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Hawaiian Odysseus' Top Ten Baby Boomer Ballads
From Across The Pond...
The ten songs presented here are in alphabetical order, yet it's only fitting that my first featured group were artists of the first album that I ever purchased at the tender age of 12 and worth every penny of my $5 allowance--Meet the Beatles. I can still recall the adrenaline rush I felt as I pulled the album out from between its siblings on a rack at the old Kress Store in Lihu'e, Kaua'i.
From a subsequent album, the featured song, And I Love Her, was one of the tunes from the soundtrack for the Beatles' first movie, A Hard Day's Night. The clarity and freshness of Paul McCartney's tenor voice is romantically intertwined with the acoustic guitars and bongo-punctuated beat. The Beatles were masterful at demonstrating to the world that they could write and perform ballads as readily as they could do rock and roll.
The song was recorded after the Beatles had made their historic first appearance in America on the Ed Sullivan Show in early February of 1964. Paul McCartney believed that a ballad would provide an effective counter and complement to the groups' predominantly rock sound. He is credited with writing the three-verse melody, and John Lennon contributed the four-bar bridge. Paul thought that a mid-sentence title would be a unique change of pace, and history would prove that his innovative musical choices were brilliant and commercially successful.
And I Love Her was recorded in just a couple of takes and used at a strategic point in A Hard Day's Night. As one enjoys this beautiful ballad, it is amazing to consider that these world-famous and established young men were only in their early twenties at the time of this recording.
Heavy Metals Aren't Always Toxic...
In 1984, I happened to hear an amazing ballad, the lyrics of which were in direct contradiction to its very romantic melody. The delightfully appealing song--complete with a full string orchestra--was unique for the music of the day in that, instead of a protagonist vocalizing an alluring tune to seduce a young woman, it was a universal male justification to his sweetheart for being out late at night with the boys.
History will prove, time and time again, that the most formidable of mistresses that breaks up relationships isn't of the human variety. It's an entity called WORK. As I listened carefully to the lyrics upon hearing the song a second, third, and even fourth time, it became clear to me that there was a deep truth in this song. Stereotypical notions of rock musicians engaged in illicit encounters and heavy drug usage aside, music practice and the accompanying choreography of rock musicians involve hours and hours of practice each night, often into the wee hours of the morning. Certainly, the message of the song comes through as heartfelt and sincere--the frustration of a young man who clearly cares for his sweetheart, Beth, while knowing he has a mission to fulfill.
Of greater irony to me was the fact that this beautiful song was written and performed by the heavy metal, demonically-costumed group called Kiss. It was such a departure from the band's usual fare, and--as such--appealed to the romantic in me even more. Metaphorically, it was like your favorite superhero--Batman, Superman, Iron Man, the Lone Ranger, or whoever--shedding the alter ego cosmetics and, while drowning in vulnerability, stating: Look, this is who I really am. I love you, and there's nothing more I want than to be with you. But first, I have this job to do.
It Was More Than Just A Song--It Was A Lullaby...
I heard an angel singing in 1970, and her name was Karen Carpenter.
A recent graduate from Kapa'a High School, my summer days were filled working for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as an electrician's apprentice, a job I'd earned as part of a collegiate scholarship. In the evenings, I'd travel the ten miles from Kapa'a to Lihu'e to visit my girlfriend at her home or take her out on a date. (They Long to Be) Close to You was an especially favorite tune of the island people. My take on it is that the stars truly are more visible in the ebony sky because there aren't a lot of city lights to block out their natural brilliance. Whenever Karen sang, Why do stars fall down from the sky every time you walk by?, especially under the canopy of the paradisiacal constellations, island romance was enhanced a hundredfold.
Karen Carpenter's velvety-toned contralto voice was indeed ethereal. Years later, as we grieved her premature death, not yet grasping at the time the surprisingly huge number of victims falling prey to this secret epidemic of eating disorders, we appreciated even more the heavenly gift she shared with the world...even if for just an abbreviated season.
Okay, So I Had This Crush...
She had it all...
Blonde hair, green eyes, a lovely figure, and just the right blend of provocative flirtatiousness and delicious innocence. In addition, she had that mysterious hyphenated last name and an alluring Australian accent. Above all, she had this spot on, pitch-clear, wispy voice that had every red-blooded American male wish he had the means to go Down Under.
1975 was a banner year for me.
