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Songs in the Key of Life

Friday, June 26, 2015

A PARDNER sent me a photo most people have seen on Facebook: the sign in the music shop reading, “Customers trying out guitars are not under any circumstances whatever to play ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ or ‘Hotel California.’ It’s funny, but it got me thinking about the phenomenon underpinning the joke: these songs are so huge that most of the billion-plus people on Facebook will catch; what a thing it must be, to have written one of those songs: it’s like your child being Lionel Messi or Malala Yousafzai.

How must Jimmy Page & Robert Plant, or Axl Rose & Slash, or Don Henley, Don Felder & Glenn Frey feel? Can Paul McCartney afford to ponder that his composition, ‘Yesterday,’  is the most covered song in history? Can the minds and souls that generated such works truly comprehend their reach? In July 1989, a quarter of a century ago, on a reservation in a backwater in New Mexico, I watched a band of Pueblo Indians, bodies painted black-and-white, heads shaved into long, spiky Mohawks, eyes blocked out like skulls, doing a terrifying war dance – to the tune of Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot the Sherriff.’

If I could sing a note, I wouldn't write one. At its very worst stages, my life has been saved by a great book – Miguel Street, The Catcher in the Rye, A Tale of Two Cities, The Stranger, Catch-22, Nausea, To Kill a Mockingbird, Crime and Punishment, Invisible Man, Heart of Darkness, 1984, The Red and the Black, The Old Man and the Sea, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Invention of Solitude, The Bell Jar, Love in the Time of Cholera, Lord of the Flies, Midnight’s Children, Brave New World, Tropic of Cancer, Disgrace, USA, Immortality, The Winter of Our Discontent, Things Fall Apart, Malone Dies, Far Tortuga, Steppenwolf, Waiting for Godot, Absalom, Absalom! – but music has saved my life more often, more swiftly and more completely.

On my bleakest of days, when my eyes rebel at the thought of taking in words on a page, my ears open a direct route to a soul yearning for comfort. In the seven minutes of “Born Under a Bad Sign” or “Third Stone from the Sun,” Jimi Hendrix plays every note I’ve ever needed to bring me back from the edge of despair.

My children, La Diablesse them, are readers and are likely, in time, to love every book above – they’ve already read a couple – but they tease me whenever I tell them a particular song is “one of my Top 25;” I have apparently played them a few hundred songs in my Top 25.

So, not wanting to count Trinidad’s miseries and disappointments today – and they include most of our exemplars and all of our institutions – I thought I’d actually set down my Top 25 songs. It’s a purely objective list and many people will not recognise some but, in the Internet Age, they’re one click and .375 seconds away.

So, in ascending order of their importance to me, here are the top 25 songs that never fail to bring me from wretchedness to joy, with thanks to their composers, to whom I pay the ultimate compliment: how I wish I’d written them myself (even if I prefer some cover versions).

I’ve disallowed instrumentals, or the two Hendrix tunes mentioned and Carlos Santana’s ‘Samba Pa Ti’ and ‘Europa’ would rank high, as would the Allman Bros ‘Jessica,’ after which I almost named my daughter, and half-a-dozen Miles Davis recordings, most notably, ‘Shh/Peaceful,’ ‘In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time’ and ‘So What.’ I’ve banned traditional songs, ensuring that what might be the most beautiful– ‘Greensleeves’ – and the most exhilarating – ‘Auld Lang Syne’ -  melodies ever written don’t make the cut. If Keith Smith were alive, I want to believe he’d approve of most selections, even if I ruled out Starlift’s cover of the Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’ and left out the Young Rascals ‘Groovin’ (on a Sunday Afternoon),’ but only if I somehow worked in a mention of the guitar pyrotechnics from the Commodore’s ‘I’m Easy (Like Sunday Morning)’ and Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck’s cover of ‘People Get Ready,’ either or both of which could start – perhaps top – a list of the 25 Best Hit Single Guitar Solos. Some of these songs seduce me into positivity, others fling me there with their opening chords.

25. School’s Out – Alice Cooper

24. Bashment to Halloween – jointpop

23. With or Without You – U2

22. Walk This Way – Aerosmith & Run DMC

21. Shift Yuh Carcass – Shadow

20. Sitting on the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding

19. Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand – Primitive Radio Gods

18. Sounds of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel

17. La Bamba – Ritchie Valens

16. Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong

15. Unchained Melody – the Righteous Brothers

14. Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin

13. Hooked on a Feelin’ – Blue Swede

12. Rocket Man – Elton John/Bernie Taupin

11. Could You Be Loved? – Bob Marley & the Wailers

10. Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns ‘N’ Roses

9. Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan

8. Crash Into Me – the Dave Matthews Band

7. Brown-Eyed Girl – Van Morrison

6. Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) – Jimi Hendrix

5. Let It Be – the Beatles

4. Have You Ever Seen the Rain? – Credence Clearwater Revival

3. Satisfaction – the Rolling Stones

2. Hey Jude – the Beatles

1. Calypso Music – David Rudder

BC Pires is kicking himself for not including any Kitch, Sky, Floyd, Howling Wolf, Sparrow, Dexy’s, MJ, Deep Purple, Stevie by two (Ray Vaughan and Wonder), ZZ Top, Winter by two (Johnny and Edgar) Buddy Guy (Mustang Sally!) or the Who – but at least there’s no firetrucking Coldplay.


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