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Friday Music Break

"Pearl"
In honor of today's poor job numbers, we've got Janis Joplin, with "Mercedez Benz." For you kids out there, Joplin was a singer who was popular in the 1960s and early 1970s. She performed at a concert called "Woodstock," which was kind of a big deal. Ask your parents about it. This song was recorded three days before she died at age 27.

Friday Music Break

"The Ghosts That Haunt Me"
For today's edition of Slow, Mournful Songs About Superheroes, we have Crash Test Dummies with "Superman Song." And here's a bonus link to Quentin Tarantino's weird yet insightful monologue from "Kill Bill Vol. 2," in which David Carradine argues that "Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race." To be honest, I always found Superman to be the least interesting of superheroes. He's just too ... super. But I like the song.

Friday Music Break

Mr. Rogers rocks the slide whistle.
The Friday Music Break is coming a bit early in the day today, and the reason is that I got this in the old Twitter feed and wanted to pass it along before it spreads across the Internet. Astute readers may know that I'm a huge fan of Symphony of Science , which is one of those rare needles of awesomeness in the haystack of awful autotune videos. Well, the creator of Symphony of Science, John Boswell, has worked his magic on Mr. Rogers for PBS, and the result should make your day. Enjoy:

Friday Music Break

Richard Thompson, "1000 Years of Popular Music"
In the wake of today's exceedingly poor jobs report, I thought about giving you something melancholy for the Friday Music Break, and I was leaning toward folk guitar hero Richard Thompson's Beeswing , an achingly beautiful tale of love and loss. But then I decided to mix things up. So here's Thompson doing Britney Spears' "Oops I Did It Again." Seriously. The crowd, quite appropriately, starts out laughing and ends up cheering.

Friday Music Break

Back to Basics
Since Tuesday was May Day, I thought I'd give you a little Billy Bragg, with "World Turned Upside Down" from 1985. It sounds like he's singing about Occupy Wall Street, but the song is actually about a seventeenth-century agrarian socialist movement in England, which I'm guessing wasn't embraced by the economic leaders of that day, either.

Friday Music Break

Wishing Like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea
For today's edition of Gentle Flowing Tunes Layering Multiple Time Signatures, we have Poi Dog Pondering, with "Thanksgiving." Mmmm...

Levon Helm's Last Waltz

Where does rock and roll stand after the death of the great Band drummer?

(AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Except, possibly, to his onetime musical cohort Robbie Robertson—who may be glumly realizing that people will be unlikely to get this choked up when he passes—the outpouring of online love for ex-Band drummer Levon Helm, who died last Thursday after a 14-year battle with cancer, was no surprise. Even so, I'd have bet anything my own mourning would stay on the remote side. Live and learn. Calling myself only a very occasional fan of the Band would be an understatement. True, they were one of the first acts I saw live back in the Pleistocene era—with Aerosmith opening for them, in hindsight the night's most piquant joke. But they were never renowned for fireworks in concert, and their show was pretty dull. I still think the one and only Greil Marcus should have pumped up Creedence Clearwater Revival or the Grateful Dead instead of the Band in Mystery Train. Among that landmark book's four major topics—Elvis, Sly Stone, and Randy Newman were Marcus's other "inheritors"—there can't be...

Friday Music Break

The Last Waltz
I realize I posted a couple of Levon Helm clips yesterday on the occasion of his passing, but for this week's Friday Music Break I have to give you one more song from The Last Waltz . Here's Van Morrison with The Band, doing "Caravan" in an outfit that in no way screams '70s. Turn on your electric light!