I was 23 years old at the time, wearing my hair longer than I'd ever dared wear it in high school a few years earlier under the roof of a police officer father, experimenting for the first time in my life with pakalolo, sporting a mustache and constantly getting tagged as either Freddie Prinze or Tony Orlando. Life was fast and fun, and I felt like I was sitting on the top of the world.
In the midst of attending college classes by day and working as a bartender at night in Tacoma, Washington, I often felt burned out. Donning my headphones and plugging it into the gigantic silver boom box that I owned at the time, I closed my eyes and listened to the sweet and soothing voice of Olivia Newton-John.
Because I was taking a couple of classes in English Composition and English Literature, it did not elude me that the title of Olivia's most popular song at the time was grammatically incorrect. Once I heard that delightful whisper of a voice weave its magic, I could care less about the songwriter's choice of adverbs. As far as I was concerned, Olive Newton-John was performing a concert for an audience of one, and I just happened to be the Crown Prince at the moment.
Thirty-seven years have zipped by like thundering Blue Angels accelerating into Mach-5, and suddenly I'm 60. And Olivia Newton-John is 64. But, oh my, she is absolutely gorgeous in her maturity. And a certain Hawaiian I know nostalgically recalls the feelings she evoked whenever her beautiful voice would grace the air waves with Have You Never Been Mellow?
"You Can Check In Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave..."
I marvel at how a drummer can simultaneously perform his percussionist art and sing adeptly...especially when the song in mind is the very surreal and vocally challenging classic, Hotel California.
That's exactly the forte of talented Don Henley of the Eagles. His voice, a vintage study in velvety raspiness, is perfect for this country ballad, and his consistency in singing it live as captivatingly as it was recorded in the studio is a testament to this man's tremendous confidence and disciplined vocal skills.
Eight years prior to the song's release in December of 1976, I was a junior in high school. I'd read an intriguing play by the French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, entitled, No Exit. In short, it addressed a kind of hell where three people--a man and two women--are stuck in a room with each other for eternity, compelled to make each other miserable. The poignant theme is indelibly underscored by the male antagonist: Hell is other people.
In similar fashion, the Eagles were making a statement. It was the bicentennial year for America, after all, and with the eagle being the national symbol, Don Henley appropriately addressed the state of the country--"We've been okay so far, for 200 years, but we're gonna have to change if we're gonna continue to be around."
Upon hearing and memorizing the lyrics to Hotel California, I nostalgically recalled the play I had read in high school. It reasonably followed, then, that I would view the Eagles song as a masterful combination of existentialist poetry and a mesmerizing melody. The haunting guitar duet at the end of the song, created and originally performed by Don Felder and Joe Walsh, forever punctuates Hotel California as one of the greatest hits of all time.
An Initiation In Visualization...
At 5' 11" and liberally bejeweled in charisma, songwriter/singer Neil Diamond engaged his audiences with the force of a Mack Truck and the electricity of the Aurora Borealis.
In 1971, I found myself drowning in books, tablets, writing instruments, and a dorm floor filled with crumpled pieces of notebook paper as I struggled with what appeared to be a slippery glass mountain of calculus homework and political science term papers. Every now and then, I'd have to go for a walk along the mile-long U. District adjacent to the Seattle campus, lost in my solitude and soulfully wondering if I had what it took to be a successful pre-law student.
It was during this season of my life, a few months before my 20th birthday, that I first heard the philosophical questions that had been plaguing my own mind echoed back to me in the form of radio air waves in my beige and broken down VW Beetle.
The singer was Neil Diamond, and the song he delivered as my car struggled to navigate the snow-filled hills of the Emerald City was, I Am, I Said.
Instantly, the personal meaning I drew from this song was its obvious contemporary allusion to one of French philosopher Rene Descartes' memorable suppositions--I think, therefore I am.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Neil Diamond's tune was also perhaps the first song I'd experienced that was also a lesson in Everyman's visualization cry--I Am, I Said. It helped lift my spirits during my situational depression in my sophomore year of college. I am the product of my own thoughts and perceptions about myself and my circumstances. I am as strong as I declare myself to be. Like Diamond's lyrics, sung in his rich baritone, the thoughts I chose helped me survive a very tough time in my life.
To this day, I still get chills through the lumbar region of my spine as I listen--with distinct memory associations of the era--to Neil Diamond's classic philosophical melody.
A Romantic Ballad That Thrilled And Hurt Me At The Same Time...
1972...one of the most difficult years of my life. I was circumstantially separated from my first wife and year-old-son, a separation that I thought would be a temporary one but turned out to be a forever loss.
