How the Good Shines Through

SOME GOOD YEARS - The Cowsills

I love music documentaries. One of the best I've seen is "Family Band: The Cowsills Story," which would be excellent even if the titular act hadn't sold millions of records. It's simply a compelling look at the ups and downs of a large family over the course of three decades or so.
 
Family Band film poster

A short version of the band's history (since the long version is in the film and on Wikipedia): four brothers from Rhode Island formed a band in 1965, were later joined by their sister and another brother, and then by their mother (and another brother from time to time in later years). They were managed by their father, which didn't end well.

Among other hits, the Cowsills had two singles that made it to #2 on the Top 40: "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" and "Hair." Famously, the band inspired "The Partridge Family" television series.

There were departures and fallow periods, but Bob, Susan and Paul Cowsill carry the torch to this day, continuing the family tradition of excellent musicianship.

Back to the documentary: it ends with a song Bob wrote, "Some Good Years," a look back at personal history with affection, wisdom, and harmonies that evoke the Beach Boys without being derivative. It's an earworm of the best kind.

Bob has generously taken time to answer my questions about "Some Good Years":

"Some Good Years" is a track from this 1998 LP
 
1 - Did you record a demo or any alternate versions, or is the finished record essentially what you heard in your head as you composed the song?  

Bob Cowsill: I recorded "Some Good Years" along with two other songs from "Global" ("She Said To Me" and "Is It Any Wonder?") alone.  I played all the instruments except drums and the keyboard descension part on "Some Good Years," which I asked Gary Griffin to play because I couldn't. All I had to do was sing it to Gary and he could reproduce it - very talented.
 
I had no plans other than record some songs I had written because that's what you did with songs. You recorded them - with or without a label or a reason - well actually, the reason being you've written songs, now what? Well, you record them.   
 
I was in the middle of these do-it-alone sessions when we (me, Paul, Susan) took a meeting with Dick Clark and turned down his invitation to join his cavalcade of stars on a summer tour, and during the post-meeting we were having I mentioned I have these songs I've been working on and that triggered us all going into the studio and recording "Global," John included.  I had pretty much finished "Some Good Years" so we added Paul and Susan and John to the backgrounds already there and beefed those up, then added John on the drums (I had used a drum machine to construct the track with).  

2 - The song was recorded and released a few years before the release of the "Family Band: The Cowsills Story," but it plays over the end credits so perfectly it sounds as though it was written for the film. What did inspire the song, originally?

BC: I had always loved what I called "Retirement videos" of athletes. They always had a great song playing while they showed the best highlights of the player's career.  So what I did was I specifically wrote "Some Good Years" with the idea of getting it to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for his retirement video.  The original lyrics were all about Kareem and his history.  I still have them buried with everything else in my garage so will at some point dig those out and frame them or something.  
 
So eventually I realized pretty much every one has had some good years and even the bad and harsh parts of someone's life smooth out over time and don't seem as harsh anymore.  
 
 
3 - Did you arrange the harmonies yourself or did everyone pretty much know what to do after all the years of singing together.

BC: On that particular song I was sort of loose in the candy field and could do whatever I wanted just working alone on things so that vocal arrangement was all done (I just kept using my own voice to build the vocal stacks) by the time Susan, Paul and John showed up, so I just added their voices to what was already there.  I actually used my wife, Mary, for the girl answer ("they were some good years) and ended up adding Susan to that and keeping them both in the end.

 

4 - In the wonderfully "unplugged" live version from 2008, you and Susan and Paul all look so very happy to be singing this song. What do you recall from this performance?

BC: We recall how exciting it was to meet Florence Henderson and sit and visit with her.  We're always happiest when performing and singing because that's what brings this family together so if we're singing anywhere we're hanging out with each other and the kids and it's always very rewarding.  To be asked to sing on a TV show like that is so fun and it involved meeting Florence Henderson and it was all very exciting.

