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For my last column from New Jersey last week I chose to recognize my time there by featuring Madeline Bell, who is a native of Newark, the state’s largest city. Now that I’m back in Rhode Island it only seems fair to feature an artist from this state’s largest city, Providence. Freddie Scott was last featured in this column back in 2011 with his epic hit single, “Hey Girl.” But that was not Scott’s only hit, and this week I’m going to take a look at a record that came out in 1966, three years after “Hey Girl,” and was an even bigger hit, at least on the R&B chart.

I’m not going to lie to you, I’m exhausted. Last weekend’s Newport Folk Festival was a whirlwind of great music, but the festival also requires a lot of moving around from stage to stage if you’re going to try to experience the whole thing. After three days of non-stop music my ears, and my feet are tired, in a good way. Look for my coverage of the Folk Festival here at Popdose soon.

There is no rest for the weary though, as this weekend brings the Newport Jazz Festival to town. It’s the 60th anniversary of the venerable festival, qualifying it as the oldest popular music festival in the world. Back in 1954 there were classical music festivals, but no such thing a rock festival, or a jazz festival. It took the far reaching vision of George Wein to make such a festival a reality. Now there are festivals everywhere you look, and I think we’re all the better for it.

Pink Floyd’s The Wall is being released February 27 in an expanded Immersion Edition that charts the development of this landmark release. To mark the occasion, we take a close look at the album’s most enduring song.

“Comfortably Numb” is more than just a great song, more even than Pink Floyd’s final great achievement. It is the culmination of the fitful and often antagonistic partnership between Roger Waters, the band’s lyricist and creative visionary, and David Gilmour, its primary singer, lead guitarist and most accomplished musical technician. Never close friends, the two men had grown increasingly embattled as Pink Floyd ascended the pyramid of rock megastardom. “Comfortably Numb” marked the last occasion of artistic accord between them, an unlikely flowering of beauty that melded their complimentary gifts as no Pink Floyd song ever had.

For all the rancor they would unleash toward each other, neither man ever lost his affection for this song. Like a child of divorced parents, it would go on to live under a kind of dual custody; one writer has claimed, and I can’t gainsay it, that Gilmour and Waters have played “Comfortably Numb” at every single concert each has performed since the song was released. In that sense, there is nothing quite like it in the rock and roll canon; imagine if Lennon and McCartney had both insisted on playing “We Can Work It Out” at every one of their solo performances. The history of “Comfortably Numb” is like a fossil record detailing the last decade of Pink Floyd and beyond, with each permutation reflecting the essence of its creators and highlighting each man’s strengths and weaknesses.

Despite its climactic position at the end of Side 3 of The Wall, “Comfortably Numb” was actually conceived before the album was written, and it had no place in the song cycle as originally roughed out by Roger Waters in 1978. The song began as a wordless demo recorded by David Gilmour for his 1977, self-titled solo album. While missing some elements — lyrics, for a start — it is still recognizable, and there is undeniably the seed of something beautiful here:

David Gilmour, Home Demo (1977)

Gilmour has said that he “ran out of time” before he could finish the piece for his album, but my guess is that this is a face-saving way of admitting that he sat on the song, knowing he wouldn’t be able to complete it satisfactorily on his own — and knowing who he could turn to for help. Gilmour has been candid about his lack of self-confidence as a songwriter and lyricist, which kept him from contributing to Pink Floyd on equal footing with the domineering Waters. Yet whatever Gilmour may have thought of Roger Waters as a person, the bassist had shown skill and great generosity in transforming Gilmour’s musical sketches into fully conceived, moving songs: “Wish You Were Here” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” both owe their existence to Gilmour guitar phrases that Waters made a point of building upon and completing — often seeing in them more potential than the guitarist himself.

Accounts differ — this is Pink Floyd we’re talking about — as to how keen Waters was to incorporate “Comfortably Numb” into The Wall. Waters, irked by his colleagues’ claims that he shut them out of the creative process, said recently that “I was desperate for [the other band members] to write, always, always, always.” Bob Ezrin, co-producer of The Wall, remembers, “At first Roger had not planned to include any of Dave’s material […] I fought for this song and insisted that Roger work on it.“ Whether Waters leapt or was pushed into working on “The Doctor,” as it was known at this stage, his first pass at the lyric sounds like a piss-take on Bob Dylan, with a suitably hammy vocal on this later demo:

Pink Floyd, Band Demo (1978)

Waters also asked Gilmour for some extra bars to accommodate the chorus he had written. The climactic melody Gilmour came up with gave the song its identity, and “The Doctor” was henceforth known as “Comfortably Numb.”

