Sample Week: “Highway Patrolman” by Bruce Springsteen

As a songwriter, you know you’ve done your job when a song is so evocative that they make a movie based on it. Such is the case with “Highway Patrolman” which was reimagined by Sean Penn as The Indian Runner. Full disclosure: I’ve never seen this flick, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there’s no way it could have told the story half as well as Bruce did.

The story of Joe Roberts and his brother Franky epitomizes many of the themes that Bruce hit hard on Nebraska: The economic hard times that put such strain on everyday Americans; the pull of family even over one’s best intentions; the random, senseless acts of violence that tear society apart; and most of all, the impossible choices faced by ordinary human beings. Joe sets many of these themes up with that one simple line that says it all: “I got a brother named Franky, and Franky ain’t no good.

Of course, that puts him in direct conflict with Joe, who became a police officer only after his farm went under. Luckily, crime is always in season, so he manages to scrape a living together, but his ne’er-do-well brother keeps getting in scrape after scrape, forcing Joe to shirk his duty for family’s sake. Joe’s love for his brother wins out over his frustration, as he sings about the fun times they have together in between calamities.

We know where this is all heading. Franky does some major damage in a bar fight, and Joe is called to the scene. The scene of him chasing his brother through the back roads has an undeniable cinematic appeal to it, but the anti-climax is no Hollywood ending. Joe waits ‘til his brother has a clear shot out of the country and lets him go, now complicit in his crimes and forever stained by his familial bonds.

Springsteen does a marvelous job embodying this character, hitting every beat from the dejection when relating his crimes to the hope and love when he sings about the good times. Notice that he ends with Joe stubbornly sticking to his credo: “Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good.” When he sings it that last time, it sounds like the character is trying to convince himself more than the listener.

It’s fitting that Johnny Cash did a version of this, because “Highway Patrolman” belongs in the firmament of evergreen songs with which troubadours can bewitch audiences into the endless future. So timeless are its themes, so compelling is the story, and, it must be noted, so infinitely difficult are the quandaries it presents.

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Sample Week: “Waiting On A Friend” by The Rolling Stones

Maybe the reason that this rather unassuming ballad that closes out Tattoo You has won such a special place in the group’s pantheon is that reaffirms a bond between the group members that, quite frankly, can be hard to discern sometimes. It always seems that they go their separate ways in between albums and mega-tours, only to regain their chemistry the next time around with seemingly little effort. When you take into account how vastly different their personalities, at least the ones they show to the public, seem to be, it’s hard to imagine these guys watching a ball game together.

Of course, that dynamic isn’t unusual among rock bands, and oftentimes relationships within groups are much more volatile than what the Stones seem to possess among the principals. “Waiting On A Friend” allows all of us Stones’ fans to indulge in the notion, however fantastic that it might be, that their musical bond is born of personal kinships that no one can tear asunder. 

Even that notion has to make room for some irony, since it is Mick Taylor, who always seemed like more of a mercenary than a group member, playing the leisurely guitar lick through the song. Taylor is present because the song was begun in 1972 and shelved, only to be revived for Tattoo You. Other guest players stake out their territory as well, as Nicky Hopkins’ genial piano fills in all the gaps in Jagger’s narrative, while Sonny Rollins’ saxophone, recorded nine years after the track was originated, carries the song into sublime infinity.

We can also believe in the message of the song because of Mick’s absolutely heartfelt performance. So great is he here that the lines “Making love and breaking hearts/It is a game for you” sound thoroughly convincing coming from one of the most legendary lotharios in the history of the world. When he and Keith Richards come together to sing, “I’m not waiting on a lady/I’m just waiting on a friend,” it’s perhaps the sweetest moment in Stones’ history.

So, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, I prefer to believe in the Stones as this song portrays them. The true story belongs to the biographies and the tabloids, but “Waiting On A Friend” provides a beauty even deeper than the truth.

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Sample Week: “Don’t Come Around Here No More” by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Tom Petty was a little frustrated at the stagnancy that he felt had crept into the band’s sound on their fourth album, 1983’s Get Lucky. He channeled that frustration into the fountain of creativity that led to this one-of-a-kind single. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was proof to any skeptics that doubted that the Heartbreakers could do anything besides straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll. Moreover, the memorable video brought the band to a younger group of fans and helped ensure that their popularity wouldn’t be waning anytime soon.

