It was music that brought us together, which is funny when you consider we often have such different tastes. For instance, he thinks cranking some Tori Amos while taking a hot bubble bath is swell, while I find the very idea akin to suicide; when curling up with a good book, I like to listen to some classical lieder, an past-time he would typically describe as “poop-facey.”
Our first connection was made on Friendster. You young ‘uns won’t know anything about this, but long, long ago – before there was Facebook (yes, it’s true!) – there was a site called Friendster, which amounted to about the same thing: letting you maintain the illusion that you’re “in touch” with everyone you care about and simultaneously allowing you to seek out companionship with strangers based on what movies/music they list as liking.
“He’s a surgeon who looks like a young George Clooney but oh – I could never date a guy who likes 311 and Matrix Reloaded. Our babies would have webbed feet.”
As if the simple joy and outdated charm of that performance alone wasn't enough to make me fall head over feet for Eduard Khil, he has since been featured in another recent post, a Russian press interview, showing Khil sitting down to view his viral video along with several parodies of it added into the mix (including one starring recent Academy Award recipient Christoph Waltz as seen on Jimmy Kimmel Live!). Khil's delightful reactions to these parodies and subsequent video statement in which he addresses the people of the world to invent lyrics to the much beloved song (which, according to Khil, originally flaunted rather raunchy lyrics --- so naughty in fact that they were never published, but decidedly ditched the for trololo vocalization in hopes that the song stood a chance at being appreciated but for its melody). He then suggests that everyone choose a time to gather and synchronize (via the internet ) to sing their version of the song all together, in their own tongue, in the style of "We Are The World." Okay, so he doesn't mention "We Are The World," but of course he doesn't have to, the sentiment is there, especially as, according to Khil, the song is about returning home and, in his mind, the newfound popularity of his tune represents an eternal homecoming of sorts, and a happy one at that. Bravo Eduard Khil and Спасибо.
Digesting Khil's suggestion that the world set out to celebrate our affection for a singular melody, his melody, by independently crafting original lyrics to accompany a borrowed tune recalled to mind a sweet, bewitching song that I first heard many years ago in an elementary level Japanese class: Sakamoto Kyu's (坂本 九) sentimental hit "Ue wo Muite Arukou" or "I Walk With My Head Held High." Though introduced as a classroom exercise, I became one of many folks in that class who couldn't shake the lovely melancholy of such a tune, even if we couldn't understand everything Sakamoto-san crooned. Like the Russian "homecoming" song, the sentiment of acute longing and heartache expressed in Sakamoto's song, regardless of the presence of meaningful lyrics (and the potential inability to make sense of them), is clearly understood simply because of its perfectly crafted, jaunty-yet-melancholy melody. In fact, this song topped the U.S. Billboard charts for three weeks in 1963 under the title "Sukiyaki" (renamed because the execs at Capitol and HMV thought the original title too difficult to pronounce and/or remember). To date, Sakamoto Kyu's hit single has been the only song sung entirely in Japanese to ever top the charts in the states and it is the only Japanese song to ever enter the U.K. Billboard charts. Indeed, it must be all about that [sigh] sentimental melody.
And it's that melody that has been, for better or worse, shanghaied halfway 'round the world, the old fashioned way (that is, without knowledge of its being taken until it "arrives"), as a borrowed tune dressed in several languages, most notably as the sentimental slow jam "Sukiyaki" performed in 1981 by A Taste of Honey, the disco ensemble famous for crafting the hit dance single "Boogie Oogie Oogie." All I have to say is thank heavens they resisted suggestions to turn Sakamoto's tune into a disco jam, instead opting for turning it out as a soft-focused ballad which probably has everything to do with the song becoming Honey's final number one single of their career. Unlike Eduard Khil, however, Kyu Sakamoto cared not for the Misses Honey's take on his wistful walk-a-long hit and reportedly sued Capital Records for copyright infringement, a litigious action that pantsed those who had thought the song fruit of the public domain tree, ripe for the taking, and so plucked the tune and inanely kept the altered name "Sukiyaki."
By the way, sukiyaki (a Japanese steam-pot dish) has next to nothing to do with the original lyrics of Sakamoto's song or the romantic interpretation laid down by Honey's Janice Marie Johnson, who found that English translations of "Ue wo Muite Arukou" could be viewed three ways: as a man on his way to his execution, as someone trying to be optimistic despite life's trials, or as the story of an ended love affair (of course she opted to paint the English lyrics in the waning light of a love gone bad). My favorite quote related to the ridiculousness of naming a song for a word that is short, catchy, recognizably Japanese and familiar to English speakers comes from a Newsweek columnist who reportedly likened naming Sakamoto's song "Sukiyaki" to issuing a popular tune like "Moon River" in Japan under the title "Beef Stew," a total wah-waah.
