Arthur Alexander : The Poet of Melancholy – In The Middle Of It All

The Immortal Jukebox A3 : 

Arthur Alexander – In The Middle Of It All 

‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’.

(Henry David Thoreau)

‘Now I ache, with heartbreak and pain and the hurt that I just can’t explain’

(Arthur Alexander)

Imagine you are the manager of a blue collar bar in a tough small town.  You work long hours making sure everybody has a good time and that nobody’s good time winds up leaving someone else on their way to hospital.

You know who not to serve, who to share a joke with, who to warn off and who to throw out for their own good.

You keep a weighted pool cue just out of sight from the floor within your reach – just in case.

You stock the jukebox and make sure that there’s old and new favourites: something that counts as a home town anthem; several that are fast and loud for the boys from the base; plenty to dance and sing along to for the girls with the faraway looks in their eyes; and, some for everyone to openly or quietly cry over.

The night, though long, passes quickly for you and you don’t realise how tired you are until the door’s been shut on the last, loud, lonely drunk.

You look around and sigh thinking of the work needed before the whole cycle starts again after you wake up in a few hours.

Time to pour yourself a more than generous measure of premium whiskey and play one last song.

Only one will do.  Arthur Alexander, the patron saint of stoical fortitude.

I can’t go on, I can’t go on – I’ll go on.

‘In The Middle Of It All’ tells the story of a broken man surveying, with an eerie calm that almost amounts to existential detachment, the shattered ruins of his life : ‘It looks like my life is about to fall’.

Like all the great Arthur Alexander songs – ‘You Better Move On’,  ‘Anna’ and ‘Dream Girl’ – it’s the song of a grown up man; a man who has experienced joy and pain, the ecstasy and despair brought on by love and it’s loss.

Though Arthur’s songs are suffused with intense feeling they are in no sense hysterical – the besetting sin of so much pop music.

The record opens with a beautiful elegaic guitar figure that seems to glisten and shimmer in the background throughout the song.

It then flows on at a stately, magisterial ballad mid tempo with the swooning melody and instrumental backing acting as a cushioned support for Arthur Alexander’s deeply affecting and entrancing southern country soul voice.

Arthur’s vocal charm owes nothing to stylistic tricks rather it is founded on the ageless attraction of hearing the sound of a man’s open, if broken heart.

A sound that we can all recognise when it is authentic and true.  Arthur Alexander’s proud and wounded vocals once heard will echo on in your own heart.

While listening to the song it seems as if you have pulled up your bar stool next to a pleasant looking though downcast guy who with no fanfare or needy plea for sympathy tells you, if you want to hear, why it is that night after night you can find him resident at this bar and why, night after night, no matter how much he drinks he does not get drunk.

During the course of, ‘In The Middle of It All’ the drummer seems to beat out a steady purgatorial pilgrim’s tempo while Arthur’s exquisite vocal lays out the extent of his lonely and desolate emotional landscape.

His love for his girl which was, ‘Really, really real’ remains true even though the house and home their love had built together is now a reproachful ruin he occupies alone.

The place where they had been so happy, as far as he can recall, now has the rain steadily and dreadfully falling all around it.

What he once thought were the certainties of love and loyalty have vanished like some cruel mirage as his world, ‘Just came down one day’.

The song seems to summon up this heart and soul assaulting rain as the strings swell and the chorus of backing singers join Arthur in his examination of regret and loss.

You can feel the southern heat and humidity of Alabama where the song was recorded in every breath of Arthur’s vocal and in every beat of the music.

The wonderful piano playing provides arpeggios of insistent pain and a sense that, in this vale of tears, no shield of love or faith can ever be proof against the truth that a love which seemed so sure can, in an instant, crumble into mere dust.

Arthur Alexander’s singing throughout this song is filled with an aching tenderness as he caresses each word into bruised breath and life.

It is as if by singing with such scrupulous care he can somehow make whole his shattered heart or at least prevent it’s final destruction.

His singing remains controlled and conversational even as it grows in the depth of pain it examines.

Perhaps this is because the song, for this singer, even in such a situation is not a resentful scream but rather a tragic lullaby that tries despite all his trials to shore up a ruined life.

