Tag Archives: Alex Chilton

Songs of September

Motivated by my 6 year-olds recent statement that she… hates spring… because I love winter so much… I’ve had September songs on my mind.

While most of the 4 songs in my pocket come from a hemisphere where that month falls in autumn, signalling the approach of winter, I live in New Zealand where it means warmth and light, daffodils and lambs.

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Waikiki

Waikiki

The September song foremost in my head is Here Comes September by Waikiki. I know it from the Triple J Hottest 100 collection my Australian sister sent me in 2003. Triple_J_Hottest_100_Volume_10They’re a great way to hear vaguely alt popular music that doesn’t necessarily get noticed in New Zealand. It was a great mix that year and I remember only ever needing to skip the odd track. While this wasn’t my initial fav I was soon skipping back to repeatedly sing along. Its hooky jangly pop seemed to exude the hope of September. Never having heard of them I assumed they were Australian (the singer tries to sing ‘American’ at times, as is the fashion/compunction for many vocalists, but broad Aussie vowels give her away).

The song is about an ended relationship, being positive and remembering the good stuff.

Though there were others, you never left me at all

Here comes September, and we both know what that means

Sometimes it’s out of our grasp, not everything is made to last

If that’s the way you wanna remember, then that’s the way you gotta remember

But I won’t cry now, here comes September

Fender jazz

A Fender Jazz Bass, much like the beauty I once played

And although I was seduced by the lack of bitterness in her delivery, I didn’t focus on that when I sang along in 2003, being more captivated by the harmonic vocal hooks, the ringing of the Rickenbacker and the rich low rumble of the Fender bass; instruments I grew up knowing intimately.

Of course, 2003 was a weird time. Across the world we were repeatedly told that the world had changed forever (as if it doesn’t every day). I was actively angry and resistant to the warmongering narrative of fear. Refusing to march to that duplicitous beat, I was living a life infused with hope.

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Paris 2000. The Japanese tourist said she couldn’t fit in the tip of the tower. Just relax tourist, san, and tilt up

In 2000 I had left my job in television to tour around Europe, embracing the roots of my immigrant parents before eventually realising that it was time to embrace my desire to write. So in 2001 I bit the bullet and attended a 6 month fiction writing course in Timaru. It was amazing, I literally felt like I was Harry Potter: that my life had gone from dark containment to light-filled expansion.

Of course, despite my first short story being accepted for publication within a week of sending it off, the world wasn’t waiting to be entertained by me and the pile of rejections I studiously kept (to remind me of my early struggle) got ever bigger. And bigger. And bigger.

So I headed back to Auckland to freelance in a TV industry pumped up with the phoney money of pre-Credit Crunch NZ. I didn’t need to find work, it found me. While I continued to compulsively write and submit fiction, certain in my abilities, I socialised in a heady media scene awash with the social lubricants of the day (booze, pot, P and E).

It was a fun time, but I wanted more out of life. Yes, I craved success as a writer but most of all I had begun to seriously yearn for a committed relationship. And to be a father.

My desire was so strong that on 3 of the 5 following Christmases (’03, ’05, ’07) I found myself ‘expecting’ with a different woman (which may indicate a very casual attitude, but I would say it illustrates a certain commitment).

Yes, I admit, my taste in women has been questioned by friends and family, but that’s only ever after things go pear-shaped (and isn’t everyone wise after the fact?)

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Blending into a tight spot, Paris 2005

In heart and head I’m never-endingly fascinated by women, considering myself more of a woman’s man than a man’s man. I will choose their company (platonic or not) over men any day. It’s been that way since I was a child growing up surrounded by sisters and female cousins, the only boy in girl town.

And who really fully understands the drivers of their own desires? I can’t say I’m attracted to the same thing: it’s usually a certain strength of character, and something indefinable in the eye and mind.

However, given what’s gone on in my life in the 11 years since 2003, I have lost a lot of confidence in my desires, leading to the celibate phase of the last couple of years. At the start of this phase, in a reflective moment, I said to a good friend that I always like strong women, to which he replied… you like bossy women…When I mentioned this to a sister she said… you like bitches!

