Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Another electric lunch in central Virginia

Restaurant I was in today had the radio tuned to WWWV Classic Rock. Some highlights:

—This is Sherry with the Electric Lunch on 3WV, and who am I talking to?
—This is Dwayne.
—Hey, Dwayne. What are you doing today?
—I'm just at work.
—Sounds good. So what do you do?
—Eh, it's kind of hard to explain. I work at this shirt place, and I stand at the bottom of this thing and wait for them to drop the shirts down, and then I stack them, like, whether they're extra-large or large or whatever.
—Oh, OK, I get it. So it's like a chute!
—Yeah, kind of.
—Cool. So what do you want to hear for lunch today, Dwayne?
—Could you play some Nirvana?
(Cue "Smells Like Teen Spirit")

—This is Sherry with the Electric Lunch on 3WV, and who am I talking to?
—Hey, Eric. What can I do for you today?
—Hey. I was wondering if you could play a little Ted Nugent.
—I think I can do that. What's going on out there, Eric?
—Oh. Well, we're just trying to get rid of this groundhog that's living under this guy's garage.
—Wow! So, when you get the groundhog what are you going to do with him?
—We're gonna get rid of him.
—I know, but what does that mean exactly?
—We're going to dispatch him.
—So, Eric, does "dispatch him" mean that you're going to knock his head in?
—Pretty much, yeah.
—I'm kind of sorry I asked.
(Cue "Free For All")

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How Can I Be Sure Of You

Harry Nilsson just might win the pure-talent sweepstakes, and there's evidence that this would-be Sunday child was even a hard worker (at sixteen he was already writing songs and supporting himself with a bank job). His catalog offers a trove of impeccably crafted works; but, perhaps due to a restlessness that was manifested most famously by a weakness for months-long binges with depressed ex-Beatles, he only achieved a sustained perfection once in his career—on his lone great album, Nilsson Schmilsson. One of the finest records of the '70s, it's tougher than Nilsson's earlier, occasionally somewhat twee, albums, but it has a drive and a sense of fun that his later albums mostly lacked (issued, as they were, during his long and sorrily inevitable decline). I'm not trying to write an all-encompassing Nilsson piece here, so you'll have to go elsewhere to read about his childhood or the Lost Weekend or his cursed London apartment. I'm just going to write about one song.

Nilsson's label, RCA, was not always supportive of him while he was alive, but they've been nicer about him since he's been dead. When they got around to reissuing Schmilsson in 2004, they unforgivably relocated the photograph of the inside of Harry's refrigerator—possibly the best back-cover-art in the history of pop records—to the inner booklet, but otherwise they got it right: the new edition of Schmilsson, in addition to improved sound and some good notes, has valuable bonus material, including an unused track from the Schmilsson sessions that I've become a little obsessed with: "How Can I Be Sure of You." I feel that it's a top-shelf, vintage Nilsson ballad (go ahead, listen to it), and yet, somehow, I'm the only person in the world who knows about it—a situation I kind of enjoy but feel I must correct.

While it has crossed my mind that the song is addressed to Dylan, who in 1971 was in the middle of a creative free-fall that was almost as traumatic for the rock masses as the Beatles' recent breakup—and, after all, it was Bob who broke the news about the sun not being yellow ("it's chicken")—I suspect the lyric isn't so much a veiled message as simply a bit sketchy, which may be why such a gorgeous song failed to make the album. Another reason the song went onto the scrap heap may simply be that it uses a C/Cadd9 intro and Nilsson had already deployed those chords in the opening to "The Moonbeam Song." The intro to his cover of "Without You" uses a similar device (albeit in the key of E rather than C). So "How Can I Be Sure" might have been deemed one song too many with a "major chord plus its add9" introduction for one album.

As the keeper of this excellent Nilsson site pointed out to me, Harry eventually returned to the song, reworking it into "Good for God," which appeared on his 1975 album Duit on Mon Dei. Take a listen and you'll see that the earlier lyric's verses have been turned into a god-is-dead dialogue, and the "always changing" chorus has been completely jettisoned in favor of a rather stock singalong section. The performance is rushed and ragged, and, despite the delirious atmosphere, not particularly fun. What I'm saying here is, he ruined the song. These things happen. It's not the first time I was excited by a great early draft, only to be deflated by the final product.

When I said I'm the only guy in the world who even knows "How Can I Be Sure of You," I was of course exaggerating: Nilsson fans are utter diehards, and I'm sure they all turned this particular stone over long ago. But my impression of its being undiscovered isn't based on just nothing. If you Google it, information on the song is almost nonexistent; and while you'll naturally find its lyric in a few places, there isn't a single set of tabs, chords, what-have-you for the song to be had, anywhere. I have now corrected this.

The transcription below is for guitar, although this is really more of a piano number, but the chords are correct, the pianists out there can easily adapt, and this is the only place on the entire Internet where you can learn this thing. Get it now, before RCA—or Saruman the Gray or Steamboat Willie or whoever owns the rights to Nilsson's songs these days—comes after me with a cease and desist order.

How Can I Be Sure Of You
(H. Nilsson)

Intro: C / Cadd9 / C / Cadd9 / C / Cadd9

The other day a friend of mine said
He said, the sun's not really yellow
He said the sun is really red

I said, My friend what do you mean?
You read that in some magazine
Next thing you'll say the earth's not green

e -----------------
b ----------------
g ----------------
d ----------0-1--
a -- 0-2-3------
e 3--------------

[notes above]----------E-------E7
How can I be sure of you any more
In a world that's always changing
Re - arranging
Always changing, changing

e 3-1-0----
b ------3-1
g ----------
d ----------
a ----------
e ----------
[landing on intro's C chord]

I said, My friend how do you do
And what you're saying isn't true
Next thing you'll say the earth is blue

He said, My friend you're in a dream
And things are never what they seem
No, things are never what they seem

Repeat chorus (How can I be...)