Beyond The Sky

The_Burning_Sky

We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. – 1 Corinthians 15:31

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh, and just like the river I’ve been running ever since

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

You can run, but you cannot hide. Sooner or later, we all get to a point in life where we begin to question what it’s all about. For some, perhaps due to unusual life circumstances or events, this question raises itself early in life. For others like myself, it comes later.

All the things you were once so sure of; you no longer are. All those things that once seemed so important; they no longer are. You begin to feel this vacuum, this emptiness, a chasm that seems so deep and wide. You don’t know what to grab onto. All the confidence of youth is lost.

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky

And you get to the point where you say “this is hard, it’s just too hard”. Why can’t it be easy, like it was back in your younger days? So carefree, so open, so optimistic…and so, so, very naive. And what is the alternative?

Then I go to my brother
And I say, “Brother, help me please.”
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees

And those friends you thought you had? Like family? I was told by my father when I was young that if, at the end of my life, I had more true friends than I could count on one hand, I would be an extremely fortunate man. I still hope I can prove him wrong, but I’m no longer sure.

There been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on

But the very good news is this; a change is indeed gonna come. I no longer care as much about who is  going to be a friend to me, but rather to whom can I become a friend. And that all starts with a relationship that we all have right in our hands, all along.

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

Mike Farris’ story is one of coming to what I call “that shining moment of clarity” earlier, rather than later in life. If there ever was an artist’s story that was perfectly crafted to fit into what this blog is all about, it’s Mike’s.

Mike’s troubled childhood led to early problems with drugs and alcohol, resulting in his almost dying from an overdose before he was 21 years old. I first picked up on his music in 1994 via the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies with their self-titled release that included the smoking hot single “Shakin’ The Blues”. If you are a fan of the 70’s “southern boogie” style of music made popular by groups like Lynyrd Skynyrd,  The Allman Brothers, The Marshall Tucker Band, Elvin Bishop, etc., you should definitely check it out.

Jon Stewart famously said of Bruce Springsteen at his Kennedy Centers Honors tribute: “I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby. They abandoned this child on the side of the road between the exit interchanges of 8A and 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike. That child is Bruce Springsteen.”

I’d like to make a similar speculation. I’m not sure where Mike was born and who his real parents are, but if Al Green and Eric Clapton somehow had a child and abandoned him in La Grange, Texas to be fostered by Stevie Ray Vaughan, well he would probably sound a lot like Mike Farris.

The SCW’s enjoyed a fair level of success with seven album releases between 1994 and 2004 and  five Top 30 charting singles. But it wasn’t until 2005 that Mike really had a personal breakthrough, becoming clean and sober for the first time since he was 15 years old. From this newfound state of clarity came his 2007 release, Salvation In Lights, which featured the Sam Cooke classic “Change Is Gonna Come”.

At this point, Mike’s career and accolades really began to take off. His achievements included an Americana Music Award for New/Emerging Artist in 2008 and a Dove Award in 2010. And his live performances at Bonnaroo and SxSW – among others – were all getting rave reviews.

But like the song said, just as it seemed he was beginning to stand solidly on terra firma, something knocked him back down again. This time it was an addiction to painkillers resulting from ruptured discs, back surgery and the death of his manager, Rose McGarthy, along with other personal issues. This time around Mike sought help in rehab.

Proving you can’t keep a good man down, Mike has re-emerged in 2014 with the release of what I think is his greatest work ever on Shine For All The People. The album includes a wide range of sounds and emotions with cuts like Blind Willie McTell’s “River Jordan”, J.B. Lenoir’s “Jonah And The Whale”, the heartfelt “Mercy Now” written by Mary Gauthier and my personal favorite “Power Of Love”. If listening to SFATP doesn’t make you want to take a front row seat for a blistering hot Wednesday night Pentecostal tent revival…well, nothing ever will.

As Mike said in a recent mini documentary for the album, “I sing because I have to sing.” and “(Gospel) it belongs to the people who had to go up the rough side of the mountain”. And as Rodney Crowell said: “It  (the music spirit or muse) must have some kind of intelligence behind it, because it chooses a vessel that’s the perfect delivery system for inspiration.” But Ashley Cleveland probably sums it up best, saying: “I would say he’s a gospel singer for the people…and I mean ALL the people.”

So, you can close your eyes and picture Sam Cooke’s original while listening here to Mike. And while you’re at it, take time to reflect and consider all the changes that are surely gonna come.