There is no escape from the realisation that all of us must sooner or later confront the inevitability of death, loss and failure.  For as the roman poet Virgil and Arthur Alexander knew living a clear eyed life involves coming to terms with the terrible truth that there are tears in things, ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum’.

If you want someone to hold your hand when this truth becomes real in your own life it’s hard to think of a better soul companion than Arthur Alexander.

‘In The Middle of It All’ is one of those rare songs that seems to live on in the silence after it has finished and after the record arm has returned to its cradle.

Sometimes for me that silence feels like the silence between two sobs.

Forty years ago David Bowie in ‘Young Americans’ uttered an anguished plea: ‘Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry’.

Well David, wherever you are tonight, here it is.

It has always worked for me.

Notes, credits and further listening:

It seems that Arthur Alexander recorded ‘In The Middle Of It All’ four times in his life.  The version discussed above is the second 1962 version.

Arthur Alexander recorded some 120 songs during his recording career for a variety of labels.  His initial career featuring many of the songs he will always be remembered for  began at Dot Records and includes some of the premier recording at Rick Hall’s FAME  studio in Muscle Shoals.

From 1965 he recorded for Sound Stage 7, a Monument subsidiary and in 1971 he recorded a lone album for Warner Brothers.  In 1975, out of the blue, he recorded the marvellously fluid and typically affecting single, ‘Everyday I Have To Cry’ which incredibly made the US top 50.

Finally and most poignantly of all he recorded the lovely low key, Lonely Just Like Me’ album issued by Elektra in 1993 some three months prior to his death.

This was later reissued by Hacktone Records with the addition of live performances and also with some hotel room demos which have some of the 3am in the morning, death on the horizon mood, shared with the New York Demos recorded by Buddy Holly prior to his untimely demise.

The ever alert Ace Records have issued two essential compilations covering the Dot and Monument Years.  The other albums have also been reissued.

A welcome tribute collection, ‘Adios Amigo’  came out under the Razor and Tie imprint and features Nick Lowe’s tender cover of, ‘In The Middle Of It All’ (indeed Lowe’s career in this millennium might be seen as the largely successful attempt to pare his songwriting and recording style to their essentials in emulation of Arthur Alexander).

A relatively small investment will furnish you with the heartbreakingly magnificent catalogue of one of the greatest singers and songwriters in any genre and you will surely find that the songs and performances will become treasured fixtures in your life.

They were certainly a fixture in the life of John Lennon who had clearly listened closely to Arthur Alexander as evidenced in The Beatles cover of, ‘Anna’.  The way that the famously acerbic Lennon could bring a wounded tenderness and discretion to ballad performances also betrays Artur’s influence.

John Lennon kept a jukebox filled with his favourite records to fortify him against the madness of the world that had grown up around him: prominent on his own immortal selection were records by Arthur Alexander.

Arthur Alexander was born in Sheffield Alabama in May 1940 and died in June 1993 in Nashville.  He was only 53 years old.

Despite recording several classic songs and having some of these covered by The Beatles (Anna) and The Rolling Stones (You Better Move On) he never really made much money from his songs.

Sadly, he was also prey to alcohol and mental health problems.  Disillusioned and depressed he was for many years largely estranged from the music business and spent long spells working as a janitor and school bus driver.

There is a heartfelt biography by Richard Younger, ‘Get A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story’ published by the University of Alabama.

Arthur Alexander might be said to be the epitome of the, ‘Country Soul’ style of music.

The movement as a whole is warmly evoked and intelligently discussed in Barney Hoskyn’s book, ‘Say It One Time For The Broken Hearted: Country Soul In The American South’ (Fontana/Bloomsbury).

Musicians growing up in a deeply segregated society were nevertheless heir to musical traditions that, principally through the medium of radio, effortlessly crossed the racial divide.  Mucians and singers recognised great songs whether they were played on country or ‘Race’ music stations.

The constellation of wonderful musicians and songwriters who worked at Stax, FAME and Muscle Shoals studios were artistic freedom riders shattering barriers within the sanctuary of the recording studio even if they had to step carefully once they emerged into the heavy heat of the Southern mainstreet.

Booker T and The MG’s, Dan Penn, Chips Moman, Spooner Oldham and their brothers and sisters in rhythm made records that were recognisably southern and spoke eloquently of the lives shared by black and white alike.