Apart from the odd lyrics (which, in fairness to Waters, may have simply been filler and never intended for the finished song) and the lack of a second chorus, the main point of difference between this version and the finished studio production is the rougher, more ragged accompaniment to the verses. Gilmour preferred this guitar-heavy approach, while Waters and Ezrin favored a cleaner orchestral arrangement. This difference of opinion escalated into one of the most heated and notorious arguments in the Pink Floyd saga, with Gilmour and Waters eventually reduced to shouting at each other over appetizers in an L.A. restaurant. Gilmour lost, and “Comfortably Numb” was recorded as Ezrin and Waters wanted it. (Though this by no means settled the issue for Gilmour, as we will see shortly.)

In its finished state, “Comfortably Numb” is Pink Floyd’s “A Day in the Life” — the song on which the band’s two chief creative forces came together at their absolute best. Gilmour’s chord progression is simple and effective in classic Floydian manner: a B-minor verse alternating with a D major chorus, each section acting as the distorted mirror image of the other. Singing as the doctor, Waters is all oily charm, his cajoling manner hiding an icy professional (“I do believe it’s working. Good!”) only interested in propping up the battered Pink for one more performance. Gilmour’s section depicts Pink at his most childlike and vulnerable; you can hear the voice of the pleading child in the melody itself. Waters and Gilmour had shared vocal duties on songs before, but never had the contrast between their voices been put to such powerful and dramatic effect. (It is telling that neither man ever attempted to sing the song entirely by himself.)

And then there are the guitar solos.

If you bothered to read this piece at all, you probably take at least a casual pleasure in David Gilmour’s guitar playing. And if you’ve read this far, it’s just possible that those signature high, pealing notes do something to you that no other player quite manages. Lots of guitarists of all stripes have a style; Gilmour is the rare player who has a voice, as expressive in its wordless way as Roger Waters’ most expansive lyrics. I actually find the first solo better — or at any rate more satisfying — than the show-stopping final one, not just for its economy but for the emotional high it delivers. The comfortable numbness into which Pink escapes in the first chorus is warm and welcoming, even rapturous, and Gilmour’s phrases are feather-light and flow effortlessly from one to the other. (For all the times Gilmour has played “Comfortably Numb” live, he never alters a note of this solo.) On the extended coda, he plays over the minor chords of the chorus, and the effect is much more unsettling. Phrases sputter to life and drop away, or jostle against each other brusquely. In keeping with its thematic role in the song, the solo has no clear shape; it is more of a sequence of utterances, short primal bursts of pain and confusion that hearken back to Gilmour’s signature work on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” This is even more the case on this version, recorded during a live performance of The Wall (skip to 5:20 if you just want to hear the solo, and note that the video footage is taken from a different performance):


Pink Floyd, Live in Concert (1982)

“Comfortably Numb” proved to be the final peak of inspiration for Pink Floyd. With founding keyboardist Richard Wright thrown out of the band by Waters, the three remaining members convened for one last album, the entirely Waters-driven The Final Cut, before all concerned acknowledged that Pink Floyd could not endure in its present form. In 1985, Roger Waters formally informed Pink Floyd’s record label that he was leaving the band, which he described publicly as “a spent force,” and one which he had every expectation would promptly lapse into dignified retirement. David Gilmour had other ideas.

35 years ago tomorrow, one of the most important events in the history of rock and roll took place at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. It was on that Thanksgiving night that Bill Graham presented the Band in what was to be their farewell concert appearance, and they in turn brought along a lot of friends who had played a part in their career.

Fortunately, it wasn’t only musical friends who were there that night. Director Martin Scorcese was there too, and his film of the concert, along with three-disc soundtrack album, insured that the unforgettable evening would be experienced by millions of fans worldwide.

Musical guests that night included Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Bobby Charles, Ringo Starr, and Neil Young. But the indisputable highlight for me was the performance of Van Morrison, accompanied by the Band, on his song “Caravan”. It was a perfect example of how a passionate live performance can lift an already great song to another level.

Wish me luck: The Holy Grail! (and don’t poach it from me).

Seems fitting that I’m still in M when that record shows up. Here’s the final week of the 13th letter of the alphabet as we look at the Billboard rock charts in the eighties.

The Moody Blues
“22,000 Days” 1981, #38 (download)
“Meanwhile” 1981, #11 (download)
“Here Comes the Weekend” 1988, #50 (download)

The Moody Blues was a group that I grew to like due in part to my collection. My Mom always liked them and a lot of her taste passed off onto me very early (Queen, Chic, Patrick Hernandez, KC and the Sunshine Band) but the Moody Blues didn’t make the cut for some reason. As I started collecting and even more so these days, I started loving “Gemini Dream” and that made me go back and dig into their ‘80s albums at least and I found that their early ‘80s work was pretty damn great. Long Distance Voyager is a pretty brilliant record thanks in part to “Gemini Dream” but “22,000 Days” and “Meanwhile” are awesome as well.

“Here Comes the Weekend” is a fun track, though I definitely wouldn’t put it up against any of their more popular tunes. Sur La Mer is an album that very much sounds like 1988 but I like it less and less the more I like earlier works.

