View from ground floor looking up in City Hall, Milwaukee, Wis.
Besides provoking what must be social media’s longest, broadest, and in some cases most over-the-top collective wake (still in progress), Prince’s death served as a reminder to casual fans that the most popular version of a song isn’t always the first version. The Sinead O’Connor song “Nothing Compares 2 U” topped the charts in 1990, and Prince will forever be the answer to the trivia question asking who wrote it. Lesser known is the fact that the song was recorded once before, in 1985 by funk band The Family. That short-lived band was formed by Prince himself as a sort of musical clearinghouse to crank out more of his music, and their version of the song barely registered as a blip on the radar screen. Nevertheless, any time a cover of an obscure or not-well-known song hits it big, it shines a new light and gives a new perspective to the earlier version. Here are six such songs.
1 . “Quinn The Eskimo” / “The Mighty Quinn”
Bob Dylan / Manfred Mann
You could write a long list of Dylan-penned songs that made good money for other artists. He is certainly the master of sketching templates that can be filled in and fleshed out in myriad ways. But few Dylan originals have made as big a leap as “Quinn The Eskimo,” a throwaway jingle he recorded with The Band on the famous Basement Tapes sessions. Recorded in 1967 and released on a bootleg in 1969, it was meanwhile covered and released by Manfred Mann in 1968 to great commercial success, topping the British charts and reaching #10 in the U.S. Manfred Mann’s version, titled “The Mighty Quinn,” differs little from the original, with two obvious exceptions: a regular dose of drum fills that round out its otherwise steady rhythm, and the song’s trademark flute hook, perhaps one of recorded music’s most instantly-recognizable intros. That musical detail was contributed by German artist Klaus Voorman.
2 . “The Tide Is High”
The Paragons / Blondie
Blondie had already achieved two number-one hits by the time its cover of the Paragons’ “The Tide Is High” topped the charts in 1980. Played in a reggae style with a sleek backing brass section, it today remains one of the most enduring pop songs from its era. If it feels stretched a minute too long for its own good, it is: the Paragons’ version, recorded in 1966 on the Treasure Isle label in Jamaica, is a simpler endeavor. Here the vocal harmonies are the song’s calling card, while its beat is in the “rocksteady” style that was precursor to reggae. It’s also backed with the pleasant violin of “White Rum” Raymond, who gets a brief mid-song solo.
3 . “Hush”
Billy Joe Royal / Deep Purple
Deep Purple’s “Hush” was a monster hit for the band in 1968, and remains a staple of classic rock FM radio today. Rightfully so: It’s got a memorable na-na-na hook, a fuzzy and driving lead guitar, a terrific organ solo, an infectious bass rhythm, and it even opens with a wolf’s howl, for God’s sake. What more could your Camaro-driving, Winston-smoking, Old Style-pounding uncle ask for?
How about a southern-fried version? Written by songsmith Joe South and recorded by his fellow Georgian Billy Joe Royal, the original version of “Hush” never reached the heights of its later iteration. Royal’s twangier version is an obvious derivative of gospel, one of those songs wherein the female object of desire could easily be supplanted with God. It charted modestly in 1967, never reaching the heights of Royal’s most famous song, “Down In The Boondocks.”
4 . “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You” / “Got My Mind Set On You”
James Ray / George Harrison
“Got My Mind Set On You” was George Harrison’s first hit in seven years when it reached number one in 1987. More importantly, it seemed like the first time any of the former Beatles had had any kind of fun on a record in a generation. That it came from the often-gloomy and brutally over-spiritual Harrison was especially surprising. Yet there he was, proclaiming his love with the same juvenile exuberance that fueled “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” In true 80s form, the song has a pounding drumbeat (reminiscent of “My Sharona”) and sexy, gliding saxophones. Apparently the record label saw such a massive hit that it commissioned two music videos, one setting the story of teenage love at an arcade, the other featuring Harrison singing among a taxidermed menagerie and doing a tongue-in-cheek (body-doubled) MTV-worthy dance.