Dave Stewart was Tom’s simpatico collaborator on this madcap tour de force, and his spirit of experimentation inspired Petty to make some very un-Petty like choices. For example, there’s the sampled drum pattern that repeats throughout the song, which, combined with that mystical sitar that seems to endlessly feedback onto itself for a wash of head-spinning sound, creates the oddest rhythm bed you’ve ever heard.

That wasn’t all of the insanity running rampant with this song. Stewart also sent the track to a bass player (Dean Garcia,) whose work was completely unusable save for the quirky little bit that kicks the song into gear. Female backing vocalists were brought in to give some counterpoint to Petty’s rejoinders, and Stewart allegedly ran into the control room with his pants down in an effort to get one (Stephanie Sprull) to hit that high note that kicks off the harder-rocking section at the song’s end.

It’s as if Petty included that closing section to remind everyone that the Heartbreakers were still very much a force, and, thanks to the contrast of all the weirdness before, that section rocks righteously indeed. TP also fully invests himself in the role he’s playing here in a performance that’s reminiscent of some of Mick Jagger’s memorable cads from the Stones’ catalog.

Petty has stated in interviews that he regrets the video somewhat because he feels like no one can hear “Don’t Come Around Here No More” now without imagining Alice In Wonderland. I disagree. When I hear it, I don’t picture Petty in a goofy hat. I hear a vibrant, slightly-daft, never-dull, whirlwind of a single that reinvigorated a career.

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Sample Week: “Creep” by Radiohead

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another song that presents such a conundrum to a band’s fans as “Creep” does to backers of Radiohead. It is the song of the band that non-fans know, based on its brief ubiquity in 1993. (Thank you, Messrs Beavis and Butthead.) It’s also nothing like the majority of the music that the band subsequently produced, the music on which the band’s towering reputation has been built, and rightfully so.

The band themselves seem to have made their peace with “Creep,” trotting it out in concert now and again, but only after a long period in which they viewed it as an albatross. Judging by message boards I’ve trolled, fans aren’t quite as forgiving, probably because they feel as though it casts a grungy light on the band to casual observers, making them seem as if they’re forever stuck in flannel and Seattle.

But this list is about the songs, not any baggage that comes along with them. And if you can somehow make yourself listen to it again with fresh ears and hear just how well it accomplishes its objective, I think you have to admit that “Creep” is a brilliant song that deserves its lofty ranking here.

Thom Yorke channels the pain of every outsider that’s ever felt the sting of rejection into his lyric, a perfectly pitched balance of pie-in-the-sky daydreaming and pitiful self-loathing. The words here are so conversational and unforced that’s it’s easy to miss their subtle excellence. For instance, this guy knows that it’s not enough for this girl to be aware of his presence; he needs to be so integral to her that she mourns his absence: “I want you to notice/When I’m not around.”

What those guitar blasts from Jonny Greenwood provide are blasts of reality. They jar Yorke from the reverie of watching this beautiful girl into the situation in which he’s mired. It also gives the song an edge that nudges it from its Hollies-inspired torpor into unassailable rock glory. 

So I understand the issues some of you may have with “Creep.” It’s time to let them go. The song may not be representative of what Radiohead is today, but that doesn’t make it any less f***in special.

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Sample Week

Hello, long-lost list followers. Sorry I’ve been incommunicado for a few weeks, but it’s been a busy summer. I know that some of you have been waiting for my next list; I’m still undecided on that that might be. But I thought I’d give my followers a little something in the interim, since a new list is probably at least a few weeks away.

For the next few days, I’m going to give you a teaser of the lists that I plan on inlcuding on the site in the future. These are lists that I’ve done for other websites in the past, and I plan on updating these lists for this blog. I’m going to give you one song entry a day for the next four days, a different artist each day. I won’t inlcude where the song is ranked on each specific list; we don’t want any spoilers giving anything away.

Basically, I really want to give something to my loyal readers who have been so kind to me. I may even do another Sample Week in the future if a new list is slower coming that I might have thought. I can promise that the productivity will vastly improve in the fall once my little one is back at school and I have more time to write.

In the meantime, tune in tomorrow and each day for the rest of the week for a taste of what’s to come. And thanks again for your patience. Believe me, I’m looking forward to doing another list as much as you are to reading it, because they’re so much fun to undertake.

Let me know what you think of the samples, and have a good one.