USA Hockey about its unequal treatment of the men’s and women’s teams, threatening to boycott the event unless the contracts were renegotiated. The men’s team had been receiving better pay and benefits, even though many members already get much bigger salaries from their NHL teams. Also, the women’s team had received much less publicity and media support. (I’m a diehard hockey viewer who tries to follow several leagues. Even I didn’t know that the US women’s team had won four IIHF gold medals over the past five years, and reached the medal podium in all five Olympic appearances. I’d imagine that casual sports fans might not know the US women’s hockey team exists.) The team successfully negotiated a new four-year contract, then had to jump into the tournament with little to no practice. A 5-3 win over Finland and an 11-0 win over Germany led to the championship game Friday night against Team Canada. The game featured what may be the most intense overtime period I’ve seen in hockey, boasting terrifyingly fast end-to-end rushes and brilliant saves from Canada’s Shannon Szabados and the US’s Nicole Hensley. Then came the Americans’ Hilary Knight…

“That is real hockey,” my mother said after the game. I can’t put it any better than that. Fierce stick taps to the Canadians for being more-than-worthy opponents, and heartfelt congratulations to the very cool Team USA women!

Song In My Head #76: “Daves I Know” by Bruce McCulloch

This classic Kids In The Hall song actually predates the troupe’s existence. According to John Semley’s This Is A Book About The Kids In The Hall, Bruce McCulloch regularly performed it with early ’80s Calgary comedy act The Audience. In 1995, McCulloch would re-record the song for inclusion on his debut CD, Shame-Based Man. However, I’m going with the version I know (I know) from the Kids’ fourth TV episode in 1989. (I wonder if anyone has covered “Daves I Know.” Would you have to change all the lyrics to describe Daves you knew, or could you just sing the Dave Capisano verse over and over? Hmm…)

Companion Bakeshop, Coke Farm, and mid-county restaurants featured in Spring 2017 SANTA CRUZ STYLE

You may want to have a hearty snack before reading my articles in the latest Santa Cruz Style. Page 9’s “Hidden Gems” profiles two classic mid-county restaurants, and their owners’ perspectives on long careers in the industry. Cafe Rio’s Jeanne Harrison tells how the restaurant bounced back from a lengthy closure to become a local fixture, while Cafe Sparrow’s Bob Montague details his evolution as a chef. (Montague began with no culinary experience whatsoever, so it’s an intriguing story!) Page 46’s “Bread Winners” will introduce you to Companion Bakeshop’s Erin Lampel, who reveals her unusual path to creating the Santa Cruz Westside’s most beloved bakery. (As we speak, one of Companion’s scrumptious Light and Fluffy loaves calls to me from my kitchen counter. Metaphorically, that is, since I know that bread can’t talk.) Meanwhile, Cat & Cloud Coffee’s Jared Truby discusses how Companion Bakeshop helped jump-start that buzzing establishment (and a forthcoming new venture). Finally, Coke Farm’s Dale Coke talks about his organic field-to-mill artisanal flour in the “Flour Power” sidebar. In Santa Cruz County, you can find free print copies here. The online version is here.