As it turned out, Harrison dusted off the song that was originally recorded by James Ray in 1962. It was a minor hit for Ray, who died not long after of a drug overdose. In fact, Harrison bought the record on a pre-Beatlemania visit to Illinois to see his sister in 1963. Ray’s recording (titled “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You”) is brassier, featuring a Jackie Wilson-esque backup chorus, and most interestingly, more lyrics. Harrison stripped the song down to the point that Weird Al Yankovic cleverly lampooned it with “This Song’s Just Six Words Long.”
5 . “We’ve Only Just Begun”
Crocker Bank Commercial / The Carpenters
Musical artists sell out to TV commercials all the time. Who ever heard of it going the other way around? That’s what happened in 1970, when Richard Carpenter saw a commercial for Crocker National Bank on television. It featured a hopeful rock melody played over footage of a young couple’s wedding, the implication being that the bank would be there for them on their exciting nuptial journey through the decades. Having correctly identified it as the work of lyricist Paul Williams (co-written with Roger Nichols), Carpenter reached out to Williams about a full-length version. As it turned out, additional verses and a bridge had been written, and Richard and his sister Karen recorded the song for their 1970 LP Close To You. It became one of The Carpenters’ biggest hits, reaching #2 in the U.S. Rogers and Nichols went on to further songwriting success, penning songs for bands like Three Dog Night, various TV and movie themes, and another Carpenters classic, “Rainy Days And Mondays.”
6 . “Time Is On My Side”
Kai Winding / Irma Thomas / The Rolling Stones
Kai Winding was born in Denmark in 1922, and at the age of 12 his family moved to New York City, where he would attend the illustrious Stuyvesant High School before embarking on a career as a jazz trombonist. In 1963, Winding and his orchestra would record “Time Is On My Side,” featuring outstanding backing vocals from the Warwick sisters and Cissy Houston. Their lyrics amount to the title itself plus the phrase “you’ll come running back to me.” The song was later fleshed out with verses and a bridge for soul singer Irma Thomas’ cover the following year. That same year, the Rolling Stones would take their stab at it. The result was a top ten hit, and the burning of its refrain in the public consciousness. When one person says “time is on my side,” another person can’t help but sing it. The Stones’ version is a classic in its own right, but compared to Winding’s and Thomas’, it’s relatively tame and not nearly as much fun.
I almost cut short my visit to Palermo. It is an exhausting city. It is a noisy, dirty, chaotic, exhausting city. Motorbikes whiz past with reckless abandon, streets collect puddles of fish-water from frenzied seafood markets, garbage piles up on curbs in strange back alleys, and people hustle in and out of secret-looking doors and up and down thoroughfares on whatever business has called them. A vast plurality of them are immigrants from Asia, the East Indies, and Africa. In medieval or Roman movies there are always the smattering of transplants mixing among and trading with the Latins in their great cities. Palermo’s street scenes are a modern version of that tableau. I imagine it was always so here, though the majority population changed through the ages.
So many of its buildings look like sad memories of grandeur, and they seem to cast longer and darker shadows than they should. Amidst the chaos, Palermo’s baroque buildings are so close to the streets, and so unpolished (okay, dirty), that a walk down an avenue feels like one of those movies with close, tight, unyielding camera shots intended to keep the audience on edge. The result is a claustrophobia that makes one yearn for, well, for Trapani, which is where I’d been all the prior weekend. Ah, Trapani, with its sashaying passeggiata, its meandering, auto-free streets, its azure sea lapping lazily upon the tiny cape on which its medieval town sits. But I digress – that is for another post. This was Palermo. I almost cut short my visit…but in the end I stayed. You see, the second night at my hotel wasn’t refundable.
But – I’m so glad I stayed. While it’s not on my list of cities I’d move to, it is a fascinating place, and worth visiting. In fact, its craziness is endearing. So much of the West has been whitewashed, toned down, quieted, streamlined, the unique replaced with the drearily familiar. Palermo is of another era. Maybe it’s what Rome looked and felt like after World War II. The big roundabout in front of Palermo Centrale railway station reminded me of so many wild intersections in Morocco, where you just have to cross the street and say “Inshallah” and hope for the best. A cafe I visited for lunch seemed nice and relaxing at first blush, but once I sat down I realized it was the same as Via Maqueda outside – noisy, crazy, stressed. And even though I visited the street markets – such as the venerable Ballarò market – after their peak hours, they were still buzzing labyrinths of commerce. Again, not quite as crazy as the beehive-like medinas in Morocco, but certainly owing some cultural debt to them.