I thought that was rather harsh. But very funny.

Which leads to another song from my September playlist: Miss September by Bulldogs Allstar Goodtime Band. Bulldoggin'

They were a family favourite on the NZBC TV talent show ‘New Faces’ in 1973. Their bouncy feel and eccentric look featured tea-chest bass, washboard and kazoo and their song about a pinup picture (naughty!) got them into the finals. Yes, they were hugely derivative (Sgt. Pepper’s, anyone?…Pictures of Lily by The Who?), but as a 6 year old I found them far more entertaining than the syrupy/sombre crooners and balladeers, and frowning girls with acoustic guitars the show was lumbered with.

Now the article that came with your picture, says you hail from Illinois

Now I know Illinois-a-noise an oyster, but an oyster will only bring me joy bulldog2

The lyrics were wonderfully silly (how is Illinois an oyster?) while still appealing to popular music’s reliable workhorse of unrequited romantic yearning.

Miss September, Miss September, I know I’m gonna meet you some day

Miss September, Miss September, though you’re 12,000 miles away-hay-hay-hay

The allusions to masturbation (of course) were lost on me.

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Spot the Rickenbacker

Such things were more apparent in my (short) encounter with The Bangles’ cover of Big Star’s September Gurls in 1986. I never liked them as much as the Go-Gos (much more flaccid, musically). Maybe it’s unfair to compare them but both bands were sold directly to pubescent boys (for obvious reasons), and rock/pop is never shy of such subjects. I liked that Susanna Hoffs played a Rickenbacker (John Lennon played one!), and that the bass player sang this song (I was playing bass in a jangly-pop band by this stage).

By the 1990s I was much more familiar with the original version by Alex Chilton/Big Star. While his version has a lot more life to it (his delivery is heavily nuanced, maybe to counterpoint the bland lyrics: the Bangle delivers with dead-eyed ‘80’s coldness), the song is the least favourite of the September songs I know. I just don’t find much meaning in the lyrics. RVM-Big-Star_16x9_620x350(What’s a September Gurl? A Virgo? I dunno). But maybe you don’t have to. Lyrical clarity is an overrated part of music, especially when compared to the open and inclusive reading of poetic imagery.

September gurls do so much…

December boy’s got it bad…

That said, it’s clearly got something going for it in that a female vocalist can sing it without feeling the need to change the respective genders of the lyrics (something that always irritates me, especially when the P.O.V of any song is all over the place).

Which leaves the September song that had the biggest impact on me. Wake Me Up, When September Ends by Green Day. A song that became intimately associated with both my very personal experience of September 2005, and an awful ‘Act of God’ that affected countless lives. green_day_04_original

Catching up with a beloved ex-lover for coffee in 2003 had resulted in the first of the 3 Christmas pregnancies. That one ended on New Year’s Eve. I got the text while dancing with strangers, high on a mix of P and E. Although at the time I saw it as lucky escape, it was an incredibly lonely moment and I eventually came to grieve deeply for the unborn child and the unfulfilled relationship with his/her mother. But back then my heart was set on a come here/go away long term flame, and by 2004 I had moved in with her, happy in a relationship I imagined lasting forever.

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Waiting for my partner to finish work, the first thing I visited in Paris was Diana’s tunnel. People still left tributes 8 years later

Which is why, at the end of August 2005, I flew to Paris to accompany her on a work trip she had left for the week before.

When you fly to Europe from NZ you tend to fly through the night so I arrived in Paris on a hot, sunny autumn morning. As I checked into our hotel, the first English I heard being spoken was two clearly shocked Americans, reading a newspaper at the check-in desk… They’re shooting each other… looting the place… Animals… Once I got up to my partner’s room and turned on the telly (this was before the internet became something you carried in your pocket) I realised who they were and that a hurricane had devastated New Orleans.