Of course there have been other takes on the popular tune, mostly covers of A Taste of Honey's "Sukiyaki" rather than further takes on Kyu Sakamoto's crooning hit, but there's certainly nothing like the real thing. Featured below are several videos, the first being a 1963 video of Sakamoto himself walking and singing "Ue wo Muite Arukou" with his head held high ("so the tears down fall from my eyes" according to the original Japanese lyrics) followed by a live performance of "Sukiyaki" by A Taste of Honey complete with the aforementioned Johnson and bandmate Hazel Payne clad in kimonos, koto accompanyment on the song, finished with a whispered "sayonara" at the end. Then we have a 1995 version of "Sukiyaki" delivered by American R&B ensemble 4 P.M. (p.s. did they gank that set from that Heavy D & the Boys video for "Now That We Found Love" or what) and then a live version of "Sukiyaki" en Español as performed by Selena on the Johnny Canales Show.
Too often it seems those who write about music resort to whittling albums, by means of record reviews, into a pronged rod of divination in an attempt to dowse the well from which the music-makers' inspirations originated. For San Francisco folk-rock locals The Dry Spells, reviews of their debut LP Too Soon For Flowers (Empty Cellar Records) read alike in that the word "witchy" is summarily mentioned in almost every critique and comparisons to Fleetwood Mac, Espers, Citay, Fairport Convention and even Loreena McKennitt drop in abundance like heavy fruit from a burdened bough. It's easy to see the common understanding, as the Dry Spells are comprised of Citay's one-time and sometime players, though they've been at it since before Citay's inception and their esteem for rocking on traditional folk-ballads perceptibly deals in some of the same magic conjured by Espers, sure, not to mention that both bands share a cover of "Black is the Color" between them (Espers play it like a heart-sick maid pining over a years-dead lover, whereas the Dry Spells almost flaunt the tune, fleshing out into a verdant composition worthy of Willow the inkeeper's daughter on Summerisle). They also lend their trademark harmonies to a beguiling cover of "Rhiannon," arguably Fleetwood Mac's most enchanted mom-rock tune (I fancy many a mother-to-be has considered naming a girl-child after such a spirited strain as this), and I have to applaud the effort, as the Dry Spells manage to leave Stevie Nicks' leather and lace leanings intact despite weaving in their own fibrous skeins of alternating folk, rock and light-in-the-dye psyche threads; indeed, the Dry Spells craft complex song compositions not unlike heavy tapestries laden with meaning, tradition and more than a hearts-worth of woeful devotion.
I could go on along these lines of correlation, offering more aural comparisons to the Dry Spells "witchy" ways (imagine Dolores O'Riordan kidnapped by the Deal Sisters meeting a wayward Meriel Barham altogether singing Steeleye Span and the Trees while on a backwoods journey to liberate the hidden mythology of the lost city of Ys via melody and romantic lyricism), but I'll let it be in favor of the band for who they really are: Thalia Harbour (vocals/guitar/melodica/glockenspiel), April Hayley (vocals/violin/melodica), Adria Otte (guitar/vocals/violin) and Diego Gonzalez (bass/oud/viola). However, I would like to take the focus away from the more obvious sounds-likes to indulge in a little examination of what makes this record great under an entirely different lens. The perspective being that their record is, for me, almost the equivalent of a very good read of high fantasy, or at least as good as any old anthologized, oft-told yarn.
Above is the wonderful recent version of the timeless Stevie NIcks/Fleetwood Mac song "Landslide" sung by the PS22 Chorus, which is a children's choir of about sixty kids from a New York City public elementary school. Since this video was posted on YouTube yesterday (May 20) by Agreggofsociety, who works with these kids and is seen/heard playing guitar in the piece, it has gotten close to 80,000 hits. And no wonder: it is hard not to be moved by the power of these young souls pouring their hearts into the song. Their hand and facial gestures alone just grab you.
Below is Stevie Nicks with Lindsey Buckingham singing "Landslide" on the Late Show with David Letterman twelve years ago when the song appeared on the live album The Dance. The original version can be found on the band's 1975 album Fleetwood Mac and to this day remains a favorite amongst both Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks fans as well as many other artists who have covered it over the years.