Oh and as an added bonus, be sure to check out the two cuts from Shine, as well.

Listen to Mike’s version of “Change Is Gonna Come” here:

From his new release: Shine For All The People:

And one more:

Sources:

Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Farris_%28musician%29) and           (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screamin%27_Cheetah_Wheelies)

Compass Records (http://compassrecords.com/mike-farris)

Mike Farris website (www.mikefarrismusic.com)

 

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The Empty Sidewalks

sidewalk_leaf

Can two walk together, except they be agreed? – Amos 3:3

And when I see the sign that points one way
The lot we used to pass by every day

Just walk away Renee
You won’t see me follow you back home
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same
You’re not to blame

Walking away.

It’s not always easy, is it? For even if you do, that’s not the end. These relationships leave an indelible stamp on our hearts, in our minds and deep in our souls. They cannot be erased any more than an old chalkboard’s marks. Maybe not visible to the eye, but still the fine dust and subtle imprint will remain.

And the sidewalks will surely never be the same, because (as Dionne sang) “there’s always something there to remind me”. Those too, just won’t seem to go away. You can avoid those places and things but they’re always still around, lurking in the shadows of your mind, just waiting to reemerge.

From deep inside the tears that I’m forced to cry
From deep inside the pain that I chose to hide

Just walk away Renee
You won’t see me follow you back home
Now as the rain beats down upon my weary eyes
For me it cries

The Bible clearly tells us that there are times to walk away from troubled relationships. When it’s clearly not good for us. When it’s creating wrongs for others. When they are just plain unhealthy.

Sometimes a tree has to be trimmed to ensure it’s long term health and beauty. And so it is with our lives, our pasts and sometimes, those people who are just no good for us.

But it’s hard. As Christians, we sometimes allow ourselves to be trapped in toxic relationships by our false belief that it would be sinful on our part to cut it off, and that God calls on us to remain with love, patience and tolerance.

But that’s not really true.

Your name and mine inside a heart upon a wall
Still finds a way to haunt me, though they’re so small

Just walk away Renee
You won’t see me follow you back home
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same
You’re not to blame

“Walk Away Renee”, originally recorded by The Left Banke in 1966, was written by keyboard player Michael Brown – he was 16 at the time – after he met the song’s namesake, Renee Fladen, who just so happened to be the girlfriend of the band’s bassist, Tom Finn.

Legend has it that when Michael went into the studio to record the harpsicord part for the song, Renee was there. Her presence made him so nervous and his hands shook so badly that he couldn’t manage the piece. He left without finishing and came back later that night, after she had gone, to record it.

Obviously, young Michael was quite smitten with Renee, as he wrote another song about her – “Pretty Ballerina” – a year later. “Walk Away Renee” was clearly an admission to himself that Renee belonged to another and would never return his advances, so he was better off forgetting about her.

“Walk Away Renee” went on to reach #5 on the Billboard Top 100 and was covered by artists as diverse as The Four Tops (it went to #3 on the British charts), Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, Linda Ronstadt w/Ann Savoy, Rickie Lee Jones, The Cowsills, Vonda Shepard and many more.

Each of the cover versions have their own unique qualities, but the ageless beauty and universal meaning in the song remains clear and shining bright, no matter who does it.

So, go ahead, let yourself off the hook, and know that it’s OK sometimes to let go.

Then again, we never really do, do we?

Listen to the original here:

Great live version by Southside Johnny and the Jukes here:

The hauntingly beautiful Rickie Lee Jones version here:

 

 

A Red Coal Carpet

house-burning

I would hasten to my place of refuge from the stormy wind and tempest. -Psalms 55:8

 

Ooo, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

Storms; life is full of them. And the Bible teaches us that we will face troubles in this life.  Some are major hurricanes, others minor squalls. It is some comfort to have the reassurance that Jesus overcame this world and so shall we. But that doesn’t make the troubles any easier to deal with in the present.

Ooh, see the fire is sweepin’
Our very street today
Burns like a red coal carpet
Mad bull lost its way

And so it was in the summer of 1969. On August 17th, the heat of the Gulf Coast night was broken by the howling 175 mph winds of Hurricane Camille. My Uncle Richard was living in Metarie, Louisiana at the time, near the shores of Lake Ponchartrain. Fortunately he, my Aunt and cousins were able to evacuate before it hit.

When it was all over, there were 259 people dead and over 1.4 billion dollars worth of damage. Camille was the second of only three Category 5 hurricanes to strike the U.S. in the 20th century, along with Labor Day Hurricane in 1935 and Hurricane Andrew in Miami in 1992.