5 - You give thanks to DJ Barry Scott in the liner notes to the Global LP; what's the story with his being the first to play "Some Good Years" on the radio?

BC: Barry Scott was wonderful ... is wonderful.  He brought us together for a show in Boston (think late '89 or so) when we really weren't doing much of anything and we all flew in and played at a place called Zanzibar's.  We hadn't played in years and that was a big deal for us. Bruce Johnston, Paula Abdul and John Stamos were there and we just enjoyed it so much.  So we always credit Barry Scott for bringing us out there and triggering us getting back together for a while back then and recording and all.  Barry is a Boston DJ and he played "Some Good Years" even when it wasn't released or on a label - he just thought it was a great song.
Barry Scott

6 - Your brother Paul plays keyboards on the rest of the LP, but you and Gary Griffin do on "Some Good Years" (Paul does sing background vocals). Why was this song different?  

BC: Well, like I was saying, it was just me at the time when we started those three songs but Paul was going to provide the sound for "Global" with the Roland D-50.... the Roland D-50 is the keyboard sound of "Global" and Paul immediately took over keyboards as soon as we started. I was actually thrilled I wasn't going to play everything - which is fun to do if you're working alone but now we were at full monty and that wasn't going to be necessary.

7 -The song is a positive look at one's past; have you always been an optimist or was this a lesson learned along the way?

BC: Both - but I was always impressed as I got older that things that I thought were horrible or tough in my past softened over time and didn't seem such a big deal.  It's like the recruit who complains of boot camp and tells everyone how hard and unforgiving boot camp is and the tortured letters to home and the "suffering" .... and then later in life you meet these guys and their attitude is, "Oh yeah boot camp....that wasn't as bad as I thought at the time."  
 
So, it's that kind of natural progression I think the brain does where we can better understand the harder things that happened in our past and realize they weren't as bad as we thought.  Every experience has a good side to it and I believe the good part stays with us while our brain softens the bad part.

There are some wonderful legacy videos on YouTube where people have used "Some Good Years" in exactly the way it was intended, so I always feel extra good when I see that and am glad they were touched and motivated that way by the song.

***

The Cowsills launched a podcast this year...

...and you can stay in touch with them at the Cowsills website and on Facebook.

Restless from the cradle

UNCHAINED - Jude Johnstone 

Before the internet, there were three main ways to discover new music. 

Radio was the primary source due to the amount of time spent listening, but playlists were always limited and geared toward very commercial songs unless you were lucky enough to live near a station that gave DJs a lot of latitude.  

Friends and family were useful, but limited in how much they could discover that you didn't already know.  

The third way source was record stores. A handful of albums I encountered while browsing LPs struck me so hard at first listen that I still recall the time and place I discovered them.

In late 1996 on a cold, grey day I entered a record shop in Washington, DC; the store was playing a CD with a cold, grey cover photo: Johnny Cash's "Unchained."  "What is this sound," I asked myself? I loved Cash's classic songs but it been a long time since I'd heard anything new and memorable from the Man in Black. What I was hearing on the speakers was magic. I grabbed a copy, paid, and went home to play the album over and over again.  It's still a favorite.

Johnny Cash's "Unchained" LP cover
"Unchained"

Somehow, I had missed his comeback album "American Recordings" two years earlier, just Johnny and his guitar soloing on an eclectic collection of superb songs.

"Unchained," which went on to win the Grammy for Country Album of the Year, likewise featured a diverse set of amazing songs, this time sung with full backing, including members of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Fleetwood Mac, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others.

Many of the songs were written famous musicians - Petty, Beck, Hal David, Chris Cornell, the Carter Family, and three by Cash himself. But the two songs at the heart of this masterpiece were written by lesser-known individuals: "Spiritual," by Josh Haden, and the title track, "Unchained," by Jude Johnstone. Both songs concern human weakness and suffering while pleading for divine assistance. Haden's is a slow burn to a howl, Johnstone's more contemplative, a reckoning of one's shortcomings. Cash, needless to say, embodies both songs with breathtaking emotion. 