A song that sustained me during those lonesome days, weeks, and months of my travail was performed by a group with an interesting name, Climax. The song, which reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and #1 on Cashbox magazine's Top 100 singles chart, sold over one million copies and achieved gold status. It was called, Precious and Few.
Climax virtually turned out to be a one-hit wonder, not unlike the fate of its biggest fan...me.
Three years later, as a lead singer for a makeshift garage-origin band, I sang an unplugged version of Precious and Few. The life lesson I learned at the time was simply this--that the motivation to deliver a song with conviction was directly proportional to the amount of pain and hurt in one's life.
Inspiration From A Passing Truck...
As a former baker, I found the following anecdote amusing.
In the early seventies, a quartet of musicians compiled original songs that were readily labeled as soft rock--contemporary tunes that had an easy listening quality about them. The yet unnamed band was in the midst of deciding what to call themselves when a delivery truck rumbled past them, replete with its savory fresh-baked, yeasty aroma. The guys looked at each other for a moment and then unanimously decided to go for it. From that moment on, the soft rock group was known as Bread.
Personally, I liked the majority of Bread's ballads. Born and raised in Hawai'i, I was accustomed to music where male singers playfully flirted with the elevated ranges of their vocal chords, weaving through the high tenor and falsetto notes as adeptly as a surfer navigating through the crest, fall, and pipeline of powerful waves. Bread's songs--and the voice of its lead singer, David Gates--were easy on my ears and even easier to emulate.
In 1978, for one of my band's gigs, I had the privilege of singing Bread's beautiful and most enduring hit of 1971, If. My favorite part of that song was the second verse that began with the words, If a face could launch a thousand ships...an obvious reference to Helen of Troy.
Ironically, decades later, that romantic ballad and homage to a Homeric epic would have a subtle yet significant influence in how and why I chose my present pen name, Hawaiian Odysseus.
A Movie Scene On A Clear Day Paired With A Song About Rain--Ah, But Who Cared?
Without a doubt, this next song stands alone as an ageless pop ballad and perhaps the most memorable tune produced by the prolific songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
In the fall of 1969, however, a movie glorifying the antics of a couple of bank and train robbers during the late 1800's and early 1900's was released that simply blew away the doors of movie theaters all across America and many parts of the world. The charisma of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the spice and beauty of actress Katharine Ross, and one of the most covered songs ever, by both musicians and meteorologists, combined to present baby boomers with an optimistic conclusion to a bittersweet decade in our country's history.
When you hear the buoyant ukulele strumming at the beginning of Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head, you just can't help but revel in a sweet downpour of liquid nostalgia.
"...And The Vision That Was Planted In My Brain Still Remains..."
Once upon a baby boomer time, there was this short dude playing guitar and his partner with the funny hairstyle and even funnier last name...
Ah, but when you heard their simple and folksy blend of unforgettable poetry, acoustic guitar, and perfect harmony, you would know without a doubt that you were awash in a sea of musical genius.
Simon and (the Dreaded) Garfunkel, as one Hawaiian deejay teasingly christianed the group, released a single in 1965. At the time, I was in the eighth grade at the Kamehameha Schools Preparatory Department--a private school for children of Hawaiian descent in Honolulu--and had befriended a chubby, freckled-faced kid named Kapono. We'd often meet in the stairwell of our dormitory to sing a few songs, reveling in the mellow resonance and amplification that the acoustic setting provided. Our voices blended well together, and we soon mastered our adolescent whispery version of our favorite song at the time--The Sound of Silence.
Even at that young age, the compelling image-laden lyrics did not elude me, and I began writing poems that were heavily influenced by Paul Simon's literary style.
Fools, said I, you do not know...silence like a cancer grows, Simon wrote. The sixties comprised a decade of huge anti-war protest--peaceful demonstrations at best, domestic terrorism at worst. It was during this particular era in my life when I first had an inkling that words--whether written, spoken, or sung--could wield tremendous power.
Baby Boomers, Unite!
So there you have it, folks. These are the songs that form my top ten baby boomer ballads. Of course, they only represent a small faction of the hundreds of songs I could have included in this list. And I'm sure that those of you who also lay claim to this same generation had your powers of recall triggered. If so, I'd love to hear from you in the comments section below or, better yet, in your own articles about the ballads that inspired, influenced, and identified who you were back in the day.
Until the next Top Ten list, then, aloha!