Sept tumbler

When September Ends by Green Day wasn’t my favourite track on American Idiot, an album I loved thinking it both entertaining and brave (especially in a time when there was little push back in popular culture against the proponents for war), and I played it many times before I headed to Europe in 2005. Sept green Day

The song didn’t fit my particular concept of September, speaking of rain/winter/loss. I was embracing the future, heading for a hot month in Europe with the woman I wanted to spend my life with. And we had decided to make a baby.

I now know the song is about the vocalist losing his father at the age of 7, which explains much of the lyrical imagery.

Ring out the bells again, like we did when spring began

Wake me up, when September ends

It’s testament to the strength of the very personal lyrics that the single, released August 2005, became the unofficial anthem for Hurricane Katrina, which hit as I arrived in Paris.

It has the poetic/fluid nature of good lyrics in that the video for the song ignores Billy Joe Armstrong’s intimate meaning to take on the blustering pomposity of sacrifice and war that many American videos were plastered with at the time. Sept lyric

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A rainy night in Brussels and a very fine, boozy meal

But that song was not in my head as I flitted from Paris to Florence to Lucca to Pisa to Brussels to Maastricht to Amsterdam to London and back to Paris: exploring, being, loving.

And it wasn’t all fun and games. I was also doing some research for a historical novel I was writing about the founding of my hometown of Christchurch, which was set up after the formation of the Canterbury Association in London in 1848.

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Place of the first meeting to found Canterbury. Spot the three lambs in the shield

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Communards at the barricades

Due to the utopian ideals of a group of graduates of Christ Church College, Oxford (yip, Harry Potter’s school) who sent the ‘Canterbury Pilgrims’ to found Christchurch, I was making a study of the Paris Commune of 1871, established when the decadent, corrupt government of Napoleon III let the invading Prussian’s get within a humiliating cooee of Paris (WW1, 40 years later, was a replay of this schmozzle).

At the most famous bookstore in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, Shake I bought a history of that incredible event which, when the city was retaken by government forces, saw the slaughter of more Parisians than the Great Terror of the Revolution and The German Occupation of WWII combined.

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Dead Communards on the cover of the book I bought

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Tomb of Oscar Wilde

I read that book throughout our travels around Europe, finishing it at the end of the trip when we returned to Paris, making a special pilgrimage to the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, pushing past the tourists at Jim Morrison’s grave, stopping to take a photo of my partner kissing the toes of the lip-stick covered Jacob Epstein statue on Oscar Wilde’s grave, making a beeline for the wall at the back of the graveyard where a great many Communards were lined up and shot.

Returning to NZ at the end of the month, and still in travel mode, I flew down to a good friend’s 40th.

Towards the end of that early spring party, standing on the threshold of his back door, my friend, who I had known since my early 20s, tapped the neck of his beer bottle to mine and said… to the barren knights… It took me a second to realise that he wasn’t talking about humorous British pop group, the Barron Knights, Barron-Knights-Best-of-the-Barron-Knightsbut about us having avoided parenthood. He was clearly wistful, having married 5 years before, just before I headed to Europe for the first time.

But that poignancy became ironic when 6 weeks later I was back, escaping an awful argument that erupted after my partner found out she had got pregnant on that last weekend in Paris. She was not happy with the situation (but we planned it?), and in her bitter reasoning she was carrying the spirit of a Communard murdered at that wall. I felt betrayed and used.

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The photo we took at the wall in Pere Lachaise. 134 years later, people still leave flowers for the victims

A lot went on in the next few months; too much for here. Suffice to say that my partner eventually found her peace with the child growing inside her, and we announced it to her gathered family on Christmas Day 2005. Which underlined a greater and more painful irony when, late on Boxing Day, after a hurried and tortured helicopter flight off our island home she delivered a tiny, perfectly formed boy with eyelids closed. Fingernails, clearly forming on the hand resting across his chest.

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Paris, beneath the rewarewa we planted

In a strange way, the experience brought us closer, and we were happy for most of the next year. I listened to Green Day a lot as I worked in the wild, extensive garden, clearing and landscaping the area where we buried the boy we called Paris on New Year’s Eve. I loved the album; it was a journey, more than its constituent parts.

