It’s spring break for my kids and that means la familia Summers Sandoval is hitting the road!
We’re off to the Grand Canyon, with side trips to Sedona and (maybe) the Hoover Dam, so there’s not much time to write. Instead, here’s five songs in honor of our journey, each linked to a live performance.
The Big Lebowski came out 20 years ago this month.
At that time in my life, I was going to a lot of movies. I was ABD (done with my graduate courses, exams, and left with “all but dissertation” before the PhD) and I lived in Oakland, mere blocks away from two really good theaters (the Piedmont and the Grand Lake). I’d often go for a walk, pass by one of the two, and buy a ticket to see just about anything that happened to be playing.
I don’t remember if I planned to see The Big Lebowski or if it was one of those spontaneous things. I do remember that I pretty much thought it was a work of genius. Cheech and Chong’s Up In Smoke (1978) invented the stoner genre–circular narrative which ends up being about nothing, filled with odd characters, some of who get high and/or are trying to get high. The Big Lebowski gave us the big budget, high production, epically operatic version of the form.
The Coen Brothers use of music was a standout feature of the movie for me, so much so that I bought the soundtrack that same day. The CD remains one of my favorite soundtracks of all time. It introduced me to a whole bunch of songs that I had never heard before and ended up loving to this day. There were some amazingly great records (“The Man in Me” and “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”); two great covers (one by the Gypsy Kings and one by Townes Van Zandt); and a classic tune sung by the great Nina Simone. It even had a German opera duet (“Gluck Das Mir Verblieb”), which was undoubtedly the first of that genre I ever heard.
So here’s my five favorite tracks from The Big Lebowski Original Motion Picture Soundtrack:
5. “Hotel California” by the Gypsy Kings
I knew no more than one song by the Gypsy Kings. I knew more than one by the Eagles. I never knew the two became one until this.
4. “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) by The First Edition
As a child of the 80s, Kenny Rogers was a known entity for me. Even though we didn’t listen to country, he had a good deal of crossover “pop” appeal to make him more than familiar. What I didn’t know until 20 years ago was just how serpentine his path to being country legend was, including as it did a stop in psychedelic rock. (Nor did I know that the band had character actor Mickey Jones on drums!)
3. “Dead Flowers” by Townes Van Zandt
I had heard of Townes Van Zandt by 1998, mostly in relation to Steve Earle, whom I admired since I heard his album Copperhead Road. As far as I can remember, this was the first time I heard Townes sing. I bought his Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas shortly after.
2. “The Man in Me” by Bob Dylan
I’ve never been a huge Dylan fan. What I did know (and respect, and often like) went up to Blonde on Blonde. Between Lebowski and The Hurricane (1999) I started to really prefer some of his 70s work over the rest.
1. “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” by Nina Simone
I love Nina Simone. In the pre-all-music-on-the-internet days, her long and eclectic career meant a constant stream of amazing discoveries for me. They often came to my attention in the most random of ways–an essay on the civil rights movement, a documentary on the assassination of Dr. King, or (in this case) a stoner movie.
My monthly update on what my youngest daughter and I read the previous month.
February is always a little bit of a slog for la familia Summers Sandoval. Or maybe it’s just me. I feel like the month is the thick of it when it comes to the academic year. It can be a challenge when the kids feel the same way.
We keep afloat, however we can. Last month, mi chiquita and I did so by continuing with the adventures and mysteries of the land of Droon.
City in the Clouds; The Great Ice Battle; The Sleeping Giant of Goll; Into the Land of the Lost; and The Golden Wasp (The Secrets of Droon #4-8) by Tony Abbott
Neal, Eric, and Julie continued their adventures in the magical land beneath Eric’s (or Neal’s?) basement. The drama of Droon–framed by the evil Lord Sparr and his primary nemesis, the creative Princess Keeah–grew more interesting and cluttered throughout these next five books in the massively popular series. My little one continued to love them, although even she started to get a little confused at some of the regular introductions of new characters, scenarios, and mysteries. Gladly, with the apparent demise of Lord Sparr (our oldest, who’s read through to book 13, already informed us that he’s coming back) she’s finally growing amendable to adding a non-Droon book into the mix. This makes daddy happy.
I realize I have an odd relationship to music. In general, most of the music I love comes from before or just after I was born. To put it another way, when most of the music I love was “new music” I was either not yet born or too young to form any memories of it.
I’m a historian, what can I say.
But part of my love of “oldies” (and by this I don’t mean just “old music” but, instead, the standard 50s and 60s music we associate with the early years of “Rock ‘n Roll”) is also cultural. I grew up in the greater Los Angeles area in a social world dominated by Chicano culture. This music played a big part in defining that culture.
The easy way to make sense of this is that I grew up in a social world where Chicano baby boomers were being nostalgic about their youth. Part of that is true. I think things like the Vietnam War and the more general loss of faith in the US political and economic system of the 70s also played a role in that nostalgia. So did the fact that they were grown up. But this music is bigger than that. It has even transcended the past in which it was first thought of as “old” as it continues to create an musical identity for Chicanos today.
