A Song or Two……or Maybe Three

‘Songs will never work unless they do not lift us all together, however briefly, before we, once again, spill out into the night.’ –  Mark Seymour

And he should know! With his band, Hunters and Collectors, Seymour has been responsible for some of the classic tunes of the Great Australian Songbook. There’s the anthem forever linked with Aussie Rules, ‘Holy Grail’, as well as ‘True Tears of Joy’, ‘Till the Rivers Run Dry’ and ‘Still Hanging Around’ – just to place my favourites on record. The ‘Hunnas’ were more than a band, they were a collective of gifted musicians who cut their teeth on performing in the beer barns of suburban Melbourne during the glory days of the pub rock scene. It is hard to imagine how a song as exquisite as ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ could emerge from these venues, with their beer sodden carpets and fleshy, sweat-soaked mosh-pits – the half cut punters with their fists a-pumping. But emerge it did – a slow burner of a song that took years to be appreciated, but now is indelibly imprinted on the nation’s consciousness. It even reached Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder’s ears via the Neil Finn take. See Eddie sing it with Mark here = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkRNz0tR7tc

I will come for you at night time
I will raise you from your sleep
I will kiss you in four places
As I go running along your street
I will squeeze the life out of you
You will make me laugh and make me cry
And we will never forget it
You will make me call your name
And I’ll shout it to the blue summer sky
And we may never meet again
So shed your skin and let’s get started


Seeing that H&C are going around again, reforming to support the tribute/greatest hits package, ‘Crucible’, I have been pondering on the power of this song, immediately bringing to mind others that have had the same impact on me. The Seymour quote says it succinctly. The fact is that certain songs always send a shiver up my spine, no matter how many times I play them. And if I have partaken of the juice of the bog, on some occasions, listening even may cause a tear to well. ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ will do that to me every time!

The Vedder/Finn version of the now classic on ‘Crucible’ stands up well against the original – in fact you can compare them on the one package. Finn, being Finn, has played around with the lyrics, claiming his partner has one hundred and sixty-five erogenous zones so that should be reflected in the number of places one should touch.

Seymour once claimed he could make a generous living performing just this one song at up-market weddings all around the country for the rest of his life. Thankfully he hasn’t taken that path, for his post-‘Hunters’ output has been of a high quality. ‘Do yourself a favour’ and have a listen to ‘Westgate’, ‘Undertow’ and ‘Seventh Heaven Club’ and you’ll be in the latter (seventh heaven) – they are real crackers. As befits their veneration and the maturing age of their fans, the band will play mainly ‘on the green’ this time across our wide brown land – wineries, botanical gardens and the like – a far cry form those sweat and spit pits of their pomp!

I suspect that even a fine songwriter such as the ‘Hunnas’ man and his comrades-in-verse would dip their lids to the greats of the past. You know who they are – no need to list them. But soaring above even these would be the two who most would find difficult to split as the most sublime tunesmiths of the modern era, the twin peaks – Dylan and Cohen.

Let’s take the grouchy one first, the penner of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’. For me, these days, the first peak of his mastery is ‘Forever Young’, but that is not the song that sends that tingle up my spine and irritates the tear ducts. Knowing his ‘Bobness’, he probably whipped my choice up in twenty minutes or so without much thought, but I adore this inhabitant of ‘Time Out of Mind’ – it always gets to me, it really does. When I hear the lines below, this second peak, for me, will not be surpassed:-

I’d go hungry; I’d go black and blue,
I’d go crawling down the avenue.
No, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do
To make you feel my love.

‘Make You Feel My Love’ never fails to bring to mind my DLP (Darling Loving Partner) and how I feel about her. For her, I would go crawling down the avenue too. Adele these days has made the song her own, with added fame garnered when it was used to farewell ‘Glee’ star Cory Monteith – ‘Glee’ being, I can honestly say, a show I’ve never watched – just in case you were wondering!

The song obviously gets to Bryan Ferry as well and he produces a more lilting take on his tribute to the great man, ‘Dylanesque’. He is recorded as musing that the song reminds him of Dylan sharing a drink and swapping love stories with….’the ghostly songwiter in a far away bar where no one knows your name, even if you don’t have one’. For Ferry’s version = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bQGRRolrg0

I recall hearing Leonard Cohen for the first time in the music room of my university college, back in the early seventies. The lads would gather after ‘Bellbird’ and the evening meal to listen respectfully to each other’s latest vinyl purchases. Usually it was a menu of Cream, Led Zep, Tull or Zappa – which I could pretty much take or leave. Occasionally something would make me sit up and take notice and it was also here I first heard Kristofferson and Creedence. A few sensitive souls were into Rod McKuen and Gordon Lightfoot , largely forgotten now. Then someone played ‘Suzanne’ by the great Canadian. I was immediately mightily taken by the voice; then, when I listened more intently, the lyrics.

This song, along with his other early oeuvre, including ‘So Long Marianne’, ‘Sisters of mercy’ and ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ were the harbingers of a lifelong fascination, culminating in seeing the awesome one live a few years back. He was so spry and dapper; he could hold an audience of any size in utter thrall. He is not just a Canadian national treasure – he is a global one!