There is a website ‘The annotated Arthur Alexander’ which is a very valuable resource for anyone seriously interested in delving further into Arthur’s recording career.

Bill Withers – The Better Angels (Lean On Me)

The Immortal Jukebox A2 – Bill Withers:  Lean On Me

 

‘A good man out of the treasure of his heart bringeth forth good things’ (Matthew)

‘Lean on me when you’re not strong and I’ll help you to carry on’ (BIll Withers)

Bill Withers stuttered painfully as a boy and young man which meant he didn’t say much.

What he did do was listen carefully and thoughtfully to the people around him in his family and his community.

Bill was  born and brought up in poor blue collar West Virginia mining communities where every day was a struggle with the constant background threat of injury and disaster.

In such communities loyalty, mutual reliance  and co-operation were not painted storybook virtues but living realities.   People worked with and for each other so that everyones burden would be a little lighter and thus more bearable.

Bill was and is a proud working man who knows the labourer is worthy of his hire and worth listening to.

After leaving home at 17 Bill spent 9 years in the US Navy where once again you learned that if you wanted your back covered you had to perform the same service for your comrade – buddy or not.

Your life literally was often in your brother’s hands.

He also listened with intent and attention to the songs he heard in church and on the radio. His imagination became infused with the enduring resorative grace of gospel, the energising pulse of rhythm and blues and the sweet balm of soul music.

Bill was storing wisdom and treasure in his heart and when the stuttering stopped his voice came through loud and clear.

Bill Withers would draw from a deep well of resources to write and perform songs that would always be fresh and relevant because they addressed fundamental questions about how our lives were and should be lived.

Which is to say that in many senses Bill Wither’s vocation combined that of a songwriter and singer with that of a preacher ministering to his community through the uplifting medium of music.

The prolific country songwriter Harlan Howard defined the essence of a great song as three chords and the truth and that’s exactly what Bill Withers offers us in his wonderfully vivid songbook.

Lean on Me is a simple song that tells an eternal truth.

We all have pain, we all have sorrow : we all need someone to lean on.

It opens with plain repeated piano stabs calling the listener to attention – listen up I got something to say!

The melody and rhythm echo the tradition of a gospel service: state your theme, tell your story through examples we can all recognise from our daily lives then call on the audience to respond.

Invite your listeners to testify that the seemingly unbearable can be borne if you call out to your brother or if your sister calls out to you – ‘I’ll help you carry on’.

Show that we can all be the leaning post for our brother or sister in need .. ‘I’m just right up the road, I’ll share your load if you just call me.’  For, as long as the moon lasts we are all bound to stumble and fall in this life.

It’s just a question of who falls when and how far and whether a helping hand and load bearing shoulder will be at hand to help you up and lead you on.

The foolishly proud always think they can stand up alone while the wise now that with help we can all make it through today’s troubles to tomorrow.

Lean on me acknowledges, indeed celebrates our weakness and vulnerability but also our strength.

We are supplicants but we are also enablers, uplifters and  restorers.

Yes, life will batter us and nobody walks in the sunshine all through their life but if we are honest, admit to our difficulties and failings and call for help we can be amazed that others are ready to come to our aid.

Family, fraternity and faith in each other will get us through.

Of course, where a song is concerned having good intentions and a good moral to impart does not mean that the song will live. And, if a song does not live, get up and walk by itself on its own merits, then you won’t capture your audience, won’t get them to listen once – let alone sing along and punch that number on the jukebox.

Lean on Me passes this test easily: it’s a wonderful up and walking living song!

First and foremost Bill Wither’s warm, supple and alluring voice commands your attention and wins your allegiance – you want to listen to what this man has to say.

This is the voice of a strong, mature man with hard miles over rough ground on the clock.

Yet, it’s the voice of an optimistic man ready to roll up his sleeves and face unafraid whatever challenges the next day will bring.

So, when Bill Withers sings you listen and when he calls out for you to respond you find that before you’ve realised it you’re singing :

‘We all need someone to lean on’

The song proceeds at a stately pace like a great powerful train allowing lolly gagging passengers plenty of time to get on board – confident they are in safe hands and will arrive at the right destination at the appointed time – the driver clearly knows what he’s doing.