Taken as a collection, it’s what Chicano culture sounds like, at least musically. It might be limited by region (Southern California) and time (late 20th century to now). It might be further shaped by whether folks are working class or not, and even by one’s connection to immigration (I don’t think it has penetrated into the immigrant communities that formed since the 80s).
Proof of this is the longevity of somebody like Art Laboe, the legendary DJ. He’s pretty much been on LA radio continuously since 1949. He was playing oldies music for a Chicano audience when those oldies were still “newies”! His dedication show (where listeners call in and dedicate songs to their loved ones) has been a standard part of Chicano LA (and beyond) for my entire life. The music he plays–oldies from doo-wop to R&B to soul–mostly fall into the “oldies” category, but there’s also newer stuff that sounds like the past. This is what I mean by one “Chicano oldies.”
So, though I’ve done this before, here’s a list of five more of my favorite Chicano oldies songs. My goal here is to choose the less obvious songs that don’t get a lot of play on standard “oldies” stations (or that didn’t, back when oldies stations played songs before 1980). What I think is most impressive about them is that even though they were mostly released more then a half century ago, these songs are well-known by subsequent generations of Chicanas and Chicanos who grew up in the greater LA region.
5. “Together” by Tierra (1980)
4. “I’m Your Puppet” by James and Bobby Purify (1966)
I’m on a funded leave right now, finishing work on a play based on the oral histories I’ve been conducting with Mexican American veterans of the Vietnam War.* One of the sections I’ve been working on is related to “coming home” and so I’ve got that on my brain. Well, rather haphazardly, last week I also came across these beautiful words from a Maya Angelou interview† from 1990:
I never agreed, even as a young person, with the Thomas Wolfe title You Can’t Go Home Again. Instinctively I didn’t. But the truth is, you can never leave home. You take it with you; it’s under your fingernails; it’s in the hair follicles; it’s in the way you smile; it’s in the ride of your hips, in the passage of your breasts; it’s all there, no matter where you go. You can take on the affectations and the postures of other places and even learn to speak their ways. But the truth is, home is between your teeth.
I found the sentiment interesting and provocative, so much so that I was thinking about it as I drove to a conference last week. Making my way up the California’s coast, in the dark of night, I was thinking about her words when the song “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” by Ella Fitzgerald came on the radio.
So, out of fear of upsetting the fates, here’s my list of five “homecoming” songs:
5. “Homeward Bound” by Simon and Garfunkel (1972)
This live version of the song was released on the duo’s 1972 Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, though it never specified when or where the recording took place. I knew the song before 1992, but in the fall of that year, I boarded my 11-hour flight to study abroad in England (only my second flight ever!) and this song was on a British Airways playlist. I must have listened to it 4 or 5 times. In the context, it suddenly seemed so profound.
4. “Home Sweet Home” by Mötley Crüe (1985)
No band better personifies the “glam metal” phenomenon than LA’s own Mötley Crüe. Much like the entire MTV-infused genre, there’s a lot of talent but a lot more effort at style than substance. Most songs are about drinking and girls. At the same time, the token rock ballad of each album comprised the love songs for a huge part of the 80s generation. This iconic song is the standard bearer for the lot of them. It follows in the grand tradition of rock bands singing about being on the road (“Beth” by Kiss, “Faithfully” by Journey).
3. “Can’t Find My Way Home” by Blind Faith (1969)
Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker, and Ric Grech made only one album, but it’s a classic. This song–a frequent part of soundtracks in films and TV–is one big reason. There’s something about the romanticism of rock and drug use that’s a part of it’s greatness but it’s also balanced by the meakness and melancholy of the tune and the vocals. It’s almost iresistable.
2. “Home” by Phillip Phillips (2012)
Phillip Phillips (his actual name) won American Idol back in 2012, years after we stopped watching. When this single was released, shortly after his win, I remember hearing it on the radio and thinking how it was going to be a hit. There’s something ephemeral about it, while at the same time it’s “rooted” to the building tempo and beat. It also sounds like the times, with acts like Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, and Bon Iver hitting the charts around then, too.
1. “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” by Ella Fitzgerald (1961)
Bessie Smith launched this classic jazz standard back in 1923 and through the years it’s been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Louis Prima to the great Sam Cooke. This version is from Ella’s amazing live album Ella in Hollywood, a sampling of the greatest vocalist of the 20th century while at the height of her powers.
* I don’t want to just drop that casually like it’s something I just do–writing plays, that is–for a living. It’s a pretty unique and special opportunity for me and, I might add, something for which I have no real experience. I’ll have to write about that sometime.
† The interview is by George Plimpton, “The Art of Fiction No. 119,” The Paris Review, Issue 116 (Fall 1990).