In 1969, I passed up an opportunity to attend a music festival in New York State. It seemed too far to travel in an old beat up station wagon to see bands perform in the hot summer weather.
Later that fall, my friends and I travelled to downtown Pittsburgh via public bus, as we did often, to hang out and visit some of our favorite stores which included National Record Mart. We loved sifting through the newest albums by artists we heard on what was considered “underground” radio on an increasingly popular FM station.
That day at the Record Mart, my friend Michael and I debated about whether or not to purchase an album recorded by a new band that performed at the little concert I missed in August. I heard their pulsating Latin rock song “Jingo” on the radio, and hoped there might be more of the same on the LP. The artwork on the cover lured me in as well. Neither of us had enough money to buy the album so we split the cost and bought it together.
Back in our neighborhood, we all went to a friend’s house to listen to our new purchases. First up was side one of our choice pick, Santana’s debut album. Frankly, I was blown away! I couldn’t believe the shear energy and pulsating beats that seemed to match my own high energy personality. After we finished side one, Michael turned to me, stated that he hated it, didn’t want to listen to side two, and I could have it.
Well, I still own that album Carlos. It’s not in very good shape anymore since I literally wore it out playing it over and over again in my black lit bedroom, replete with glowing posters and burning incense.
I listened to plenty of rock n roll back then. My mother exposed me to ‘50s rock n roll in the early ‘60s, on nights my father wasn’t home. Then there was the British invasion lead by my beloved Beatles. But this was different. Your sweet guitar playing had me mesmerized—my mind absorbed the notes you so elegantly and precisely played—while the percussion kept my heartbeat at a rate that intoxicated my body.
I found music that touched me in a way no other had. At a time when my home life was filled with strife and misery, I stumbled on an artist that could help me endure and keep my head straight when I needed an interlude from my surrounding life. Following that first album came four more that I bought, listened to and wore out as I had the first.
After that, my life became busier and more complicated as I graduated college, began a career, married and started a family. Some of the albums became eight track tapes played in a device mounted under the seat of my Volkswagen Beetle and, after that, cassettes in my van. Of all the music I listened to, it was your albums that I first purchased in the latest technology so I could listen to them as best as they could sound. They accompanied me from one state to another via car or plane so I could listen to them whenever I needed a mental boost or simply wanted to hear some comfort music. I have listened to all of your other albums, including the more recent collaborations, and enjoy them as well.
Over the years I’ve listened to plenty of other music, and tend to judge albums by how many of their songs I truly enjoy. There have been a scant few that I enjoy 100%, and your earlier albums make the list. After all these years I still listen to them, now on an iPod. In fact, today I listened to Abraxis while taking a jog.
By the way, I have only had the pleasure of witnessing you perform live once. I brought my wife to see you at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. At the time, she listened to the Eagles, James Taylor, Van Morrison and similar artists, but went with me anyway (I think) just to keep me company. Before you began, I explained to her that if she wanted to better understand my infatuation with your music, to try to focus on your guitar playing while the rest of the music fills in as background. Guest what? Two songs into it, she looked at me and the only thing she said was “Wow!”
Carlos Santana, your music has helped me through the harder times of my life and inspired me during the most wonderful times of my life. Thank you for being there for me.
As all “good” music obsessives know, there are many, many factors that cause a song to really resonate with a listener. If we can momentarily suspend the fact that any given song will or will not appeal to any given listener based off of a myriad of human factors which are too amorphous and varied to even attempt to quantify such as; life experiences, quality of hearing, interest in particular topics or themes, recording quality preferences, size of ear holes, etc. etc. etc. then for the sake of this letter please just allow me to focus on two factors, the song writing and the recording.
This letter is addressed to the song writer (Leon Russell) and the performer (Karen Carpenter) of one version of “A Song For You.”