However, I did find quiet, beautiful places within the tapestry of activity. When in doubt, visit a garden or a church. Palermo’s botanical gardens and Villa Giulia to the east, and Villa Bonnana and Cattedrale di Palermo to the west, were all enchanting respites from the city’s never-ending hustle. The area near the imposing Teatro Massimo, Palermo’s famous opera house, also had a mellower vibe, with people lazing about and eating gelato at sunset outside its gate. I chuckled as I took a picture of Massimo, thinking of how poor Sofia Coppola took a bullet meant for Michael on its stairs in The Godfather Part III. Referring to criticism of her poor acting, Francis Ford Coppola had said that she took figurative bullets from the press that were meant for him. In any case, Teatro Massimo was peacefully free of bullets and Coppolas on this fine June evening.
My hotel, Orientale, looked promising in its Booking.com profile. From interior photos, it appeared to be a re-purposed Sicilian villa from the halcyon pre-unification days, straight out of the book (and movie) Il Gattopardo. That was partly true: in fact the old building had been partitioned for mixed use, so the Orientale only took up part of it. Its courtyard was now a sad parking lot, filled with autos and alley cats. The staircases and halls of the hotel certainly whispered of greater days, but overall the place failed to capitalize on its former opulence. My room was musty and dark, and neither the air conditioner nor the television worked. I didn’t need either, but not having something that’s “included” is annoying. Plus, the American in me didn’t want to sleep with an open balcony window, although nothing more than a pigeon was likely to intrude. And when I’m in a foreign country, I like having the TV on in the background so I can pick up the nuances of the language. There’s nothing better than a Simpsons episode in the local tongue. At the very least I’d have like to have had the low hum of the AC’s fan as white noise. Also, the shower backed up – that’s enough to put any hotel on my blacklist.
The hotel has a free breakfast, but like most Italian hotel breakfasts, there’s not much there. Just light fare like toast or yogurt, although they did have hard boiled eggs. The better bet was the second day, when I slept through breakfast and went to the cafe across the street, named Bacio Nero. The old man in this stand-at-the-counter joint served me two sweet pastries, an espresso, and offered a sample of a strawberry ice, i.e. crushed ice and strawberry syrup. “Watered down,” he said…with lemon syrup. After this latest trip, I’m convinced Sicily was formed not by volcanoes but by a terrestrial eruption of sugar, which settled into an island whose people feel compelled to consume in varied and creative ways. It’s the Big Rock Candy Mountain. As in much of Italy, breakfast in Sicily is light and sugary, often simply a croissant and a cappuccino. Sugar, milk, caffeine, with sugar of course. I admit, I admire that they reduce it to essentially an infusion of diabetes. “Screw the nutritionists, we’re having dessert for breakfast. We’ll balance it out with fish and olive oil later.” I admire it, but I can’t get used to it. I settled on apple croissants most days, although that’s still like starting my day with a Hostess fruit pie.
Well, this was a more negative post than I intended. I must sound pretty damned spoiled. Honestly, overall, I’m better for having experienced Palermo. Sure, it’s a shock to the system. A crazy crossroads of trade and immigration and history. It certainly doesn’t feel like anyplace else I’ve seen in Italy. It is unpolished. I would not live there. But I’d like to visit again, just to peel back some more of its layers.
What’s in a quarterback’s name? More than you think.
If the Los Angeles Rams are smart, they’ll pick Carson Wentz over Jared Goff in this week’s NFL Draft.
I base this not on any scouting data – though we’ve seen that predicting draft success is a crapshoot for even the savviest scouts – or even from having seen them play. In fact, I had to look up which school each played for. No, my prognostication that Cal’s Goff will flop while North Dakota State’s Wentz may fly is based on a criterion given short shrift in NFL front offices: Their names.
Simply put, I cannot envision the name “Jared Goff” inscribed on one of those funny-looking busts that NFL Hall of Famers get upon entry to Canton. Can you?
