EML’s Favorite Songs – THE CURE: “Just Like Heaven”

I’m starting a new blog feature “EML’s Favorite Songs”, in which I post an old classic that’s an all-time favorite of mine. A few weeks ago, I wrote about “Nature Boy” by Nat “King” Cole, and today my pick is the brilliant “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure. The song is from their 7th studio album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, and along with “Lovesong” is my favorite among their scores of great songs. It was released in October 1987, and was the band’s first song to break the top 40 in the U.S. though, shockingly, only peaked at #40 on the Billboard Hot 100! Over time, the song has come to be recognized as one of The Cure’s finest, and Pitchfork ranked it as the 12th best song of the 1980s. It certainly ranks among my favorites of the 1980s.

Band frontman Robert Smith was inspired to write “Just Like Heaven” after a trip to the seashore with his girlfriend and future wife Mary Poole, who he met in high school and to whom he’s been married for over 30 years. The song immediately grabs hold with Boris Williams’ fantastic opening drumroll, then Smith’s jangly descending guitar line enters, chiming its way through waves of glittery synths, tinkling piano keys and crashing cymbals, sweeping us headlong into a gorgeous and dreamy soundscape. Simon Gallup’s pulsating bass line and Williams’ powerful thumping drumbeat provide a solid rhythmic vibe, propelling the song into the sonic stratosphere. It’s a masterpiece!

Smith’s distinctive vocals, which occasionally sound off-kilter on some of their songs, are perfection here as he sings of the dizzying love and lust two people feel for each other:

‘Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick
The one that makes me scream’ she said
‘The one that makes me laugh’ she said
And threw her arms around my neck
‘Show me how you do it and I promise you
I promise that I’ll run away with you
I’ll run away with you’

Spinning on that dizzy edge
I kissed her face and kissed her head
And dreamed of all the different ways I had to make her glow
‘Why are you so far away?’ she said
‘Why won’t you ever know that I’m in love with you?
That I’m in love with you?’

You, soft and only
You, lost and lonely
You, strange as angels
Dancing in the deepest oceans
Twisting in the water
You’re just like a dream…

Daylight licked me into shape
I must have been asleep for days
And moving lips to breathe her name
I opened up my eyes
And found myself alone, alone, alone above a raging sea
That stole the only girl I loved
And drowned her deep inside of me

You, soft and only
You, lost and lonely
You, just like heaven

The Cure are finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame today, March 29, 2019.

NAT “KING” COLE – “Nature Boy”

Nature Boy record

One of the most enchanting songs of all-time has to be “Nature Boy”, especially the original version recorded by the legendary Nat “King” Cole. I distinctly remember the first time I heard it as a young teenager, and being absolutely enthralled by its haunting beauty. I recognized the singer as Nat “King” Cole – arguably one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th Century – but was not familiar with the song. I asked my father “What is that song?!“, and he told me it was called “Nature Boy”. My father was himself still a teen when the song came out in March 1948. It was a massive hit, spending eight weeks at #1 on the Billboard number-one singles chart from May to July 1948.

The song has a rather interesting back story. It was written in 1947 by a man named eden ahbez. Originally born George Alexander Aberle in Brooklyn, NY in 1908, one of 13 children in a poor family, he spent his early childhood in an orphanage. He was eventually adopted at the age of nine by a family in Kansas and raised under the name George McGrew. During the 1930s, McGrew lived in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was a pianist and dance band leader. He moved to Los Angeles in 1941 and began playing piano at a small health food store/raw food restaurant on Laurel Canyon Boulevard owned by John and Vera Richter, who followed the German Naturmensch and Lebensreform philosophies of veganism and living with nature. Their followers, who came to be known as “nature boys”, wore long hair and beards and ate only raw fruits and vegetables, and were precursors to what would later be called hippies. McGrew changed his name to “eden ahbez”, spelling his name with lower-case letters because he believed only the words “God” and “Infinity” were worthy of capitalization.

Some years later, while living in a cave near Palm Springs, ahbez wrote “Nature Boy”. The song was semi-autobiographical, but also partly a tribute to his mentor Bill Pestor, another Naturmensch advocate who was known locally as “the Hermit of Palm Springs”. ahbez wanted Nat “King” Cole to record the song, and went to see him one night while Cole was performing at the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles. Cole’s manager refused to talk with him, however, ahbez managed to leave his sheet music for “Nature Boy” with Cole’s valet, but neglected to include his contact information. Cole loved the song, and began performing it at shows, but couldn’t record it as a single without ahbez’s permission. ahbez was finally tracked down living in a shack under the Hollywood sign, and soon found himself at the center of a media frenzy after “Nature Boy” became a #1 hit. His curious story was covered simultaneously in Life, Time and Newsweek magazines during the summer of 1948, and he finally got the chance to meet Cole during the television show We The People. (Bryan Thomas, Night Flight)

eden ahbez nat king cole
ahbez and Cole in 1948 (source unknown)