But When September Ends took on a new meaning for me, as did the month. It became a personal anthem of loss and each year I was anxious for the month to pass.

Which gets at the reason I have written this blog.

Because when my daughter said that she hated spring, my first thought wasn’t of Green Day, it was Waikiki.

Two months after I shifted out in Dec 2006, following my erstwhile partner announcing… actually, I do want a baby. But not with you… I met my daughter’s mother. Four months later she was (unexpectedly) pregnant.

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Exiting the apartment in Paris

My friend and his wife, who had provided refuge in that awful time in 2005, did so again (along with his baby boy, born earlier that year) in 2007 when we shifted down to his town just before Christmas.

I ended up buying the house next door and our children grew up as brother and sister. My friends moved far away just before last Christmas but I continue to live next door to that threshold where we toasted the barren knights. I have my daughter every other week as her mother and I are no longer together (having a child with someone is not the best way to establish a relationship).

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The dining hall at Christ Church, Oxford, where the founders of Christchurch (and Harry Potter) went to school.

There’s been a shit-load of loss in my life over the last few years (I have referred to aspects of it in past blogs). Paris, and the woman I was convinced I loved. My vibrant life in the media. My home town, smashed (and the novel I was writing with it). Both parents, straight afterwards. My sister, briefly here, now back to Australia. My other sister and family now following.

It seems like I’m on a beach watching an ever-receding tide, wondering if it will ever flow back.

But it is September, and I am full of hope. My girl is the greatest joy. I try not to cling but she is growing so fast. There is increasing warmth in the air, greater light in the days, the garden is growing and in 2 months it will be a year since the surgery on my ankle so I will be able to start running (gently) once more.

Like songs and seasons, we are filled with memories and meanings both personal and shared: as immutable as the ever-changing seasons, nothing is certain except for change.

I do not seek an encounter with any woman pinned above my bed. I do not hanker for the lost, or yearn for the future (well, not too much).

But I have a confession. There are boxes of baby toys and paraphernalia under the house I am struggling to let go of. It may seem a trifle sad but I would counter they are a guard against the unexpected.

I am no longer a young man, but if I pass these things on to charity do I not invite Murphy’s Law to inject a mischievous twinkle into my eye? To put a song in my heart, a spring in my step, to turn my mind to… ?

Well, it is September.

And we both know what that means…

waikiki_here_comes_september

Quiet Loud Listen Sing

You know, Dad… I really like songs that go quiet, then loud!

When my 6 year-old daughter said this to me the other week she said it with hand movements, pressing down on the quiet, then going up high for the loud!, just like a conductor. I resisted the immediate urge to say, well, then you need to hear the Pixies, Missy Moo, you’ll love This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven. Instead, I stayed quiet letting her finish the thought that had distracted her from her drawing.

I had put a video on the telly to learn a song I was unfamiliar with for an informal singing group I recently joined, and I took her dramatic statement as a critique of what I saw as quite a laid-back ditty.

I say my singing group is informal as it’s for people who enjoy singing and don’t seek the formal structure of church, choir or barber-shop. While we could be characterized as ‘enthusiastic amateurs’, we’re not as bad as that phrase implies. And while we often have the crazed energy of the Portsmouth Sinfonia (a wonderful orchestra of untrained musicians made famous by Brian Eno), we’re much more ‘on song’ than that deliberately experimental group (which disbanded once they became too competent). William Tell Overture – Portsmouth Sinfonia

The song I was trying to get familiar with was one I had never taken a shine to, I See Fire by Ed Sheeran; a # 1 hit in New Zealand (and Iceland, and Norway, and Sweden… countries that believe in hobbits, I guess). I See Fire

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Firey duet

In the few seconds it took me to suppress my urge to whip off the song and put on the Pixies, my daughter looked up from the picture she was working on for her classroom boy-crush, and continued her thought saying, like Roar, Wire, Recover… and this one.

I was a little taken aback; by both the thoughtful analysis of a 6 year-old, and that she placed this movie theme song in her pantheon of great tunes – the ones we regularly sing along to in the car.

