This is a repost of a blog I wrote elsewhere in 1998. As I post it, we are close to marking the 40th anniversary of the release of Linda Ronstadt’s “Heat Wave,” one of my favorite songs and performances ever, and the subject of this essay.
Truth be told, I was going to post this here today anyway. I decided to check its chart history, and the whole 40th anniversary thing just happened.
“It’s the singer and not the song that makes the music move along.” — ‘Join Together,’ the Who, 1970
Well, maybe, and maybe not.
One of rock music’s eternal mysteries for me is how songs become ‘standards.’ I don’t think too many have been written in the last 10 years, but that’s OK. Pondering the standards that do exist causes me to get caught in that horrible whirlpool vortex, the one you get into when you try to ponder the size of the universe, of George Lucas’ wallet, or why in the hell people keep buying John Tesh albums.
The two strongest examples of standards in post-1960 popular music are “Blowin in the Wind” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”
I don’t remember the first time I heard “Blowin in the Wind.” It was probably the same way much of the world heard it, by Peter Paul and Mary, although it could just have easily been Cheryl Volberding or any of the number of teenage girls who astonished the 5-year-old me in 1964 by reacting to the folk music boom by actually picking up acoustic guitars and PLAYING THEM IN PUBLIC! Singing and everything.
To this day, I find myself enjoying folk music, often in spite of myself (hello, Jewel). I wonder how much those formative years had to do with that.
One of the first albums I purchased was Bob Dylan’s THE FREEWHEELIN BOB DYLAN. It was the early 70s, and I could have picked any one of Dylan’s earlier albums out of the $2.99 bin at a Woolworths in Austin, Minn., but I grabbed FREEWHEELIN because it had a lot of songs on it, and I recognized the title “Blowin in the Wind.”
As I listened to all the songs, I started wondering if Dylan was just making up the lyrics as he went along. (I made a similar mistake years later when I’d listen to Frank Zappa’s jazz-based pieces and think the band was making everything up as they went along, and just happening to end at the same time.) In both cases, it slowly dawned on me that some thought was going into this — somebody was actually WRITING this stuff.
It’s impossible for me to grasp the concept of a man as young as Dylan was writing such timeless lyrics as you find in “Blowin in the Wind.” Astonishing.
The first time I heard “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” I knew Stevie Wonder had found another pop chestnut to cover. After all, this was the guy who pulled old songs out of somewhere and revamped them for a current audience, right? And there was no way anyone writing music at the time could have come up with a bridge as wonderful as you find in that song (“You must have known that I was lonely/Because you came to my rescue …”). Right?
Again, a classic. A song anyone can sing, and (within reason) sound good singing. A song so timeless that even though you know someone WROTE it, maybe the chances are good that the writer was actually channeling it, divinely inspired by whatever divinely inspires songwriters. I don’t know what that is, and neither does that hack John Williams.
Key to both songs is the following point: If you’re somewhat able to stay in key, you can sing both of them, and any clown passing by can recognize that it’s a great song. (If you’re singing the Dylan song, you may not even have to stay in key.) The better the singer, the better the song sounds, but both songs transcend the performer.
So it’s the SONG, not the singer.
Whenever I’m with you …
One of the greatest rock and roll songs ever written is “Heat Wave.” Martha & the Vandellas had a hit with the original in 1963, The Who covered it a couple of years later, and in my book, Linda Ronstadt’s 1975 version is the definitive one. In fact, all of these versions are so enjoyable, I couldn’t imagine the song done poorly.
Until, that is, I listened to a version recorded by a band know as The Half Dozen, found on the otherwise excellent THE BIG HITS OF MID-AMERICA: THE SOMA RECORDS STORY 1963-1967. But the glass is half-full: This version does so many things wrong, it points out everything RIGHT about the others.
Martha & the Vandellas brought the song to listeners’ ears, and remains the one many hear in their heads when the song is mentioned. To me, it’s great, but just a baseline for what was to come.
An interlude for fun details …
When Electric Light Orchestra’s “Roll Over Beethoven” was a hit in 1972, ‘American Bandstand’ played a ‘megamix’ (long before we knew that word) of the song through the decades — Chuck Berry, the Beatles, and ELO. A friend listening said he found the Beatles’ version the weakest.
Many years later, as the lovely Mrs. Cain and myself waiting patiently to observe a mediocre film at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I found my eyes wandering to the 12- or 15-minute montage playing on the video bank across the way. It covered a basic history of music. (Apparently, however, not basic enough. When Aretha Franklin appeared on the screens, one yokel in line with us pointed out to those with him, “That must be Janis Joplin.”)
Each time the video loop showed the Beatles, the Who, the Hollies and the Kinks in their resplendent early- and mid-60s glory, I thought, “You know, if I had to limit myself to one time period for music, this is the one I’d pick.”
And the lovely Mrs. Cain has often pointed out how I tend to like earlier, “rougher” versions of bands, before they sand off the rough edges and turn into another cookie cutter outfit. (How this jibes with my unabashed love for power pop is a question that remains unaswered. Perhaps when Kansas reveals exactly how long it is to the point of know return, this jibing thing will be solved as well). Mrs. Cain’s theory is I can hear things in the music that aren’t there, like potential and glockenspiels.
Now back to our topic at hand …
Which is one explanation of how I can find The Who’s pale copy of “Heat Wave” enjoyable. I’m hard-pressed to think of a Who song prior to the WHO ARE YOU album that doesn’t excite me. (For crying out loud, I’m usually the one pointing out the songs from QUADROPHENIA and the B-sides from the post-TOMMY morass to the uninitiated.) So maybe this is irrational, but I get a tremendous kick out of hearing four guys who clearly LOVE Motown music do their best to mimic it. Maybe better than any of their British peers, but still kinda weak. Lovable, but weak.
And in spite of all that, I PREFER the Who’s version to Martha & the Vandellas’.
Which brings us to Linda Ronstadt’s. Or, better put, Linda Ronstadt’s and Andrew Gold’s. Gold arranged and plays all the instruments, and does the lion’s share of the backing vocals. And it’s his subtle shadings instrumentally that drive the song forward. Ronstadt’s version is a song that starts at a crescendo, THEN builds. Gold slyly hides a piano and a string arrangement, and has backing vocals so simultaneously impromptu and tight that I defy you to do anything but tap your foot (or drive 15 miles an hour over the speed limit) when it comes on.
Thread in a perfect guitar solo, one so perfect that I can’t imagine the song ANY OTHER WAY, and Ronstadt’s near-hoarse and infectuous “yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah” on the outchorus, and you’ve got a slice of pop heaven, and the best thing Linda Ronstadt ever recorded. And I’ve said and will continue to say a lot of nasty things about Linda Ronstadt, but she’s recorded a lot of inspired music as well.
But nothing more inspired that this.
So maybe it IS the singer …