Johnstone has written terrific songs for a number of artists, winning the BMI Songwriter's Award in 1993 for Trish Yearwood's #1 country hit, "The Woman Before Me." Her songs have been used on various television series and she is a talented vocalist and keyboard player, having released eight albums of her own.

Portrait of Jude Johnstone
Jude Johnstone

I recently reached out to her and truly enjoyed hearing her thoughts about the history and legacy of "Unchained."  As you will read, I did have to start out with a confession...

1 - I'll be honest; I hadn't looked at the credits on the Cash's "Unchained" LP since I bought the CD when it came out; over the years I came to think of it as a song that Johnny wrote for himself because the song suits him as perfectly as any song ever has. My apologies! I recently read the credits again and saw your name, thankfully. Did you write it specifically for him or was it something you were already working on?

Jude Johnstone: No, no. I write the songs for myself and then sometimes other people record them. I actually wrote Unchained quite awhile before Johnny did it. I just didn’t have a record deal to put my own version out until a few years later. Was still just a label that me and my manager made up to release my own records on. That’s why it came out after John’s recording. He was actually listening to my demo of it when he recorded it, which was a much more raucous, gospel version like the one on my debut CD, "Coming Of Age." He just heard it like a hymn in his own head. And sung it that way.

2 - How did you find out that the album itself would be titled after your song, which must have been a thrill?

JJ: I heard that Johnny Cash was playing a show at the Fox theater in Bakersfield. I lived on the Central Coast of California about two hours from there. I had heard that he had recorded a song of mine for his new project but I didn’t invest in that emotionally 'cause I knew that he would probably record 20 or 30 songs and the odds of my actually making the record were probably pretty slim. But I wanted to meet him, so I called his management and told them he had recorded my song and asked if I could come and meet him briefly before the show? I got the word that my name would be on a list, so my husband and I and our two small kids drove to Bakersfield. My husband was originally from there and his folks still lived there so we dropped off the 5-year-old, Emma, with her grandma and took the 4-month-old, Ray, with us. She was still nursing and hadn’t spent any time away from me so my plan was to have my husband walk her around in the parking lot outside the club while I dashed in to meet John. And then we would meet in the balcony afterward where we were to be seated so I could nurse her to sleep and we could watch the show. 
 
So, I went up to the manager and said, “Hi, I’m Jude Johnstone, here to meet Johnny; I wrote a song that he’s recorded?” The manager just looked at me and said “And?”
Worried, I stuttered, “I... I called ahead, I think he’s expecting me..” He sighed and said, “Wait here.” And disappeared behind the stage. 
 
The audience was just starting to filter in. The bus was parked directly off the stage as usual and he came back after a few minutes and said “Okay, follow me.” He took me across the stage, over the cables and onto the bus. There was John and June who graciously greeted me. We exchanged warm hugs and conversation and then June says, “Where’s your husband?” And I explain that he is out in the parking lot with the baby so I can meet them. June says, completely seriously, “Babies love me. Do you want me to go out in the parking lot and find them? I can take the baby so he can come meet John.” For a half a second, I imagined how PRICELESS this scene would be and said, “No, that’s quite all right.” After a few minutes, it was time for Johnny to go on so I went up into the balcony, as planned, nursed my daughter to sleep and settled down to watch the show. 
 
About halfway through the set, Johnny says, “I wanna introduce you to my California songwriter friend Jude Johnstone!" And the spotlight starts searching for me! I have a sleeping baby on my breast! In a moment, I quickly pull her off me praying she doesn’t wake up. Just then, the light finds me and I stand halfway up, wave to the audience and sit back down again. Then Johnny says, “I wanna play you Jude’s song. It’s called UNCHAINED. It’s the title track of my new album.”

3 - Your version, released five years after Cash's, has more of a bluesy, gospel feel with Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar. You've mentioned that you had someone else play piano on the record. Since you are a very good pianist yourself, what did you want that person to bring to the performance?