When it finished she insisted I played the video again, accompanying my vocals while adding purple to the picture she was drawing for Austin (it’s his favourite colour!) Fascinated by the sheet music I was (patchily) reading (I sing by ear rather than eye), she insisted we went through the tune half a dozen times; slipping into some lovely harmonies (I have always found it hard to stay on my note).

Roar

Katy and her little band do a wee Roar

Now, I need to make it clear that despite what I said above, we have never listened to Roar in the car. Nothing against Katy Perry; my daughter loves her. And while she as at the more acceptable end of the ‘stripper-pop’ spectrum, I just don’t need a copy of that song. Don’t get me wrong, I love pop and we listen to heaps of contemporary (and classic) commercial wonderful/awfulness, but I find that particular tune loses its vim fast, quickly becoming a flaccid grind. That said, I did happen to see the (former Mrs.) brand Perry perform the song ‘acoustically’ at the Grammy announcements and was impressed with the live energy (as opposed to the somehow soulless and cold single) so watched that video with my daughter many times.

But the Katy Perry that gets played and sung along to in the car (along with The Wire and Recover) is Dark Horse, as it stands above the rest to me. Dark Horse

  1. Her voice is pitched down in my range 2. I’m a sucker for the wonderfully low 808 drum sound, and in this track it has an addictive reggae-type feel that I just can’t get sick of. Yes, my girl is digging her idol but the lyrics she sings along to most, is Juicy J.’s rap, which kind of surprises me.
    Dark Horse 2

    Dark Horse? Garish filly

We also often dance to the lurid video, as she’s into things Egyptian at the moment. It’s a fun vid which courted controversy when a brain-dead stylist thought it would be cool to burn contemporary religious symbols. It’s not the only dull-skulled element, however, as the lyrics start with make me your Aphrodite… the Greek goddess of love… okay, so let’s make an Egyptian! video. Righto. Sure, Cleopatra, being a Ptolomy, was of Hellenistic stock… I can handle that, I’m not a total pedant (even though I seriously doubt that reference is going on). But what I find grates most of all is the need to put in some gratuitous pole dancing near the end… damn you to hell/Hades/Duat, stripper-pop, I hope Cerberus bites you on each cheek!

Cerberus_by_Mootdam

Good boy, Cerberus

Still, I can bite my tongue on those bits purely because 1. I enjoy other elements 2. My girl loves it 3. She hasn’t a clue what pole-dancing is 4. I love dancing with my girl.

I like to think I’m pretty liberal when it comes to lyrics, which by their very nature are hard to nail down. You may as well try to confine the wind in a box. But the Aphrodite/Egyptian thing pales when I think of another song I quite enjoyed until some particularly numb-nutted lyrics became apparent.

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Awesome Black Skinhead stylings

It’s Kanye West’s Black Skinhead, which is a massively addictive production with some gorgeous sounds (and interestingly provocative lyrics). However, when I realised that in the chorus he was singing/rapping I keep it 300, like the Romans…300 bitches were the Trojans. You WHAT?! They’re Spartans in 300, you gimp… fighting Persians… Sheesh, was Kanye too busy discussing lip gloss with wifey in that bit of the film? I simply can’t find a way to see it as anything but arrogant and dull-headed so it has killed the song for me. Black Skinhead

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Alex with the Box Tops

But it doesn’t always have to be the case. For instance, I love Alex Chilton but when in Bangkok he sings… Here’s a little song that’s gonna please ya, about a little town down in Indonesia…Bangkok!… Bangkok! I can’t help but wince. But it doesn’t kill the song for me. Would you honestly expect geographical knowledge from an American? (Especially one who became a star at 16 singing the #1 hit The Letter with the Box Tops. Early success always messes with your head). Bangkok – Alex Chilton  The Letter – The Box Tops

Getting too pedantic about lyrics is a no-win as, like poetry, it’s all about play. But we all have our limits. I love lots of I See Fire but hate the… if we should all die tonight, then we should all go down together… refrain as the glorification of martyrdom just sticks in my craw (especially in what is essentially a kids movie… albeit one for big kids).

