Promoting a record these days involves much filling up the internet and magazines with your own writing, unpaid. Sorry if that sounds cranky, but it’s true. It’s actually even worse when you’re a fiction writer—you write the novel, then you have to write it all down again in explanation for the internet and magazines. Even interviews nowadays often come in the form of an email Q&A, which you could just bash out, but you’re a writer, so you want it to make sense. And two hours later, you wish you’d just been on the phone for 20 minutes. Anyway, most of this extracurricular writing is a drag, but (as often, where MAGNET is involved) this one was fun. They gave me 20 song titles by 20 artists and asked me to write about 10 of them. It was a mix of people I’d worked with, people I’m friends with, people who’ve appeared on the Cabinet Of Wonders, people who I might be assumed to like and people whom I’ve written about enthusiastically elsewhere on the internet (perhaps even for MAGNET). So I picked 10 or so. I tried not to write about people on whom I have given my enthusiastic opinion previously. I literally have no thoughts on Amy Winehouse (I don’t know her work!) and very few on Andrew Bird (he’s good!); whereas my thoughts on Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen are, for quite different reasons, perhaps not easily digestible into a few words. So I thank MAGNET for reminding me about these 10 or so songs, and I should think they’d make a pretty good playlist, to which I now supply sleeve notes. —Wesley Stace
Bob Dylan, “John Wesley Harding” from: John Wesley Harding
I know this is meant to be primarily about the song, but I remember first seeing this album not as a record or cassette or eight-track but as a songbook in B&T Keyboards in Hastings, where I bought my first guitar, a black EKO Ranger (which now belongs to a young friend who continues to play it; it retains the same Release Nelson Mandela and Help The Hospital Workers stickers from 1984). When I saw the songbook, I thought: Weird; my name; Bob Dylan; and something to do with John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. It turned out that the real-life version of the entirely fictional cowboy Dylan sings about was John Wesley Hardin, a brutal killer whose name never had the extra “g” Dylan provides. There are various theories as to why this is (among which that it was a typo), but my own is that Dylan had dropped so many “g’s” (Blowin’ and a-Changin’) that he thought he’d add one to even things out, and Hardin was the beneficiary. No one needs me to tell them about this song, but—despite being great—there’s a reason very few people have covered it. McKendree Spring did a version, and the Stones maybe did it once live: It’s a funny little song, as many of the songs on John Wesley Harding, with three foursquare verses not adding up to much except in the listener’s mind: very simple and no chorus, except it’s all a chorus, like “All Along The Watchtower,” which people cover all the time. My first album, It Happened One Night, has a picture of John Wesley Hardin on one side of the label and a picture of his killer, John Selman, Sr., on the other. The hole in the middle went right through Hardin’s head.
Bee Gees, “To Love Somebody” from: Bee Gees’ 1st
I love all Bee Gees, though this song might not even be in my top 20, perhaps because it’s so fantastic it’s transcended even being a Bee Gees song. But it’s not quite how I think of them. Barry Gibb has maybe the greatest catalog in popular music. (You should have seen the comments section in the Philadelphia Inquirer when I made that fairly uncontroversial suggestion in a review of Barry’s solo show.) That show by the way was amazing (and given that the next concert I saw in the same hall was Stevie Wonder doing Songs In The Key Of Life, it was a good year for shows). I remember a Bee Gees tribute in San Francisco a million years ago, and no one did anything after the first few albums, which were at that time the only Bee Gees one was possibly allowed to like, and hardly even that—all except Scott Miller (R.I.P.) who did something much later, maybe “Jive Talkin’,” and wore a shiny jacket to sing it. The thing with the Bee Gees is: Main Course is perfect; the bridge of “Nights On Broadway” is perfect; the groove on “Jive Talkin’” is perfect; “Edge Of The Universe” is perfect; “Fanny” is perfect. So however great all those other early records are, and however great all those amazing songs on Odessa and Idea are, you still have to deal with the fact that Main Course is perfect. I am such a sucker for it all—Trafalgar? Spirits Having Flown? Cucumber Castle? All so great. And finally maybe they’re now going to reissue them properly, not just the first few. (I hear Barry isn’t keen on outtakes. I really admire that. I was very excited to hear his recent solo album and … it’s OK!)