The NFL has a longstanding tradition of interesting names, from the steel-mill tough Chuck Bednarik to the fashionably unique Amani Toomer to the evocative Johnny Blood. That’s to say nothing of Chad Ochocinco. The point is, the wide and wild range of fun names cuts through the No Fun League’s otherwise corporate stodginess. It certainly makes listening to the broadcasts more interesting.
Quarterbacks are no different, but their names require a certain flair. Like the heroes of westerns or science fiction films, a quarterback’s name should evoke his leadership, his poise, guts, his derring-do. You’d never forget a name like Luke Skywalker, Flash Gordon, or Inigo Montoya. Since their position is football’s most important, great quarterbacks have names that befit their status as “field generals.” They certainly do not have surnames that sound like Ray Romano coughing up a hairball.
I mean no disrespect to Jared Goff. But the way letters fit together matter. It may even be a matter of destiny. Through time immemorial, great quarterbacks have had three distinct types of names:
Classic Northern European-sounding names. These are the kinds of names you might expect to see on the registry at the yacht club. It doesn’t matter whether the individual is actually Anglo or Dutch or whatever, just that the name sound esteemed. Examples: Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin, Len Dawson, Terry Bradshaw, Fran Tarkenton, John Elway, Randall Cunningham, Steve Young, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton.
Tough, working-class-sounding names. These are the guys that sound like they just got off their shift at the steel mill or the auto plant and are down at the pub having a few Schlitz together. Examples: Arnie Herber, Tobin Rote, Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Sonny Jurgensen, George Blanda, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger. (Why Tom Brady and Jim Kelly fit into different categories is a question I can’t answer. They just do.)
Literary-sounding names. These guys really could be fictional cowboys or spacemen. Examples: Bobby Layne, Sid Luckman, Ken Stabler, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Boomer Esiason, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, and the name to end all names at the position, Bart Starr.
You can randomly pick a quarterback and put him in the right group easily. Bernie Kosar…Beer-drinking factory man. Roman Gabriel…That’s a name from a book if I ever heard one. Byron Leftwich…Do I even have to say it?
Fitting into one of these categories does not guarantee wild success. We’ve had plenty of Ryan Leafs, Art Schlichters, and David Carrs to go around. And every once in a while, someone with a weird name like Trent Dilfer might win the big one. But if your name falls outside these three categories, suffice to say you’d better finish that college degree, because you might need it in a few years.
That goes for the unfortunately-monikered likes of Tim Couch, David Klingler, Danny Wuerffel, Blayne Gabbert, Blake Bortles, and yes, Jared Goff. See what I mean? Goff is a great surname if you’re a linebacker.
Now, “Carson Wentz” is by no means a home run. The last name fits in with the Schlitz-drinkers. The first name sounds a little yacht-clubby, but since the first pick goes to the team playing in Los Angeles, it fits better. Think Johnny Carson, or quarterback Carson Palmer (who played at USC). Or even Carson Daly. If you’re playing in Tinseltown, you want a guy named Carson leading your team.
NFL general managers should really take this into consideration. These are names that could be in rings of honor, halls of fame, and on plenty of merchandise. It’s true that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But can it thread the needle on 4th and long?
It has to be his evil highness, Lord Vader. That’s what Kellerman reasoned then, and I still can’t think of a better answer.
“Created solely for motion pictures” excludes a host of household names: Superman and the rest of the long-underwear brigade, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Vito Corleone, Flash Gordon, Scarlett O’Hara, James Bond, Mary Poppins, The Lone Ranger, Hannibal Lecter, Harry Potter, Zorro, Snow White, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, and Dorothy, to name a few. (Technically speaking, Vader first appeared in the novel Star Wars, six months before the film. But even more technically speaking, that book was based on the film’s screenplay.)
Other characters that were (to my knowledge) born on the silver screen, like the Terminator, Jack Sparrow, Freddie Krueger, Indiana Jones, “Dirty” Harry, or Rocky Balboa, certainly are all recognizable, but are they iconic – and if so, in the same way as Vader’s metal-faced, black-clad figure?
Then there are cinephile characters like Travis Bickle, Annie Hall, Jeffrey Lebowski, Norman Bates, Charles Foster Kane, The Man With No Name, and Tyler Durden. But while those names are known to even casual movie buffs, I’d wager the general populace can’t name their respective films.