And Sex Pistol Steve Jones always says how much he winced when Johnny Rotten forced the rhyme… I am the anti-Christ!, I am an anar-chist!… in their debut single. But it sure made a glorious announcement of intent. Anarchy In the U.K.

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Mark Ronson: Producer to the stars, DJ/Musician extraordinaire

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Haim employ way better stylists than Katy Perry

But enough of what’s not to like, here’s why I love the other song my daughter mentioned, The Wire by Haim. I came across this by chance, found it didn’t catch me immediately but was soon listening out for little hooks secreted throughout… the organ line that fades up in the chorus, the distorted bass run, the unexpected guitar solo, the big glam drums, the lyrics I can’t quite get a handle on. After hearing it a dozen times I decided it must be a session singer with a DJ/producer mashing up the elements a la Mark Ronson (who I love). But I was wrong: it is 3 sisters from LA with a strong musical pedigree, hence the vocals which blend so you don’t know that the lead vocals have shifted. Having played in a covers band with their parents in L.A. the middle sister became a session guitarist, was picked to play live with Jenny Lewis, then Julian Casablancas, and Cee-Lo Green. The eldest went off and got a musicology degree and then, having learned all the tricks, they dragged in little sis’ to have a proper crack at the scene. The Wire – Haim

Haim Lorde

Haim helping out childe pop star Lorde

Clearly, I’m in love with the results. Whether this first album is all the best stuff of many years of work brushed up beautifully, is yet to be seen/heard. Although they’re nothing like Mark Ronson, they’re akin as he also had a (greater) musical pedigree (his mother married the guitarist in Foreigner and Sean Lennon was a childhood friend).

Somebody To Love Me – Mark Ronson (ft. Boy George)

In case you think I have a crush on Haim, it’s not just about the girls. The often un-featured drummer’s dad was in 3 Dog Night, and the subtle and seductive rhythm tracks are a big part of the overall appeal for me.

Chvrches

Chvrches

Which leaves the other song my girl loves, Recover by Chvrches. They are exactly what I mistook Haim for… a couple of knob twiddlers and a chick singer. They seem okay, but I don’t want to sing along as my daughter does. However, as she can sing pretty much all the words I’m more than happy to play it whenever she asks to hear it. Recover – Chvrches

That’s the thing about music, we all hear different things. The hooks either grab us or make us recoil in pain… or float right through us as if we were made of jelly.

As a child, before I started getting involved in music, I always used to wonder why songs needed verses. After all, I reasoned, the choruses were always the best bits. I was yet to learn the power of dynamic range; quiet and loud. But as I matured I started to find things to love in all parts of songs, even in ones that weren’t to my taste. Be it the sound of the drums, lyrical image or turn of phrase, bewitching melody or power of the bass.

I realise everyone doesn’t feel this way, preferring set styles and actively despising others.

icehouse

There’s a great Aussie movie called Mullet. It’s about the fish, not haircuts (no Icehouse, as I recall)

My daughter certainly doesn’t like everything I play and will always tell me if she doesn’t like a particular song (for instance, she loves The Flowers/Icehouse We Can Get Together but really dislikes Great Southern Land, no matter how I try).

We Can Get Together – Icehouse       Great Southern Land

Occasionally, when we drive in the garage and I am rushing to get upstairs to light the fire, do homework and make dinner, she will ask if we can hear the song we are listening to through to the end. As a musician, soundman and tireless lover of music, I’m always happy to let the music resolve. (The first time this happened was with John Stewart’s Gold… one of her old favourites… a song I have never tired of since I first heard it in the summer of 1979. The smooth Rhodes piano… Stevie Nick’s backing vocals… pure gold). john stewart Gold – John Stewart

I’m glad my girl has her own opinion and tastes. It’s as it should be.

Quiet, loud, alone, all together.

Wait for it, wait for it…

…And end.

 

Secret track: Stray Cat Strut – The group I sing with…