War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away
War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away

And, yes the war in Vietnam raged on with still over 500,000 U.S. troops on the ground and more than 11,000 of those killed in battles that year. Even as Ho Chi Minh passed away in September, the war was still very much in question.

The flood is threat’ning
My very life today
Gimme, gimme shelter
Or I’m gonna fade away

So it was, and the mud and the blood and the flood all indeed seemed to be overflowing like a “red coal carpet” and a “mad bull lost it’s way”.

And just a couple of weeks before Camille struck, we were all shocked to the core by the horrific Sharon Tate murders, committed by the truly evil Charles Manson and his desert based “family”.

Dark days indeed.

And they were for the Rolling Stones, as well. In that same fall of 1969, the Stones were struggling with the year long prospect of pulling their latest album, Let It Bleed, together without the help of the band’s founder, Brian Jones. Brian had been dismissed from the band back in June due to increasing personal issues and drug problems, and was found dead a month later in the bottom of his swimming pool.

Let It Bleed was a somber tome, perfectly matching the events swirling at the time and “Gimme Shelter” was no exception. In the book Old Gods Almost Dead: The 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones , author Stephen Davis wrote: “No rock record, before or since, has ever so completely captured the sense of palpable dread that hung over its era.”

Mick and the boys had surely captured a sign of the times.

I tell you love, sister, it’s just a kiss away
It’s just a kiss away
It’s just a kiss away

In an interview just a year ago on NPR’s All Things Considered, Mick Jagger talked freely about the dark lyrics and the making of the song. “It was a very moody piece about the world closing in on you a bit…When it was recorded, early ’69 or something, it was a time of war and tension, so that’s reflected in this tune. It’s still wheeled out when big storms happen…”.

But some of the most intriguing factors in the recording were created by the incredible background vocals provided by gospel and soul singer, Merry Clayton. Like many great singers, Merry grew up singing in the church. Her father was a Baptist preacher in New Orleans, so I’m sure you can imagine what some of those church services sounded like!

She later pursued singing as a career, performing backing vocals for Bobby Darin, Elvis Presley and The Supremes among many others, but is probably best known for her work as a member of The Raelettes, Ray Charles’ backup singers.

As the story goes, Merry got a call in the late evening (she was already in bed for the night) from a producer she knew – Jack Nitzsche – begging her to come down to the studio to lay down some backing vocals for this project he was working on. At the time, she didn’t even know who the Rolling Stones were.

Merry was reluctant; she was pregnant at the time and her husband even got a little miffed at Nitzsche for calling so late. But once he understood who it was -the Stones – and what was going on, he said  “Honey, you know, you really should go and do this date.”

The rest is history.

She got out of bed and went down to the studio – curlers still in her hair – and met with Keith Richards, who ran through what they wanted her to do. She was bit put off by the dark lyrics at first, but once she understood the gist of the song and it’s meaning, she was ready to go. She did three takes and said “It’s late, I gotta go back to bed.”

Those three takes were some of he most powerful backing vocals ever recorded. She put so much into it that her strained voice began to crack right in the middle of the “Rape, Murder” part.  And, if you listen very closely on a good recording of the song, you can actually hear Mick, Keith and Jack hooting and hollering in the control booth in sheer amazement at the emotional delivery she poured into the track.

It was one of the greatest performances of her career.

Ironically, it also turned into tragedy, as she lost her baby to miscarriage shortly after leaving the studio. It has been widely assumed that the strain of the performance caused it. Years later, Merry still found the song hard to hear, and nearly impossible to sing, due to the dark memories of the night.

“Gimme Shelter” went on to be named the 38th ranked song on Rolling Stone magazine’s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list in 2004 and was also the name of the documentary film detailing the final weeks of the Stone’s 1969 U.S. tour culminating at the disastrous  free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California.

Martin Scorcese must have also been a big fan, as he has used the song in three of his films: Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed. Interestingly enough, he chose not include it in his 2008 documentary film about the Stones, Shine A Light.

So, crank it up loud and let it roll, as only Mick and the boys can do. And though things may seem grim; remember that love truly is, as Merry sang “just a kiss away”. And be sure to listen for Merry’s voice breaking. Wow!