The Carpenters: A Song For You
Those of us who voraciously devour music know that sometimes amazing songs are written but that often recordings and/or artists are fallible which results in the recorded version of a song somehow just missing the mark. Conversely, sometimes the actual song writing quality is questionable but with cool production tricks it suddenly morphs into something really great (think songs being played on Top 40 radio at any given moment in any given decade). “A Song For You” as covered by The Carpenters is, in my opinion, a grand slam, because the recording/performance is so beautiful (dare I say perfect?) and the songwriting is so strong. With no further musical nerdiness, here is my letter to Karen and Leon.
I am so embarrassed. I didn’t know who you were until I listened to “A Song for You” and then read the liner notes. I’m so ashamed because as someone who has been obsessed with music since childhood, and particularly older, less modern, music it seems that I most certainly should have known about you. Oh! But! Leon! I bet you already know this, but this is one of the joys of being obsessed with music. You can constantly discover new artists, who actually aren’t new at all.
So, now I know who you are, and you can’t escape me. I have yet to delve into your recordings or discography because The Carpenter’s cover of your song “A Song for You” has been more than enough as of right now.
When I talk about music with people who really like to talk about music I have certain preferred topics that I believe never get old. One of these topics is the concept that if a person writes one good song in their lifetime that this might be enough. Maybe not enough for them personally as an artist, but enough in terms of contribution to the world. I’m sorry to even have to write this next line Leon, because clearly you already get this, but there are other people who will be reading this letter so forgive me. MUSIC IS POWER. One song, one recording can have so much impact. I truly believe this. And again, I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but once a song is recorded and distributed there is no limit to what it can do. In some way, songs are like viruses, they could lie dormant and undiscovered for years, but once they are revealed there is no controlling the impact they might have.
We are so lucky to live during the age of recorded sound Leon! Do you agree?
Ok, I need to focus here. I don’t want to waste too many words on the glories of recorded sound (save that for another letter). I want to acknowledge to you that I am blown away when I think about the art of being a song writer. I like to imagine song writers as conduits for THAT SOMETHING that is transcendent and bigger than all of us puny humans. When it comes to serving as a dowsing rod for that unspoken/unseen magic in the world, you’re a darn good one Leon!
I feel both envious of and sorry for the person you were focusing on when you wrote “A Song for You.” The lyrics are so honest, a real heart snatcher. If I imagine I’m the focus of the song I don’t know if I can even tolerate listening to it. Too many feelings! You manage to capture a combination of self-deprecation, nostalgia, regret, indebtedness, love, an acknowledgement that life is time limited, and the experience of being in the moment/connected to someone else in less than 200 words. How Leon?!?!?!? This is magic Leon!!!!
I’m going to reign in my wonderment for the sake of sanity and trying to be succinct.
You did it Leon. Per my perception, you wrote a song that would win a gold medal if writing songs was an Olympic sport. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but you cracked the door between the mundane human world and transcendence.
I’m in awe, and I thank you.
I’ve been interested in you as a person and have enjoyed your music since the age of 10. You see, in 1989 they released a made-for-TV movie about you called The Karen Carpenter Story and I watched it with my family.
I don’t remember full details of the plot, but I do remember the feelings I experienced during and after the movie. Per the events depicted in this film (and perpetuated in popular culture) your story is tragic. Here is someone young, talented, and driven who has one of the world’s best singing voices and yet she cannot accept herself. This lack of acceptance manifests as an eating disorder which eventually kills you. Sad, sad, heartbreakingly flawed human stuff here. We want you to be as perfect as your voice. Maybe you wanted to be as perfect as your voice too? Did you even know how good you were? But, you’re a human and therefore you can’t be perfect and therefore you’ve got a level of darkness that eventually takes that voice away. There are certain moments in the lives of those of us who ravenously consume music, movies, art, and other pop culture that are light bulb moments. Seeing your story was one of these for me. At 10 I began to realize that you could be supremely gifted and successful but that didn’t mean what people saw on the outside matched what was going on the inside. I was shocked. You, and your story, broke my heart even though you had already been dead for 6 years when I first learned about you.