JJ: Yes, Bonnie Raitt and Jennifer Warnes are singing the backup vocals on my recording and Bonnie is on the slide guitar. (Producer) Garth Fundis and I had John Hobbs play the piano on it cause the song has a real churchy, gospel feel on the piano that you have to be really well versed in that style to play. And he just killed it like we knew he would.

 

4 - "Old man swearing at the sidewalk and I am overcome." That image and emotion really sticks with me. Was it based on an actual person you saw or is it fictional?

JJ: Yes, it was an actual person. I was just walking on Hollywood and Vine to my publisher Bug Music’s office, back when I lived in Hollywood (1979-92). The old man was just a typical sight on the corner of a city like Los Angeles, and he was swearing and carrying on about the government and what have you and it just occurred to me that there wasn’t that much of a difference between HIS lost and MY lost, on a spiritual level. So I started the song way back then. And I didn’t finish it till about '92, when my friend Valerie Carter came up to Cambria, where we had moved to, to visit me. I played her the start of it and she said, “You gotta finish this thing.” So I did. She did a really sweet version of it herself with me accompanying her, that was never released before John did it. I still have a copy of it, of course.


5 - You conduct songwriting workshops. Do you use "Unchained" while teaching and, if so, what lessons can it teach aspiring writers?

JJ: Hmm, workshops. I mainly listen to what the students are working on and I might get out something of mine to illustrate a point but mostly I focus on their work and how to make it the best that it can be. Now in college lectures, I like to stretch out more, tell some stories, like the Cash story or a Bonnie Raitt or Dr. John story, and answer questions they have about how I got a certain song to this one or that one cause they are usually interested in that. And sometimes a lesson on initiative and courage.

6 - You have a 1926 Mason & Hamlin parlor grand piano. Is that what you wrote "Unchained" on?

JJ: No, I got that piano sometime later. It was given to me by my cello player Bob Liepman’s mom, Nanette, when she moved into an assisted living place. She had a boyfriend who liked to dabble on the piano occasionally so I traded my Baldwin upright, just a sort of schoolhouse piano I had for years, (which I did write Unchained on and many others) for him to tinker on, in exchange for this priceless 1926 Mason & Hamlin parlor grand that is a songwriter’s dream. My kids called it ‘the great piano trade of ‘04.’

Jude's piano
Jude's piano

7 - For years I thought Cash sang "Oh, have I seen an angel OR have I seen a ghost" and was a little saddened when I realized that he actually sings "OH have I seen a ghost." So when I listened to your version, I was pleased to hear you sang "or." Do you believe you have ever seen an angel or a ghost - and which it was?

JJ: I believe that grace comes to us in the form of human beings when you least expect it, as in the ‘old man swearin’ at the sidewalk.’ I believe he was put there for me to see; perhaps an angel, perhaps a ghost. In either case, to teach me or startle me in some way. To shake me out of my sleep at the time. Which he did.

And Your Voice Like Chimes

SAD EYED LADY OF THE LOWLANDS - Emma Swift


There are two types of people: those who think Bob Dylan can't sing worth a damn and those who know that he's a fantastic vocalist. Needless to say, I am in the latter camp.

I think both camps will agree, however, that Nashvillian-by-way-of Australia Emma Swift can sing very well. She has referred to herself as the anti-Paul McCartney - able to “take a sad song and make it sadder.” Her most recent project is ambitious: an album of Bob Dylan covers, cleverly titled "Blonde on the Tracks."


"Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" is perhaps the most challenging song that she covers. There are people who think that some of Dylan's lyrics (such as those in "Sad Eyed Lady") are nonsense, they're nothing more than words that sound good when strung together. Again, I strongly disagree with this take (though I think there is nothing wrong with lyrics that are pleasing to the ear and have no deeper meaning). Covering a song like Sad Eyed Lady, with its opaque phrases, is not as straightforward as singing a Dylan love song along the lines of "Make You Feel My Love," which is much more direct and - perhaps not coincidentally - notably covered by Adele, Garth Brooks, and Billy Joel.