The song was recorded by Cole in August 1947, backed by an orchestra conducted by Frank De Vol, the in-house arranger of Capitol Records. Also a legend in his own right, De Vol went on to write and conduct soundtracks for numerous films (Pillow Talk, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush…Hush…Sweet Charlotte, Cat Ballou, The Dirty Dozen) and TV shows (Family Affair, Gidget, The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons). For “Nature Boy”, De Vol used lush strings and flute to create the beautiful enchanting soundscape that makes the song so indelible. The gorgeous fluttering notes of the flute evoke sounds of birds singing in a Shangri-La setting. The track’s arrangement is absolute perfection, and the piano keys are stunning as well. And of course, Cole’s famed velvety-smooth vocals are captivating as he croons the poetic lyrics that are simple but profound:

There was a boy
A very strange, enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far, over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he

And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

Cole eventually considered “Nature Boy” one of his favorite recordings, and the song helped give him crossover appeal to white audiences. In his book, The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, author Ted Gioia noted that all the musicians “who had created the golden age of American popular song had their quirks and idiosyncrasies, but eden ahbez demands pride and place as the most eccentric of them all“. He added that, in addition to promoting the hippie culture, with “Nature Boy”, ahbez enabled Cole to be instrumental in introducing a new era of black artists in an industry dominated by white popular music. (Wikipedia)

The song was awarded the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, a special Grammy Award honoring recordings that are at least 25 years old and have “qualitative or historical significance”. I think it’s a masterpiece, and one of the greatest songs ever written.

Song Challenge – Day 2

I was nominated for a Daily Song Challenge by fellow blogger and friend Lisa Amaya, who has a wonderful blog Life of an El Paso Woman.  If you don’t already follow her, do check it out.

The rules of the challenge are:

Post a song a day for five consecutive days.

Include the name of the song and a video.

Post what the lyrics mean to you. (Optional)

Nominate 1 or 2 bloggers each day of the challenge.

My song choice for Day 2 is California Dreamin’ by the Mamas & Papas. The song was written by ‘Papa’ John Phillips, who was inspired to write it when his wife Michelle was feeling homesick for California. They were living in New York City at the time, and she missed the sunny Southern California weather. All four members of the band – John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty & Cass Elliott – harmonized beautifully on their songs, and especially so on California Dreamin’. Everything about the song is perfect – the arrangement, lyrics, vocals and instrumentals, most notably the gorgeous flute in the song’s bridge. It’s magic, really, and literally one of my top five favorite songs of all time.

Even though I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, the song really resonated with me. I still vividly remember as a little kid hearing it on the radio while riding in the car with my family from our home in Santa Clara up to San Francisco. We were going to “The City” to watch the Chinese New Years Parade in Chinatown, but things weren’t looking very promising, as it was a gloomy day with rain in the forecast. To this day, I think of that trip to San Francisco whenever I hear California Dreamin’ –  and yes, it ended up raining on our parade! LOL  Many years later I spent 17 years living in St. Louis, which has a lot of cold, gloomy weather in winter. I often found myself California dreamin’ during those periods.

All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray.
I’ve been for a walk, on a winter’s day.
I’d be safe and warm, if I was in L.A.
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.

 

Song Challenge – Day 1

I’ve been nominated for a Daily Song Challenge by fellow blogger and friend Lisa Amaya, whose wonderful blog Life of an El Paso Woman I strongly recommend my readers check out (if they don’t already, as Lisa’s pretty popular).

The rules of the challenge are:

Post a song a day for five consecutive days.

Include the name of the song and a video.

Post what the lyrics mean to you. (Optional)

Nominate 1 or 2 bloggers each day of the challenge.

My pick for the first day is “No Such Thing” by John Mayer. The song was his first break-out hit, in the summer of 2002 when I had a milestone high school reunion. Not only is he a fantastic guitarist, John always writes deeply compelling lyrics, and for “No Such Thing,” he takes a hard appraisal of high school with a bit of cynicism but also hope. He wasn’t defined by high school, and acknowledges that his best years are ahead of him, and the song lyrics really resonated with me on a personal level, especially since it was getting a lot of radio play at the time my reunion took place. I was never all that popular in high school, being a bit of a dork and lacking confidence, and didn’t go to the junior or senior proms, nor associate with any of the cool kids. It wasn’t until after high school, when I started working and attending college, and meeting a whole new set of friends, that I “blossomed” into a more confident, interesting guy lol!

Here’s a sampling of the song’s lyrics that hit home for me:

Well I never lived the dream of the prom kings and the drama queens.
I’d like to think the best of me is still hiding up my sleeve.
They love to tell you stay inside the lines
But something’s better on the other side
I wanna run through the halls of my high school
I wanna scream at the top of my lungs
I just found out there’s no such thing as a real world
Just a line you got to rise above.

Today I nominate Hope, who has a great music blog LIVELIFETHRUMUSIC, where she interviews up and coming artists and reviews their music.