As,’Lean on Me’ develops in come the most primal musical accompaniment of all – handclaps.  These are organically perfect in context: a song addressing our common humanity using the, ‘instrument’ even the most musically illiterate can at least assay when enthused.

On record Bill uses the handclap as a propulsive encourager of the spirit of the song, ‘Come on! This way’.

In concert it is unimaginable that the bands handclaps aren’t swelled by all of those in the audience.  By now everybody is on board the train and seeing themselves as one body – whatever seat they happen to be in.

As the song moves forward the strings come in to emphasise the swelling strength that acknowledged common vulnerability can unlock – ‘Call on me brother’ and we will get through, we will get through – together.

This is a song, without doubt as time has proven, an anthem, that proclaims our individuality and our community membership should not be warring forces but aspects of a natural, nurturing whole.

That’s what Bill and, ‘Lean on Me’ are – nurture for our humanity.

The greatest ever political leader once put it this way a century or so before Bill, ‘We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies.’. That is how we will find the better angels of our nature.

Abraham Lincoln said that. Or to put it another way:

‘You just call on me, brother, when you need a hand

We all need someone to lean on.’

Bill Withers said that.  I doubt that popular music has ever had a truer or more passionate guide to our better angels than Bill Withers.

Notes, Comments and further listening:

Lean on Me was written and produced by Bill Withers and recorded in 1972.

The musicians featured were James Gadson on drums, Ray Jackson on keyboards, Benorce Blackman on guitar and Melvin Dunlap on bass.

Lean on Me was a Number One record on both the R&B chart and the Hot 100 Billboard US charts.

Bill Wither’s catalogue is filled with powerful melodic songs and taut performances.  His first two albums, ‘Just as I Am’ and ‘Still Bill’ are essential components of any record collection.

Songs like the warm, witty and wise ‘Grandma’s Hands’ and the gloriously evocative and consoling, ‘Aint No Sunshine’ are undeniable classics.

‘Bill Withers at Carnegie Hall’ is among the very greatest live records with superlative singing and musicianship responding to an audience that is thrilled to celebrate in his company.

Sony have recently reissued the complete Bill Withers catalogue which is widely available at a ridiculously cheap price given the eternity shale it contains.

The Immortal Jukebox : An Introduction, A Manifesto and GLORIA!!

Red and green and yellow – buzzing and glowing with the neon primary colour promise of dangerous thrills and illicit pleasures.

A sensual blow to the solar plexus when in wonderfully mechanical operation.

The chosen 45 is lifted from the racks and placed with a hugely satisfying clunk onto the turntable and then the arm housing the magic needle descends and …..   Two or three minutes of temporal and eternal bliss.

Play that one again!

Maybe the jukebox is in a roadhouse just outside of Memphis where a truck driver who loves ‘all kinds’ of music gets to hear the singers who can wrap up heartache and joy and project them through the vinyl into the hearts and souls of the dancers and drinkers and the quiet girls in the corner.

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Maybe it’s in a dancehall in Hibbing where the iron ground vibrates with magnetic energy and the bitterly cold wind hits heavy on the borderline.

Here a tousle headed kid with a teeming head full of ideas and an unassailable sense of destiny has an epiphany when the lonesome whistle blows and he has no need to ask for a translation of Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom!

Maybe it’s in a coffee bar in Liverpool where two teenagers levitating with energy and talent and the desire to make the world anew can go when they are sagging off school and dreaming impossible dreams of songs with their names in brackets after the title.

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Maybe it’s in Detroit where an ex boxer and jazz buff with enough entrepreneurial ambition to found an empire has figured out that the empire could be built on the talents of the hometown teenagers of his own race – once he had organised them.

He understood that the white world was waiting, unknowingly, for a vision of a young America that he could manufacture and supply in the form of a production line of vibrant, electrifying   45’s … Are you ready for a brand new beat?

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More likely it’s in a thousand towns all over the globe where men and women meet to,drink and laugh and cry.  Where they go to find love, laughter and sex and temporary forgetting.

On the jukebox there’s always that song … The one that makes the hairs rise on the back of your neck … The one that makes your heart pump faster and faster … The one that makes you ask the first time you hear it ‘Who’s that!’ …

The one you’ll never forget as long as you live, the one that will always embody youth and hope and the promise of a better, bigger life.