On that night I wondered if he would think of how incredible it was to have a full house in a music barn, seating thousands, at the southern extremity of the known planet. For me the only disappointment of the whole evening was that he started the concert with, for me, the gem of his collection, the song that again brings to mind just how I am blessed to have someone as wonderful as DLP in my orbit – ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’.

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love

Even after all these years of loving her, she is the one I want to be with till the end of time – in spades.

Country music is, of course, the home of ‘love done me wrong’ songs. There are special ones for me in this genre too – in fact too many to mention, but mention a few I will. That discovery of a love for Kristofferson, all those years ago as a uni student, has been ongoing, with ‘Loving her was Easier’ and ‘Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends’ being special. The latter is beautifully reprised on Willie’s latest, in duet with Rosanne Cash. Talking duets, there’s the Cosmic Cowboy himself, Gram Parsons, pacing his protégée , Sweet Emmylou, through ‘Love Hurts’. Willie himself has a few – ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground’, ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ for starters. I defy anyone not to feel that shiver watching a near death Johnny Cash rumble through Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’. The one country song, however, I can never remain dry eyed through – the one that brings me undone every time – every time is ‘If I Needed You’ – any version, but particularly the original from its grog-addled, gun-toting composer, Townes van Zandt. Its the voice – that heart/gut wrenching voice. You know he lived that song; you know what it did to him killed him.


I could write about country music on and on, but let’s go back in time to a song that I rediscovered only recently, remembering its impact on me, on many people on first hearing it. It was so different, so fresh, so operatic compared to anything else going around back then – it was perhaps the first power ballad. The song is ‘Without You’. It becomes even more powerful when one reads of its provenance, as I did recently in ‘Uncut’, my music magazine of choice – followed up with a little googling.

For a while, way back in the seventies I thought that the voice powering that song along was the best I’d ever heard and I became enamoured of Nilsson. And that was before I knew anything of the man with the golden tonsils; before I knew of his insecurities, always out to impress the more famous in the set he ran with – icons such as R.Starr, J Lennon, Alice C and K Moon – the so-called Hollywood Vampires; before I knew of his alcoholism, drug abandon and chain smoking – ignoring advice to quit any of his vices to preserve that magic voice. He had two major hits – the other being ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ – coming on the back of the success of ‘Midnight Cowboy’, for which it was the evocative theme. His albums didn’t amount to much. Then he accidentally, or purposefully, tried to commit musical suicide with an album of tunes from the Great American Songbook. That was so uncool. It was called ‘A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night’. This was half a decade before Willie did it – and he’s country. Now, of course, everybody from Rockin’ Rod and ‘The Plonker’ Williams take standards from that era to great acclaim and mega-sales, particularly to the blue rinse set – and those of us who can remember Rod Stewart from his ‘Gasoline Alley’ days are all that now! Of course, your scribe, ever the uncool, adored poor Nilsson’s folly. For everyone else he was dead in the water. He was never taken seriously after that and he punished himself mercilessly with his addictions in response. Ringo stuck by him to the end, often inviting him to perform with his All Star Band. His last gig with this outfit was in 1992 when he sang ‘Without You’ for the final time live. He passed over in ’94. He was 53.


In his pomp, when the song topped the world’s charts, he bought himself a central London pad and took to allowing out of town mates to crash there. One such was Mama Cass who choked on that last sandwich in this abode – if you believe the urban myth. His ultimate guest was Keith Moon who overdosed on Heminevrin, trying to self-treat his alcoholism, there. Nilsson never lived in these digs again.

But that’s not where the story it ends – it gets worse. There’s more bad karma associated with ‘Without You’. The rub is Nilsson didn’t write it – that honour goes to two members of Beatles spin-off band Badfinger. Pete Ham and Tom Evans were the pair who should still be cashing in on the royalties. It makes interesting listening to compare their more run of the mill original version compared to Nilsson’s glorious take here = .
Nilsson reinvented the song, turned it into that high voltage ballad that became a template for so many to follow. I wore the grooves out of my copy of it on old 45 vinyl – and was known to practise in front of a mirror, hair brush in hand, being Nilsson.

But back to Ham and Evans. Their fates are tragic. Ham went first in 1975, hanging himself in his garage at 27 – alcohol reading 0.27. He was despondent because to him it seemed he was unable to take his music to his public. Evans lasted till 1983 when the inability to reap the rewards of composing that great hit was still being denied him. He too hung himself, he on the branch of a willow tree in his garden. Who received all the royalties? You guessed it, the lawyers. Evans left a note saying he wanted to be with his mate.

‘No, I can’t live
If living is without you.’


Hunters and Collectors singing ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4H2Dl4bfySM
Bob Dylan singing ‘Make You Feel My Love’ = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaP8NGML_QE
Leonard Cohen singing ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NGorjBVag0I
Townes van Zandt singing ‘If I Needed You = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaP8NGML_QE
Nilsson singing ‘Without You’ = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bQGRRolrg0

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