Kirsty MacColl, “Days” from: Kite
I have lovely memories of Kirsty. Somehow we were in each other’s orbit, and so we had her sing on more or less the very first band demos I ever did, with Tom Robinson at his studio in Hammersmith. And her voice is therefore dripping all over “Affairs Of The Heart,” which ended up on Here Comes The Groom, my first Sire album, which we didn’t record quite enough songs for and so I used some we’d recorded earlier (including “Bastard Son,” “Dark Dark Heart” and “Affairs Of The Heart).” (I also remember that an engineer at the recording session lost a whole slab of her vocals due to, and it’s possible I’m imagining this bit, being stoned. And so we just kept recording and she did them all again, but we didn’t tell her she wasn’t actually doubling, but replacing.) It wasn’t long after “Fairytale Of New York,” but she was already a legend for “They Don’t Know,” which remains one of the greatest ever songs, and “Chip Shop.” I remember going round to her house and she played me the recordings of vocals she’d just done in New York for David Byrne’s album Rei Momo, and I just felt unbelievably privileged and awestruck. And then she died so tragically. “They Don’t Know” is on my jukebox. And, of course, I didn’t even notice that the song I’m actually meant to be talking about here is a cover of “Days” by Sir Ray Davies. (He was always a Sir, wasn’t he? We didn’t really need it made official.)
Pete Seeger, “Little Boxes” from: Pete Seeger’s Greatest Hits
Pete Seeger—whose music I very rarely listen to but which I genuinely love—is one of the greats of the 20th century, and it was thrilling that Bruce Springsteen threw some late glory and attention his way. At the induction of Woody Guthrie into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, we were upstairs, practicing, maybe rehearsing or even “jamming” with various Braggs and Robbinses and DiFrancos and all these people, and I played a little harmonica solo, sitting on an alcove by a window, on “Hobo’s Lullaby.” And later that night we were onstage at the gig playing the song. Seeger said, “Play a little harp for us, Wes,” which I’d had no idea about because I’d thought we were simply playing earlier rather than rehearsing, but somehow it had got in his head that I’d played the harmonica, and so he asked again on that big stage and luckily—and it was pure luck—I had the same harmonica in the same pocket and so I played a solo. And it was a very beautiful moment for me. I emceed one of his last ever appearances in NYC—the “Folk City” exhibition benefit at the New York Academy of Medicine—and I offered him a hand going up to the stairs to the stage (which I was on and which he was trying to get to), but he was so old, and so near death, that his entire concentration was on actually getting up the stairs to the stage. He didn’t even hear me or see me. It was pure determination. And he got to the stage, and we played “Goodnight, Irene.” I recently re-created, at a lower-school assembly at my kids’ school, some of the music from the March On Washington, when MLK told us about his dream—and so I played “We Shall Overcome” (which Joan Baez sang that day) and “If I Had A Hammer” (Peter, Paul & Mary sang that and “Blowin’ In The Wind,” while Dylan sang two new songs nobody really knew), etc. It’s almost impossible for me to sing these songs without tears, because of the young kids listening and the state the world is in, unimproved, as if nothing has been learned. And also because they’re such great songs. Even Trini Lopez singing “If I Had A Hammer” is too much if you really think about how that last verse comes together. “Little Boxes” is one of those songs, too.
Rosanne Cash, “Seven Year Ache” from: Seven Year Ache
I adore this song, and I’m lucky to have sung it with Rosanne Cash a few times. I had a song called “Spaced Cowgirl” on my first U.S. album that was absolutely my attempt—wordy and botched but sincere—to write the same kind of thing. And I was once playing pool with a guy in a bar in Jersey, and he said, “That song of yours sounds kind of like it’s based on ‘Seven Year Ache,’” and I knew to fear that man very much because he was right and no one else had ever mentioned or thought of it. “Seven Year Ache” is such a clever lyric, and the melody is so seductive. And the combination of the synths (or whatever they are) and the more traditional country instruments, pedal steel and whatnot, is very happy. And it’s really a very wordy song, a cascade of them, but it never sounds wordy, which many of my songs do even if they’re basically instrumentals. Anyone who has read Rosanne’s memoir knows that the good writing doesn’t stop with lyrics: Her sentences are so clean.
GOAT, “I Sing In Silence” from: Requiem
GOAT might be my favorite contemporary band; certainly right up there. I liked the second album a bit less than the first one, purely because the production was less punchy, but the third album is terrific and a nice development, too: It’s a little more acoustic and vibey and Incredible String Band-y. They also put on an amazing show. This isn’t my favorite song on the new record by a long chalk, but the whole album runs so beautifully that you can’t really begrudge any particular song. Also, the colored vinyl is very nice.
The Mekons, “Ghosts Of American Astronauts” from: So Good It Hurts
I think maybe among the people I admire most in music are Jon Langford and Sally Timms (and their Mekons) and Scott McCaughey (and his Minus 5, etc.). It isn’t about the music so much, though of course it is about the music (you don’t continue to do it unless you write great songs like this one), but about the attitude to continuing to make the music: the ways of keeping everything fresh and approaching it from a new angle so it can keep working, and of inviting other people to be part of your thing, as you are then invited to become part of theirs. These people are both great hosts and great guests—you want to be around them—and it doesn’t matter to them which they are. They inspire people to do the same; they make people more generous with their time and energies. I write as one such person who has been inspired.