Unbelievable footage w/Merry Clayton track exposed

Awesome Playing For Change cover here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every Word Rings True

sun_dancing

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. – Acts 2:4

The boys were singing shing-a-ling
The summer night we met
You were tan and seventeen
O how could I forget
When every star from near and far
Was watching from above
Watching two teenagers fall in love

What a picture these lyrics paint and definitely one I can remember from my own teenage years. I was seventeen and, yes, she was very tan. I had just moved to Atlanta and was trying to meet and make new friends in the summer of 1974 and she was the step-sister of one of my coworkers. He called her up to get a ride home one night after we closed and when she arrived, he introduced us. There must have been a little magic in the night air because, after a few minutes of conversation, he got his ride home and I got a date with her the next day.

The way we danced was not a dance
But more a long embrace
We held on to each other and
We floated there in space
And I was shy to kiss you while
The whole wide world could see
So shing-a-ling said everything for me

The movie Grease was still a few years away from reminding us of a time when the sounds of doo-wop ruled, but there were still a few songs rolling out of the speakers in my 1970 Chevy that could carry you back to those days. Ringo Starr was singing “You’re Sixteen” by Johnny Burdette, Grand Funk had a hit with Little Eva’s “Loco-Motion” and The Guess Who had us all singing along to “Clap For The Wolfman”.

And oh the poor old, old folks
They thought we’d lost our minds
They could not make heads or tails
Of the young folks’ funny rhymes
But you and I knew all the words
And we always sang along to
Oh sham-a-ling-dong-ding
Sham-a-ling-dang-dong

Every generation has a hard time understanding some of the musical styles and preferences of the next – and vice versa- but I think the translations from some of the great old doo-wop songs and their trademark nonsensical lyrics had to be hard for the generations on either side to fathom.

“Shama-lama” and it’s cousin “Rama-lama”, “Sh-boom”, “Rat da tat tat”, “Shinga ling”, “Bomp bomp ba bomp”, “Dip-de-dip-de-dip”, “Oo-wah, oo-wah” and even “Doo-wop” itself are just a few examples of the lyrical style incorporated in the genre.

It may have sounded like gibberish to some, but young hearts in love instinctively understood every word.

So after years and after tears
And after summers past
The old folks tried to warn us
How our love would never last

And so intense that romantic swell must have been, just as those who are filled with the love of the Holy Spirit also sometimes burst out into languages that no one can understand.

I’ve never seen anyone “speaking in tongues” firsthand, but I know folks who have. If you ever want to experience it for yourself, just check out your local Pentecostal church and ask them when they are going to have their next Revival. It’s not my usual taste in worship style, but I do think it might be invigorating every now and then!

And oh the poor old, old folks
They smile and walk away
But I bet they did some
Sham-a-lama-ding-dong in their day

Jesse Winchester was a southern born and bred singer-songwriter who I believe could have been every bit as influential on the 70’s music scene as James Taylor, if not for his having left the country for Canada to avoid service in the Vietnam war. Branded a “draft dodger” and prohibited from playing in the U.S., he never achieved a high level of popularity as a performer, but his work as a songwriter flourished nonetheless.

Jesse’s songs were recorded by countless artists as diverse as George Strait, Patti Page, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Buffett, Reba McEntire, Emmylou Harris, Wilson Pickett, The Everly Brothers, Nicolette Larson and many, many more.

Elvis Costello included Jesse Winchester’s 1970 debut album in his “500 Albums You Need” list created in Vanity Fair in 2000.

Oh those sweet old love songs
Every word rings true
Sham-a-ling-dong-ding means sweetheart
Sham-a-ling-dang-dong does too
And it means that right here in my arms
That’s where you belong
And it means sham-a-ling-dong-ding
Sham-a-ling-dang-dong

Jesse, along with many others who left for other parts of the world to avoid the war, was granted amnesty by President Jimmy Carter in 1976. His first U.S. concert was sold out in Burlington, Vermont and was covered by Rolling Stone magazine who dubbed him “the greatest voice of the decade”.

“Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” was on Jesse’s final album Love Filling Station in 2009 and quite fittingly was featured that same year on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle TV series. I think it showcases not only his tremendous gift songwriting and vocal style but his great talent as a guitar player, as well.

Jesse lost his battle with cancer and passed away at his home in Virginia earlier this year, but his gift lives on through the many hit songs he penned for others.

So, young or old, and even though we might not understand exactly what some of those old doo-wop lyrics meant, just as Jesse sang, I’m sure we’ve all  experienced a little “Sham-A-Lama” of our own sometime throughout our days.

Listen to Jesse live on Spectacle here: