A personal diary keeping people abreast of what I am working on writing-wise.

Friday, March 24, 2006

PERMANENT RECORDS: NEAR & FAR

Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.

This endeavor is based on a concept started by Chris Tamarri at Crisis/Boring Change. It has since been expanded as a concept, as Neal Shaffer takes on a study of album covers over at Leftwich. (Coincidentally, Neal's as a whole is as much a celebration of vinyl as mine is this week.)

41. GROVER SINGS THE BLUES (1974)
Personnel: The "Sesame Street" cast with Frank Oz as Grover
Producer: Joe Raposo / Label: Children's Records of America



Amongst music junkies, there is a special breed that is addicted to vinyl. Some of this breed are fairly convinced--and can make a convincing demonstration on the matter--that record albums sound better than compact discs. Some of us have a more nostalgic attachment to the things: we like to hold them in our hands, to feel the big black circles and have the artwork at the 12" X 12" size. Additionally, we have a distinct reaction to the crackles and pops of needle meeting groove. For me, in particular, it's the opening hiss, in that empty space between the edge of the LP and the first recorded sound.

I would wager that just about every one of us has special pieces in their collection that they found at garage sales or thrift stores. My heyday for this kind of shopping was back in the early '90s when CDs were new and people were dumping their old vinyl, and record-buying hadn't yet achieved critical collector mass and thrift store digging wasn't on the hipster radar. I need remind no one that hipsters ruin everything, and once kitsch enters any artistic pursuit, the scene is doomed. Factor in the internet and that you can pretty much find anything on eBay, and it's suddenly become really difficult to find hidden treasures in physical brick-and-mortar stores anymore. (Amusingly, I wrote about my slavish love of vinyl several years ago for the Portland Mercury and received a disdainful letter from a "true" collector who accused me of being the hipster and threatened to shove his vinyl-cleaning brush up my ass. It's also the first time I made a play on the Style Council album title that inspired this blog's name. Read that dusty old antique here.)

One of my favorite thrift-store scores is my 10" of The Spirit of Zen as explained by Manly P. Hall and released by the Los Angeles-based Philosophical Research Society. It was printed on red vinyl, but sadly has no copyright date, so I am not positive how vintage it actually is. I do recall there being some reference to veterans, so it followed after a war that most likely occurred before I was born. (So, anything before the Franco-Prussian War is fair game.) I must cop to buying it with a bit of a kitschy eye, but I actually got a lot of use out of it. Back when I was still making mix tapes, I would open with the begging of The Spirit of Zen and then pepper various spots between songs with random excerpts, as if I had made the mix on an old self-help tape and remnants of its message remained. This would be pretty difficult to do on a CD-R, once again proving that mix tapes were way cooler than mix CDs.



The straight-up winner of my discoveries is a Sesame Street collection called Grover Sings the Blues. I always liked Grover. He was always a little outside the gang, well-liked but not completely connected. Bert had Ernie, and Big Bird hung out in the same alley as Oscar the Grouch and always had Snuffle-upagus following close behind--but Grover usually went home alone. I had a full-size Grover puppet when I was a kid, purchased at a church rummage sale, making it sort of a tradition to find Grover items second-hand. He also had a pretty easy voice to imitate. I think that was the genius of Frank Oz: his characters were often the easiest for children to mimic. I doubt there has been a young Sesame Street fan who hasn't.

Therefore, even if Grover Sings the Blues wasn't a neat concept, it would have been a must-buy. There was something absolutely charming about the idea of this spindly, misfit puppet singing blues numbers.

No, Grover does not cover Robert Johnson or Howlin' Wolf on the LP. Let's not get too crazy here! Most of the songs are written by either Jefrrey Moss or Joe Raposo, and of the 14 tracks, all but 3 of them are standard Sesame Street numbers. You will learn the noises that different animals make and how the letter "G" has two different sounds depending on the word more than you're going to learn about Lightnin' Hopkins. Part of the gag of the title is that Grover is blue himself.

Then again, that makes it even better on the few tracks where the mood turns a bit more melancholy. This little creature isn't just singing in a blue mood, he embodies blue.

Side 1 only has one song of this kind, the opening song, "What Do I Do When I'm Alone?" Right here, we confirm that Grover is the solitary man I sensed. The song is no more complicated than its title suggests. Over an easy melody, Grover praises the joys of a singular life--singing to oneself, dancing, living in one's imagination. Like a classic jazz number, though, it has a turn. "Sometimes I feel a little sad," he sings, "because there's no one to share my song/ no one to fly with me." Ultimately, it's a love song to a friend, one that would not be out of place in the catalogue of a crooner like Sinatra. The track starts with Grover introducing himself to the listener, and it ends with Grover saying he is not alone, he is with us. So, it's not just a love song, but a covert exaltation of the relationship of music and its audience.

I realize that many reading this are going to find such high-handed explanations of a song sung by a puppet rather silly, but there is a simplicity about the affair that makes it absolutely endearing. Particularly if you put yourself in the mindset of its intended audience. Most adults I know are monophobes who can't even go to the movies by themselves. How wonderful that this song is teaching children to enjoy their own company!



Side 2 opens with the song that is most true to the concept: "I Am Blue."

"I am blue,
oh so blue,
Yes, I'm blue because I don't know enough about you.

I am blue,
really blue,
it is so
that I can show
how I care about you.

What of me?
All the times you've seen me on my own,
Could it be that you think I'm happy all alone?

I am blue,
oh so blue,
and I'll keep on being blue because what else can I do?
Yes, I'll keep on being blue until I'm closer to you.
"

Holy geez. Just typing that out made me start to cry. I am not kidding you. You have to hear this performance. Grover's voice cracks, he chokes on the words, he sighs. This is sad for anybody, not just little kids.

Again, it's the simplicity of it, the innocence of its intended audience. As sad as something like Harry Connick, Jr.'s rendition of "If I Only Had a Brain" or Low's cover of "You Are My Sunshine" can be, they'll never have the innate purity of this recording. Sure, it's a grown man putting on a voice and wearing a big pile of fur and plastic on his hand, but the abstraction of the approach has removed all pretension. Grover singing "I Am Blue" is just damn heartbreaking.

Sadly, Grover Sings the Blues is out of print, or I would rip it to mp3 and share it with you. It doesn't appear to be on any of the many Sesame Street compilations Amazon carries. In fact, the only Grover record is the much safer sounding A Celebration of Me, Grover. These are the days of Ritalin, and any kid with a hint of sadness can just pill-pop it away.

Appropriately, the album ends with an explanation of "Near and Far," the audio from one of the show's skits. It's not sad, and it's not even a song, and yet it captures the dichotomy of the character, a figure who is both within the gang and without, capable of being alone in a crowd, alienated at a party. The examples of near and far are in relation to where Grover is to you, the audio fading back and forth as he moves in physical space. For a record that invites the listener in and sings him a love ballad, it seems only fitting to end with a little bit of business about the closeness of human beings. It's as if by listening, we've assuaged some of this fictional creature's sadness, bringing him tighter into the circle. Or better yet, the makers of Sesame Street, by sharing the inner loneliness of one of their most beloved creations, have told children of all ages that it's okay to feel the same way.



#52 #51 #50 #49 #48 #47 #46 #45 #44 #43 #42

Reminder: As always, this post is full of links to Amazon. Click on any one of them when shopping, and Amazon will shave a few pennies off their take to give to me. So, if my reviews make you all hot and bothered and you just have to own one of the things I'm talking about, use my link and contribute to buying me more stuff to review. (Those reading a Live Journal feed will likely have to click to the actual blog page first before heading over to Amazon, though.) Either way, thanks for reading.

Current Soundtrack: Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit & ...present 'Books'


Current Mood: dorky

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[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich

2 comments:

Craigery said...

a flood of memories just washed over me as your page blinked open on my computer screen. i got a lump in my throat just reading the first few lines. this record broke my tiny little heart.

i seem to come across Grover Sings The Blues every 10 years or so. i no longer have a copy in my possession (my sister liked to bite records), but you have officially reminded me to track one down.

doesn't this record have the 'G' song on it? 'G' Grover..'G' George..and so on? jeesh! throat lump.

Jamie S. Rich said...

Wow! That's awesome that someone else remembers this.

Yeah, "The Two 'G' Sounds" is on this one!

Thanks, Craig!