Well Karen, your capacity for heartbreak is, ironically, still alive and kicking some 27 years later. This summer I bought your album “A Song for You” on LP for 50 cents at a used media sale. Side one, track one is the title track and oh, it’s a killer! I almost hesitate to say this out loud, for fear that it sounds melodramatic, but I want to be honest with you Karen. You deserve honesty. When I heard this song it was a good thing that I was laying down on my couch because otherwise I feel like I might have fallen down. There are so many things that make it good. The production, the studio musicians playing on the track, the song progression, the lyrics, but the best part of course is you, or to be more specific, your voice. Smooth, sad, and in this particular case there is a tone (maybe real, maybe imagined on my part) of presage. There is something about your annunciation on the line, “And when my life is over, remember when we were together,” that is too much to take. The sound is beautiful, the sentiment is nostalgic, but the feeling…goosebumps.
I will tell you that I’m really sad that you’re gone, but that’s also just me being selfish, wanting more of a good thing. I will also tell you that I am so happy that you ever existed. Not only that, but you existed at a time when recording sound was possible. What if you had been around pre-recording technology? Your voice would have been heard by so many less people, if any at all, and that would be a crime. Furthermore, you were recording music post-Les Paul which meant that your brother was able to use the technique of overdubbing to really capture and highlight the beauty of your voice.
Anyway, I’ve been really obsessed with “A Song for You” for the past couple of months. I think it might be one of the best songs ever written/recorded. I cry a little bit every time I hear it. When I’m in the car I listen to it via YouTube, but I have to be careful because it can be dangerous to drive and cry at the same time. I’m trying not to wear it out because it feels so powerful and I’m trying to sustain the experience of feeling those feelings in a controlled way.
Music is so powerful Karen. You were an amazing conduit. One of the best.
The Monkees should have been inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame years ago. I don’t care if you think the Hall of Fame is a joke, mismanaged, bloated, a blight on the good name of Cleveland, and/or a glorified Hard Rock Cafe with worse food. I support the idea of rock ‘n’ roll honoring its own, and there is a long list of artists that I think are long overdue for such recognition. To my mind, The Monkees are The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s most egregious omission to date.
For years, I’ve said that The Monkees would never be inducted, even though they richly deserve that honor. But I dunno. I’m starting to wonder if it may be possible. I’m starting to believe. And so I imagine what I would say if I were inducting The Monkees into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I’m a believer.
Doesn’t it feel good to say that? Doesn’t it feel good to acknowledge that giddy feeling of joy that wells up within you when you hear a terrific, transcendent pop song on the radio? Isn’t it great to let the music fill you with that grand, unspoken sensation of freedom, to turn the volume up as loud as you can, and just sing along, even if you don’t really know all the words? Your troubles don’t vanish; your cares won’t slip away; your work still has to be done, your heart still requires mending, and your body and soul still shudder from the unnamed ache that never quite surrenders its grip. But for approximately two minutes and twenty-nine seconds, you are able to transcend much of what’s wrong in the world.
Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith. I was six years old when The Monkees debuted on the charts and TV screens in 1966, with a # 1 hit single called “Last Train To Clarksville” and a vibrant weekly NBC-TV show at 7:30pm (6:30pm Central time). I didn’t know they weren’t cool. Because, obviously, they were cool: they were like a magic, irresistible combination of Batman and The Beatles—and really, in the ’60s, what could be cooler than that?
Of course, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wasn’t created to validate the tastes of clueless six-year-old suburban kids. That’s fair. The Hall of Fame is a celebration of rock ‘n’ roll music, an embrace of its history and the people who made it happen. It’s a tribute to the power of that music, to rock’s ability to express and embody rebellion, to break down barriers, to inspire, to transcend, to elevate, to unite. It’s about more than catchy pop songs, more than a manufactured image, more than photogenic faces on the cover of a teen magazine. It means something. It matters.