Graham Parker & The Rumour, “Watch The Moon Come Down” from: Stick To Me
GP is another I hugely admire—from having him on the Cabinet Of Wonders (“You Can’t Be Too Strong” is a strange song to duet, but we keep doing it, and another favorite is “Back In Time”) to seeing him play in San Francisco solo, or with the Rumour in Philly, or back in the day at the Town And Country Club in London. It’s the way he’s been able to remain focused for so long, just so constantly ready to keep being annoyed about things in his songs. It’s really admirable. I suppose it’s very foolish to diss a record company in a song, but he’s certainly the guy to do it. And I’ve had the pleasure to get to know him, and he’s exactly what you’d hope. I loved all the Rumour records; Live At Marble Arch is one of my favorite live albums; and then there was the brilliant Mona Lisa’s Sister, which was maybe a comeback, but every single one of those records—even the ones that kind of went by quite quickly—has some totally fantastic songs on it, with hooks and snarky lyrics. “Passion Is No Ordinary Word”; anger is an energy. And he’s got such a fantastic voice. This song’s from Stick To Me, which is a great album. Truth to tell, he’s my favorite of all the people of that age and British ilk. When I see him live, I always want to hear him do “I Want You Back”: It’s one of my favorite covers ever.
Parquet Courts, “Dust” from: Human Performance
Love all Parquet Courts. Brilliant lyrics. Hooky songs. Funny. The poster of the same chord over and over—the sheet music for “Sunbathing Animals” that came with the seven-inch single—is a beautiful thing. “Dust” may not be my most favorite PC song, but it’s really beautifully recorded, and it’s all about dust, so that’s interesting, and it does have a great hook. So who cares whether it’s the best one or not? I could listen to “Pretty Machines” from Content Nausea almost all day, particularly those fun horns. And “Master Of My Craft” from Light Up Gold. I haven’t seen them live yet. Not sure why. I’d like to.
Matthew Sweet And Susanna Hoffs, ”I’ve Seen All Good People” from: Under The Covers, Vol. 2
I love all these Sweet/Hoffs covers, my favorite being the Marmalade song “I See The Rain,” which I have begged Ms. Hoffs to sing at a forthcoming Cabinet Of Wonders (which request seems to have been successful). I think Steve Howe even plays guitar on this. (The last time I saw Yes, he looked so like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons and played phenomenally well. I really like a solo album by him called Beginnings, on which another of my favorite bands, Gryphon, plays on a song called “Lost Symphony.”) Anyway, Yes. You don’t need me to persuade you how great Yes are/were. I don’t need to persuade Matthew Sweet—who wrote “Someone To Pull The Trigger,” a heartbreaking classic—or Susanna Hoffs. Last time I saw Yes, they had a reserve Jon singing (not Anderson but Davison) who did a very good job, making me wonder all about what really matters when you see bits of old bands reformed and with members missing, and rogue different versions of those bands, and when, even with original members (though these are ever-decreasing), it becomes a tribute band and if it even matters. I’m glad they’re getting into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame because they seemed really obsessed about it: That in itself isn’t very dignified, given what a pile of bullshit it is, but they did seem to be lobbying heavily for inclusion. I’m glad it paid off. I’d even consider seeing Anderson, Rabin And Wakeman, to see how it compares. I thank Dag Juhlin for getting me into Yes. He did that single-handed by sending me a cassette with Going For The One on one side and Steely Dan on the other. His tactic was 50-percent successful.
John Prine, “Sam Stone” from: John Prine
Steve Goodman and John Prine were the two songwriters I really aspired to be when I first picked up a guitar, which I first picked up really just to write songs. That, and I wanted to perform like Loudon Wainwright, who I used to get to see quite often in England. I loved the songs on which Prine and Goodman duetted (“Souvenirs” and so forth), and I could play, literally, every song on every one of their records. I used to busk a lot, and my repertoire was entirely those three artists. I hardly bothered playing Bob Dylan songs. Well, “Sam Stone” is on the first side of the first Prine album, so it’s classic, peak Prine (though the standard of his output has been high throughout his career), but I’m not even sure I fully understood half of it when I first heard it because it’s such Americana: “little pitchers have big ears”—I had no idea what that meant at all. But it’s a great song—the casual brutality of the images—and the simple beautiful melody. I love the Swamp Dogg cover of this song, too. I love all Swamp Dogg covers. “Lady Madonna” by Swamp Dogg! And how about Bobby Goldsboro’s “World Beyond,” by Swamp Dogg? Now I just want to talk about Swamp Dogg. In fact, I’d rather be writing about the music I like now than almost all of this stuff, if I’m honest, because I feel like I may have written all these things before about how much I love John Prine and Steve Goodman and Bob Dylan and so forth.