E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, could have given Vader a run for his money. When I was a kid, you couldn’t escape the slimy little slug. He was just everywhere: toys, commercials, fast food tie-ins. At one point the all-time highest grossing movie (not adjusted for inflation), E.T. never became what Star Wars did: A blockbuster series that spawned a merchandising revolution. And although the character appealed to young children and sentimental adults, it couldn’t capture long term interest among the broad, zeitgeist-pushing middle swath of pre-teens, adolescents, young adults, and – most importantly – geeks. E.T. fizzled out.
We also have King Kong and Godzilla. Famous in their day, for sure. You’d have to go back to the ’30s and ’60s, respectively, and gauge these behemoths’ Q-scores against Vader’s today. I can’t say for sure, but something tells me the Force is with Vader.
That leaves one character created in moving pictures (that I can think of) that can beat out big bad Lord Vader. That character is Mickey Mouse, who dropped in on our lives in a 1929 animated short. (Bugs Bunny, too, first appeared in animation, but it’s difficult to argue that the wascally wabbit comes close to Mickey’s worldwide recognition.) He is probably more famous than Darth Vader, but giving the nod to Mickey feels like a technicality. If we require that the debut must have been a feature-length film, Mickey is out.
But even if Vader is second to Mickey Mouse, that is no small feat, considering the character’s limits and nature. His face is hidden most of the time and we cannot see his mouth move when he speaks. He is a ruthless dictator, rather than a noble hero or cute anthropomorphic rodent. In fact Vader is so vile that we see him order the destruction of a peaceful planet, duel and kill an elderly man (his old friend, in fact), murder well-meaning generals for their incompetence, slice off his son’s hand, and throw his boss down an elevator shaft and into deep space. (Some people might have empathized with that last act.) Ultimately we are told that not even Darth Vader is beyond redemption, but the world clearly fell in love with his unabashedly evil side. Deeper minds than mine can divine what that says about humanity.
Darth Vader – cinema’s most famous character. Or have I left anyone out? You tell me.
“Weather-wise, it’s such a lovely day / Just say the words and we’ll beat the birds back to Acapulco Bay.” Is there a more exuberant song about jet age travel than “Come Fly With Me”? Was there a better voice to convey this exuberance than Frank Sinatra’s? Dean Martin may have had the more gifted singing voice, and Sammy Davis Jr. may have been a more versatile all-around talent, but in my opinion something intangible dwelled in Frank Sinatra’s early singing that gave him an edge over his contemporaries. Call it attitude or unbridled emotion if you will. It’s the kind of essence that pushed the envelope for other, more limited vocalists, like Joe Strummer or Van Morrison. It no doubt helped make Sinatra a performer for the ages, which makes this song one of the most important pieces of recorded music.
Released in 1958 on the LP of the same title, the song captures both Sinatra at the peak of his abilities and popularity, and the nascent wonders of commercial aviation. The LP itself was ahead of its time in that it was something of a concept album. The cover art is a painting of a sharply dressed Sinatra about to board a TWA plane (and probably convincing an out-of-frame female, whose hand only we can see, to join him). The title track kicks off a series of tunes about destinations ranging from Vermont to Capri to Hawaii. But it is the song “Come Fly With Me” that has proved most enduring, as recognizable today as any of the standards or failed show tunes Sinatra would claim as his own, or for that matter any hit from ensuing wave of rock music that would render Sinatra and his Rat Pack cohorts yesterday’s news. With its impatiently lilting and brassy intro, gliding orchestration, and most importantly Sinatra’s talent for knowing when to croon and when to bellow, the song evokes all of the adventure of air travel (with none of the hassles, of course).
Jet travel in the ’50s was expensive, time-consuming, and fraught with accidents, but you’d never know it from the way Sinatra invites us to Bombay and Peru as if they were around the corner. It’s not a complicated song by any means, and the bridge and final verses are repeated to close it out, but it’s worth it for us to hear Sinatra return to the whimsical, cascading line “You may hear angels cheer, ’cause we’re together.”