But you wanna know something? It turns out The Monkees somehow did all of that. The Monkees rebelled. The Monkees broke down barriers. The Monkees inspired, transcended, elevated, united. The Monkees mean something. The Monkees matter. This shouldn’t be true—this was supposed to be soundtrack music for a TV sitcom, for God’s sake—but the evidence is there, and it’s been there from the start. The evidence will make a believer out of you, too.
The Monkees’ popularity is indisputable fact: # 1 singles, # 1 albums, the best-selling musical act of 1967, famously outselling The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined. The Monkees’ recordings have remained radio staples for five decades and show no sign of ever fading away. Reruns of the TV series have continually renewed the group’s fan base, as new generations of fans have discovered the enduring appeal of four guys walking down the street, getting the funniest looks from everyone they meet. The Monkees charted again, with both old and new recordings, in 1986. The Monkees charted yet again in 2016 with a fantastic new album, Good Times!. Their live shows have continued to draw crowds and earn rave reviews. People like The Monkees.
But popularity alone does not make an act worthy of induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; there are dozens and dozens of mega-selling pop entities that will never be considered Hall of Fame material, and rightly so. But The Monkees were also influential. More than any other act—even more than The Beatles—The Monkees brought the burgeoning ’60s counter-culture into everyday American living rooms, via their weekly TV showcase. They had long hair. They brandished peace symbols.
Timothy Leary called The Monkees TV series “a classic Sufi put on. An early-Christian electronic satire. A mystic magic show. A jolly Buddha laugh at hypocrisy.” John Lennon called The Monkees “the greatest comic talent since The Marx Brothers,” and said he never missed a show. As lead singer for The Stone Poneys, Hall of Famer Linda Ronstadt had her very first hit with a Michael Nesmith composition, “Different Drum.” Hall of Famers Run-D.M.C. and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band both recorded Nesmith’s “Mary, Mary.” Hall of Famers The Sex Pistols covered “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.” Hall of Famer Elvis Costello has praised The Monkees, and Michael Stipe of Hall of Famers R.E.M. has specifically cited The Monkees as a key influence. Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Frank Zappa, and George Harrison have all publicly defended The Monkees against naysayers. That ain’t bad for a group that claimed to be a manufactured image, with no philosophies.
I’m a believer.
Belief sustains us, even when everyone says we’re wrong. Music comforts us, when much of life may seems uncertain and perilous. Love, hope, and friendship encourage us, when our senses and surroundings insist there’s little of substance left to grasp and hold fast. We are saved by our friends, our hope, our love, our music; we are saved by our belief.
The music of The Monkees has been my friend for over fifty years. As a six-year-old kid infatuated with these fun-loving characters on my TV screen; as a preteen learning about comedy (and training for eventual Marx Brothers worship) via Monkees reruns on Saturday mornings; as a teen falling hard, well after the fact, for The Monkees’ music in the ’70s; as a young punk rocker in the ’70s and early ’80s, eager to defend The Monkees on all fronts; as a record store manager in 1986, mentoring the new, young Monkees fans that MTV had brought through our doors; as a pop journalist, who has written more about The Monkees than I’ve written about any other subject; and as an unrepentant, unapologetic fan, I know how much The Monkees have always meant to me. Whatever man I am, whatever person I try to be, watching The Monkees, and listening to The Monkees, is an essential part of me. The delight and wonder that The Monkees’ sunshine factory has brought into my world—into this world, our own world—is beyond measure. With my fools’ gold stacked up all around me, in rows of houses that are all the same, as good times start and end, and we have to do this all over again: we’ll make up our story as we go along. I have no more than I did before, but now I’ve got all that I need.
Micky. Davy. Peter. Michael.