The one to play again and again, learning every word , every riff and lick, the one you saved up to buy to play at home as loud as your neighbours would allow.

The Immortal Jukebox will celebrate 100 of those records.

Not the 100 best records of all time or my hundred favourite records.

These will be a 100 records that would turn your head when you hear them come blasting out of those jukebox speakers.

A 100 records that sound great whether you are drunk or sober.

A 100 records that pull you in whether you are in the giddy throes of new love or bemoaning the love you have just lost.

A 100 records to give you hope or consolation.

A 100 records that would have you reaching in your pocket for the money to play that song again.

A1: Them (featuring Van Morrison) ‘Gloria’ A1: Them (featuring Van Morrison) ‘Gloria’

 

Some songs have a brutally simple primal perfection.

Usually these songs are recorded at the very beginning of an artists career before they start to look into the rear view mirror and become conscious that they do indeed have a career, a legacy and a reputation to protect.

These are records that come at you full bore and demand that you listen now! Think of the primitive perfection of the last song recorded on the day the Beatles recorded their first LP. You want to know what The Beatles sounded like in Hamburg?

Listen to the raw bleeding magnificence of John Lennon’s vocal on, ‘Twist and Shout’ and the eyeballs out commitment of Paul, George and Ringo.

There was no way a second take could top that!

Think of the stupid beauty of the Undertones debut single, ‘Teenage Kicks’ – a record that captured as few others have the thrilling intoxication of young love and lust.

Feargal Sharkey’s impassioned vocal (All right!) and the unrepeatable delirium of Damian O’ Neill’s guitar solo combine to create a miracle that comes up fresh every time and is endlessly replayable – which seems a pretty good definition of what I want from a jukebox single.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that throughout the 1960s that wherever and whenever a group of would be rock and roll stars gathered – in the family garage, in the basement or at a flea bitten church or municipal hall – very soon after they had plugged in they would launch, with wildly varying degrees of competence, into the daddy of all the primitive perfection songs, ‘Gloria’.

Puzzled passers-by must have wondered why such a simple name needed to be spelled out with such repetitive intensity, ‘ … And her name is G – L – O – R – I – A, Gloria!’.

They must also have shuddered at the threat, ‘ I’m gonna shout it out night and day .. G – L – O – R – I – A! G – L – O – R – I – A, Gloria!’.

They must also have shuddered at the threat, ‘ I’m gonna shout it out night and day ..

G – L – O – R – I – A!

It is likely that many of the groups who attacked the song made a fair fist of the instrumental ground of the song – three chords don’t take long to master.

A few of the lead guitar players will have matched Jimmy Pages fluency and prowess as demonstrated on the recording.

However, No-one, No-one, will have come anywhere near reproducing the frenzied intensity of Van Morrison’s pyrotechnic vocal.

This Van Morrison was not the superlative song stylist or the Celtic soul and blues master he would later become. This was a snarling, desperate, bewildered teenager who was reluctantly coming to terms with life and lust, the whole painful mess of it all.

A youth who looked down more than he looked up but who was nevertheless able to surprise himself with the ability to express vocally the gamut of emotions and frustrations he faced every day and every night.

But, from the very get-go in his career it was clear that there was no doubt who was leading and commanding the band. Van Morrison on the bandstand or in the studio acts as an emperor, a ruler by right of his eminent majesty as a singer and as a band leader. In this, as so much else, he took his cue from the high priest of soul – Ray Charles.

Gloria is the work of explosive youth, of wanting and yearning, of overwhelming mind and body dominating lust. Gloria may be the most purely male, testosterone fueled record ever made. Gloria, five feet four from her head to the ground, is the eternal lust object.

Van Morrison might say that she knocks upon his door and even more thrillingly comes to his room but the thrust of the song seems to me to be the solitary, devoutly told repetition of an oft returned to fantasy.

There may well have been a real Gloria but it is the dream of Gloria who knocks on Van’s door with such insistent force. Surely, if he could only chant her name with enough power she would indeed knock upon his door and make all his fevered dreams come true:

G – L – O – R – I A !! G- L- O- R – I – A !! G – L – O – R – I – A!!