Born 100 years ago this weekend in Hoboken, New Jersey, Sinatra in 1958 still had more memorable songs to record, but it wouldn’t be long before his voice became strained and lost some of its range and gusto. As a result he would often sound like the caricatured version of himself many of us remember, doo-be-dooing lyrics and sounding as though he were mailing in live performances, as booze and cigarettes took their toll. But “Come Fly With Me” was before all of that and before a lot of other changes that would demystify Sinatra and his friends, science and progress, politics, and an era viewed from afar as unrealistically comfortable and fanciful. Nevertheless, great music stands on its own, and “Come Fly With Me” not only still stands, but still soars.
The goal, upon returning to the endlessly fascinating island of Sicily, was to see firsthand a Sicilian cart. On my first full day there, this mission was accomplished. It was on the breathtaking hillside town of Erice. Having roamed its warren of narrow stone streets, enjoyed a lunchtime pizza, and not coincidentally purchased a number of souvenir toy carts for friends and family back home, I wandered into a quiet botanical garden. It sat on the edge of the mountain with its own amazing views of the Tyrrhenian Sea to one side, and miles of pastoral landscape to the other. A Norman-era castle sits astride the mountain edge; its walls provides tourists with vista photo-ops as it protects them from the steep drop-off. The castle was built on the site of the Greeks’ Temple of Venus, which had been pilfered and moved to Rome by the Romans in an effort to sway her favor and seize momentum against Carthage. And before that there was a temple to the fertility goddess Potnia, belonging to the Elymians, Greek Sicily’s west coast predecessors.
As I approached the castle I saw in front of its high wall a man, an accordion, a horse…and a cart. A carretto – heck, let’s go with the Sicilian pronunciation and call it a carrettu. It was a multicolored, multi-paneled wooden trailer attached to the horse, and its panels featured various medieval battle scenes. It looked, as most carretti (plural) do, almost like an ancient comic book was plastered onto it. It was clearly for show, as the man played accordion and sang for euros next to it.
I tried asking him some questions about it, but the gentleman was preoccupied with entertaining tourists and had little to say. When I asked him to take my picture in front of his cart, he put a Sicilian-style cap on my head that I’m embarrassed to say was emblazoned with an image and logo from The Godfather. He whistled the theme song as he snapped some photos. A bit disappointed, I gave him a euro for his troubles, realizing this, and not cart history, was his livelihood. Nevertheless, I’d gotten some closeups of my own.
I had been to Sicily once before but had never seen nor heard of these mysterious objects until I read John Keahey’s travelogue Seeking Sicily. In it, he describes the carretti, and one is pictured in black and white. A Google image search brought them roaring to life for me. It was but a week or two later when I saw a large model of a Sicilian cart on display in an Italian grocery store in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It could be bought for a price of several hundred dollars, I was told. The hell with that, I said to myself. I’ll go back to Sicily and see the real thing.
Of course, carts had been in use on the island since at least Greek times, but it was in the 19th century that the carretti, with their uniquely flamboyant designs, came into wide use. As vehicles they were employed to transport agricultural products across difficult roads. As works of art, they might depict anything from peaceful saints to violent Crusades. Their construction was the result of specialized labor, as different tradesmen worked on the wood parts (walnut, beech, and ash), ironwork, assembly, and painting. The evocative artwork extended beyond the cart’s walls and onto the wheels, their spokes, all the way down to the axle. Even the horses were draped with elaborate finery and their heads adorned with bright, colorful plumes. The carretti were obviously attempting religious or historical storytelling in addition to transporting goods, but they simultaneously were wheeled exercises in peacocking, like a low rider with Daytons and hydraulics.
Today most carts appear as curiosities or decorative pieces, and the number of artisans with knowledge of the craft of cart making has dwindled to a handful. Toy souvenirs can be found in gift shops all over the island, but the carts themselves are becoming endangered species. (Sicily has two museums dedicated to preserving their history.) On my trip I would encounter one other cart, parked horseless outside a gelateria in Catania. It sat forlornly on busy Via Plebescito, its shafts pointed down toward the gutter as cars and scooters whizzed by indifferently. Perhaps in its day it had been affixed to a mighty beast, which pulled its payload of lemons or eggplants from one dusty hamlet to another. Whatever it might have been through, it had survived, and like all carretti it still had a story to tell.