Oh, and "Sad Eyed Lady" is a very long song, the original version on Blonde On Blonde clocking in at 11:22.


"Sad Eyed Lady" has been covered by some amazing artists: Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Steve Howe, Old Crow Medicine Show. While each version is pleasant enough, none of them have worked for me.  I never felt these singers were emotionally connected to the lyrics. Emma's version is the first one that's really resonated.

Head over to Bandcamp to hear (and/or buy) Blonde on the Tracks if you haven't already. The album has been generating tremendous buzz since its release, a tribute not only to Emma's artistry but to her hard work as an independent artist, wearing as many hats as needed to get her album produced, publicized, played, sold, shipped, and so on. 

She kindly took time to answer my questions about "Sad Eyed Lady."

1 - What is it about Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands that compelled you to include it on Blonde on the Tracks, when there are many hundreds of Bob Dylan songs from which to pick? 
 
EMMA SWIFT: There are hundreds of songs, but there’s only one "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." It felt right. It felt honest. It felt essential. When the world gets me down, that song is like going back to the womb. It restores me back to my factory settings. 
 
2 - This is a song dense with poetic imagery which is anything but straightforward or linear. Did you try to figure out what phrases like "The kings of Tyrus with their convict list" meant specifically to you or was it a more intuitive, open ended process of letting the words flow through you while singing? 
 
ES: Everything I do is based on intuition. I’m a Pisces rising, it’s in my astrological DNA. 
 

3 - Maybe it's not hard for you as a professional singer, but how do you get Dylan's very distinctive phrasing out of your mind and sing the words in your own voice? 
 
ES: I love Dylan’s phrasing, but I’m not a mimic. It’s not in my skill set. Some folks are extraordinarily gifted in this way, but I am quite limited. I can only really sing in my own style. So I didn’t have to work hard to get his voice out of my head, the hard work would have been trying to sound more like him. 
 
4 - This is a famously long song and your version is nearly 12 minutes long. Do you have to approach it differently vocally from a typical 3-4 minute cut to pace yourself in the studio, or was it not a concern as you could cut and paste various takes? 
 
ES: I don’t really think of Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands being a long song, I think of it more like a meditation or a soliloquy. I approached it the same way I approach the recording of any song I do: with tenderness, depth of feeling, vulnerability, nervousness, fear and wonder. 

Another song from "Blonde on the Tracks"
 
5 - Were you familiar with any other cover version of the song (such as Joan Baez's) and did they influence your take at all? 
 
ES: When I made the album I had to work hard to erase all knowledge of Dylan covers from my mind. There are so many, and the feeling that I might just be needlessly adding to the pile was a worry that my shadow self definitely liked to remind me of from time to time. Negative self-talk and hyper-awareness of what everyone else has done or is doing are the enemy of my creative life force and are to be avoided at all costs! 
 
6 - Did you try doing Sad Eyed Lady at any different tempos/keys/arrangements, or did you go into the recording knowing exactly how you wanted it to sound? 
 
ES: I never go into anything in life knowing exactly how it is going to turn out, I’m just not that kind of soul! Recording music is fun because a studio session can go in all kinds of directions once you’re in there and the band are bouncing off each other. We didn’t do much experimentation, we just played the song. The beauty in Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands had already been masterfully laid out by Dylan more than 40 years before, we just had to play it through and see what happened.  

7 - How did you decide where to place it on the album, between "Simple Twist of Fate" and "The Man in Me" as track #5? 
 
ES: It’s the centrepiece of the record, so I put it in the middle. I wanted it to be unavoidable. Something to unclog the arteries and the tear ducts.

Emma is a great Twitter follow. Also find her at YouTubePatreon, Instagram, Facebook and emmaswift.com