The musical drive of Gloria is the relentless beat, beat, beat of male desire in all it’s sullen and obsessive purity. Gloria is the incarnation on vinyl of the desperate male imperative to be adultly carnal – its a boy desperately wanting, needing, to be a man.

Gloria has more tension than release – much like all young lives. This is no doubt why it appealed so powerfully to beat group boys all over the world.

Van snarls his way through the lyric with his uniquely salty Belfast tones alternately pressing and holding back – he already had a grasp of dynamics within song arrangement born of years of listening to Ray and John Lee and Leadbelly on the street where he was born.

Gloria is also as every listener who’s ever heard it knows one hell of a rush! It comes roaring out of the speakers and before you have time to catch your breath you are carried along on its tidal wave of rhythmic power.

Two minutes and thirty-eight seconds later you will be nearly as elatedly exhausted as Van Morrison himself.

Take a breath or two and maybe down a shot of Bushmills – then press A1 again – you know you want to.

Notes & Comments:

Gloria was recorded on April 5 1964 at Decca’s Studio in West Hampstead, London and released as the B side of Baby Please Don’t Go on July 6th.

Them members Billy Harrison (guitar), Alan Henderson (bass), Ronnie MIllings (drums) and Patrick McCauley (keyboards) were present in the studio when Gloria was recorded and all probably contributed to the single.

Also present were key members of London’s top session musicians of the time. Jimmy Page surely played the lead guitar and Bobby Graham (who would later play the on the equally epochal ‘You really got me’, must have played the drums). Arthur Greenslade probably played the organ.

There have been numerous cover versions. The most commercially successful being that by The Shadows of Knight which made No 10 in the US charts at the end of 1966.

The most artistically successful is Patti Smith’s reinvention of the song on her amazing debut LP ‘Horses’ in 1975.

Van Morrison’s solo career post Them is too extensive and contains too many Himalayan peaks of achievment for me to outline here.

However, his career as the leader of Them has too frequently been overlooked and/or under regarded. This is a pity as Them’s canon contains some wonderful songs and performances as well as tantalising auguries and intimations of his mature triumphs.

Here are 5 wonders you should seek out urgently!

1. Mystic Eyes – A supernaturally intense harmonica driven howl past the graveyard. Can a white man sing the blues? Damn right he can when he’s a visionary Ulsterman who doesn’t view the blues as adolescent rebellion.

Instead its virtually his first language. This track has the visceral power of a nightmare and would surely have raised a knowing smile of recognition from Sonny Boy Williamson or Little Walter.

2. My Lonely Sad Eyes – In which Van seems almost overwhelmed by love and longing as he surfs atop a gorgeous rolling melody. Almost, for Van has the rare gift of being simultaneously in and out of control – an artist and shaman who can be articulate even as he opens up the otherwhere beyond our everyday gaze.

3. Could You Would You – A wounded and yearning romantic ballad with Van seductively pleading his case to his love object. An early example of the tenderness and world weary longing he could evoke. In ballads Van can with a devotees fervour infuse a prayerful gospel hush into a song and still the heart.

Its clear that Van has been listening appreciatively to the wonderful Arthur Alexander’s reveries in song ( Dream Girl, You Better Move On). The track was memorably covered by the late Willy De Ville who also knew all about heartbreak in song.

4. Hey Girl – An eerily beautiful prefigurement of Astral Weeks dreamlike mood. Van takes a walk and watches the boats go by in the early morning light. A spectral flute welcomes the wind and sun as Van’s vocal caresses each word of the lyric in which once again he encounters the young girl, his Beatrice figure, who will almost make him lose his mind.

The track is only three minutes and ten seconds long yet seems to last much longer – indeed seems to have stopped time.

5. All Over Now Baby Blue – Excepting Jimi Hendrix’s immortal take on All Along The Watchtower the greatest ever cover of a Bob Dylan song. Van has always respected Dylan’s songwriting genius and yet as a comparably gifted artist is not afraid of recasting the song as a rhythm and blues ballad drawing out the wistful regret and emotional depth of the song.

Van has always been able to make each song a voyage where he invokes, reveals and rides the dynamism of the waves of emotion within lyric and melody. The strikingly beautiful chiming guitar riff was later sampled by Beck.