Weren’t they good? They made me happy. I’m a believer. I welcome you as a believer, too. And, at long last, we finally welcome The Monkees to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This excerpt is from the music blog Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do) run by Carl Cafarelli, a pop journalist who co-hosts THIS IS ROCK ‘N’ ROLL RADIO with Dana Bonn (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern). As a freelance writer, he contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986–2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records’ compilation CD Poptopia! Power Pop Classics Of The ’90s (along with several other albums) and has contributed to numerous books about music. His standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation remains criminally ignored.
Porpoise Song (Theme from “Head”)
Early Morning Blues and Greens
Me & Magdalena (Written for the Monkees by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie)
Is it ok to call you “dearest”? I feel like I can talk to you like that.
I have a surprisingly high number of regrets regarding the music I played at my wedding, but I am most sad I let my husband talk me out of playing “Sandcastle Disco,” because it didn’t smash as hard as “The Rat” or “Crazy in Love.” Maybe it was the chorus—”Baby I know you do that to all the girls/you know that I’m fragile/baby don’t blow me away.” In any case, I applaud you for putting out such a catchy song that hooked me and strung me along for years until you released “Losing You,” the first single from your triumphant, genre-leaping EP, True.
Every song you put out around that time was perfect, from “Sleep in the Park,” the b-side to “Losing You,” to the Jimmy Johns-referencing “Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work,” but it is “Losing You” that I hold closest to my heart.
At first listen, there’s not much to the song: a sampled “Wow!,” good beats, and the repetitive lyrics (“Tell me the truth boy/am I losing you for good”). But it SWELLS and gains momentum. The beat drops around 2’35” and shortly after is my favorite part: when you sing the chorus and underneath you plead “Baby you know I tried/Can’t lose you from my life.” And the lyric, “We used to kiss all night but now there’s just no use?” UGH, the intimacy and sadness of it all just hits me.
When “Losing You” first came out, it was all I listened to. I even wrote a blog post about it. At work, I would put the video on one screen while I clicked away on the other. I told friends and strangers about how much more talented you are than your sister; “She likes indie rock! She covers a Dirty Projectors song!” I’d tell them.
The pairing of you and Dev Hynes, who cowrote and coproduced the song, is a magical one. The two of you were able to create a sound very unique to you, that is an extension of your style and influences. I would also like to thank you for re-introducing me to Hynes, as I have very much enjoyed his work as Lightspeed Champion and especially Blood Orange over the past few years.
And the video! Filmed in South Africa, it is filled with the brightest colors, the most beautiful local scenery and the most fabulously dressed people. You and your friends seem just-out-of-reach hip.
I have tried for years to emulate the pattern-mixing you perfected in the “Losing You” video, but my budget is more clearance Banana Republic than Suno and Kenzo, so I just looked like a very confused chubby schoolteacher.
In 2013, my friend Hilary won tickets to the Sweetlife Festival in DC. She led with, “Do you want to see Solange on Saturday?” realizing I was still hurt I couldn’t go to your 9:30 Club show a few weeks prior. The weather was so weird that day in May: rainy, humid, chilly and hot all at once. Because we are in our thirties, we drank a few craft beers (mostly to hide in the shade), slathered on some sun screen to prevent premature wrinkles, and then headed to the lawn to watch you.
When you played “Losing You,” my friends and I were dancing like the Solange fans we all are. We danced like we didn’t give a shit, which was absolutely true, because we were feeling it. Shortly after I noticed the lawn was full of kids at least 10 years younger than us, all chugging Lime-A-Ritas, and they barely acknowledged THE QUEEN that was performing in front of them. Maybe they were embarrassed to dance around their really cool friends who encouraged them to drink citrus-flavored malt beverages, wear high-waisted shorts that created insane camel toe, and spend $100 on tickets to basically have a boozy lawn party. In any case, your performance was as delightful and fun as something could be at 2 in the afternoon.
I know you have finished your new record and I am really excited to hear it, especially now that you and Dev have made up. I’m not saying you should have “Losing You II” on it, but it wouldn’t hurt. Also, please feel free to book a show in my town. I will be there at least!