Gary Moore
“Don’t Take Me For A Loser” 1983, #31 (download)
“Over the Hills and Far Away” 1987, #24 (download)
“Ready For Love” 1989, #13 (download)

If you know Gary Moore for anything outside of his solo work it would be for his two brief stints in Thin Lizzy in the ‘70s but for the most part he was a solo artist. His albums wouldn’t generate too much in the way of hits and his biggest success was after this decade with his bluesy rock record in 1990 called Still Got the Blues.

“Don’t Take Me For A Loser” is from Corridors of Power which is probably his best record of the decade. I like “Ready For Love” the best of all his singles but there’s a track on that album (After the War) called “Led Clones” that’s sung by Ozzy and makes fun of bands like Kingdom Come that sounded just like Zeppelin. That’s the one track I will always remember from Gary Moore.

Hey Hey JulieTwo years ago, when I was working on this column’s debut, I wrote about Bruce Springsteen’s “Book of Dreams” and what the song means to Julie and me. During the first month of our courtship I created my first mixtape for her, entitled HEY, HEY, JULIE! On that tape was the Springsteen song, one that’s grown to have profound meaning in our relationship.

We began dating in August of 1992, and soon thereafter, I threw this tape together in a flurry of inspiration, wanting to give Julie something that came from my heart. I don’t recall the actual minutes spent in my parents’ basement picking the songs or laying them down on a Maxell cassette (my brand of choice), but looking back on the list of songs, I’m happy to see they still add up to 90 quailty minutes of music.

Before Nick Hornby wonderfully wrote about what makes a good mixtape in High Fidelity, I assembled exactly the right combination of hip, well known and somewhat obscure songs from my small music collection. Combining big hits like “Learning to Fly,” “What I Am,” and “All This Time” with lesser-known songs by popular artists such as “Until the End of the World,” “Shining Star,” and “Getting to Know You,” while tossing in some hard to find (at the time) songs like “Baby Mine” and “Wild Night” made this tape eclectic, but still enjoyable to listen to and quite accessible.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL MIX HERE

Booyakisha!  This week’s mix is about a season that seems to get very little love in the world of song.  And before you run to the comment section and say: “Hey Ted, don’t you know that autumn started last month?” I should remind you that yours truly lives in the Golden State of California, and we get days that top out in the 90-100 degree range right up until the end of October.  But sometimes the weather turns to autumn early (like it did last week) where the leaves fall, the air feels a bit different (in California it’s a very subtle difference), and the smell of fires burning in the fireplace is prevalent. Okay, are you in an autumn mood? Then let’s get going with this week’s mix!


“September in Seattle,” Shawn Mullins
(Download)

Full disclosure: I have a tough time warming up to artists whose songs I used to play over and over when I was working in radio.  Mullins’ “Lullaby” was one of those songs that never went away where I worked, and when I started hunting for autumn-themed songs, I was a bit leery about including this song — ’cause, you know, I’m kind of allergic to Shawn Mullins’ music.  However, I got over my prejudices (and allergy) pretty quickly, and found that this tune to be quite the charmer.

Alkaline Trio, Agony & Irony (Epic)
purchase this album (Amazon)

These Chicago-bred emo pioneers have been gradually sanding down the rough edges of their sound for years — and with their Epic debut, a glossy sheen is officially all that remains. Longtime fans are already grousing about Agony & Irony, but the album’s FM-ready sound is already yielding dividends for the band: Alkaline Trio was featured on an episode of The Hills in May. That won’t be of much comfort to those pissed-off purists, but it should give a pretty big boost to the band members’ bank statements. By their next album, their transformation into the emo version of the Goo Goo Dolls should be complete; in the meantime, they should get a semi-credible hit or two out of Lit-esque tracks like “Love Love Kiss Kiss.” (MySpace)

James Brown, Gravity (Volcano)
purchase this album (Amazon)

Not James’ finest hour, to be certain — but it does contain his last major Top 40 hit, the Rocky IV soundtrack anthem “Living in America,” and it probably represents his last more or less consistent album. It’s hard to decide which is more surprising: That Gravity was out of print, or that Volcano — the imprint that once was Scotti Brothers — is still in business. Those Survivor and “Weird Al” Yankovic royalties must be more lucrative than anyone could have imagined…

John Coltrane, Dakar (Prestige)
purchase this album (Amazon)

One of Coltrane’s earliest albums gets the Prestige reissue treatment here — no bonus tracks, but it’s remastered, and considering that these sessions were recorded in 1957, the difference is probably noticeable, to say the least. Coltrane’s foils for Dakar are Cecil Payne, Pepper Adams, Mal Waldron, Doug Watkins, and Art Taylor — and though Adams and Waldron contribute some solid songs, this isn’t one of Coltrane’s essential releases (check out the way his solo trips and falls down a flight of stairs on “Witches’ Pit”). For completists and jazz fanatics only.