Levon Helm, 1940-2012

Levon Helm, from "The Last Waltz."
When I was a junior in high school, somebody gave me a videotape of The Last Waltz , Martin Scorsese's 1978 documentary about The Band. It was revelatory—not only hadn't I ever heard The Band before, it was the first time I heard many of the other artists who appeared in the film, like Van Morrison and the Staples Singers. It changed the way I looked at music forever. If you haven't seen it, you should. As soon as you can. Seriously. Today, Levon Helm died at age 71. He was The Band's drummer and lead singer, a soulful musician and by all accounts a real nice guy. Here's a clip from The Last Waltz of Helm doing "Ophelia": And here's a clip of Helm doing the same song just this February. Stricken with cancer and obviously frail, Helm could still pick up the sticks and deliver the goods. Rest in peace. Watch Quick Hits: Levon Helm Performs "Ophelia" on PBS. See more from Sound Tracks.

Friday Music Break

"Warren Zevon" (1976)
For today's edition of Just Because It's Awesome, we have a terrific 1976 performance of the sadly departed Warren Zevon doing "Mohammed's Radio" with some help from Jackson Browne. Just because it's awesome.

To Thine Own Self Be Hip

A critic learns to stop worrying and love the music.

(Flickr/Highline Ballroom)
Nostalgia for my bygone days as CBGB and Max's Kansas City plankton definitely isn't my thing. Some people just don't do youth very well, and it turns out I'm much better suited to mimicking Polonius—"to thine own self be hip," more or less, which is wiser advice than it sounds like—for the benefit of bohemian ragamuffins half my age in the Marigny quarter of New Orleans, where my wife and I now live. But what the hell. The weather was fine, the show was free and a 20-minute walk from our house, so why not? Despite having been a passionate fan in the '80s (she was the perfect age for it), my wife had somehow never seen Blondie live before. I hadn't seen them since, oh, 1978, shortly before the multiplatinum-selling Parallel Lines turned them from a likable semi-spoof that nose-in-the-air scenesters didn't take seriously (Talking Heads, man—now, that was art, and David Byrne wasn't about to let you forget it) into the hottest band in the world for a while. Reviewing that shimmering...

A Life Without Compromise

(Flickr/Zoran Veselinovic)
Thanks to a nasty bug last week, I'm still emptying my South by Southwest notebook. A documentary about a musician's fall is sure to be particularly powerful stuff at a festival known largely for launching bands to stardom. Perhaps that's part of what made Beware of Mr. Baker such a favorite at South by Southwest, where it won the coveted Grand Jury Award. The documentary, after all, tells the tale of talented, rakish drummer Ginger Baker, who has finally become old, sitting at home in South Africa, low on cash, short on friends, and far removed from his heyday. The documentary is in many ways a straightforward, chronological narrative of Baker's life, largely based around interviews with those who have known or been influenced by the drummer. For those of us lacking in a strong background of rock history, the film does an excellent job establishing Baker's unique talent in a context. Jay Bulger, the movie's director and writer, seemed to have found just about every famous drummer in...

Woody Guthrie at 100—at SXSW

(Flickr/Karen Apricot New Orleans)
If there was one song I didn't expect to hear during the hipster-convention that is the South by Southwest Music Festival, it was "This Land Is Your Land." And while I didn't expect to hear it, I sure as hell didn't expect to sing. Let alone sing it twice on the same day. But then again, I'd forgotten that this year would have marked Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday. The SXSW organizers had not—and the folk legend's memory was in the air for quite a bit of the festival. The twangy Okie and migrant worker who chronicled fights for social and economic justice died in 1967, but he influenced everyone from Bob Dylan to Joe Strummer to Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen, it turned out, was keynoting the festival Thursday, and prior to his address, a Guthrie tribute was in order. Eliza Gilkyson and Jimmy LeFave took the stage to sing Guthrie standards. Joining them for the second half of their set was Colombian pop star Juanes. Juanes, who rarely sings in English, spoke of his own love for the...

Whitney's Public, Private Struggle

It's a lot harder for mega-celebrities to manage their public and private personas.

(AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File) In this Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009, file photo, Artist Whitney Houston performs onstage at the 37th Annual American Music Awards in Los Angeles. Houston died Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012, she was 48. I hadn’t thought of Whitney Houston in years but, about a month ago, her name actually came up in conversation. My boyfriend and I were talking about the lyrics to “Whatta Man,” the Salt-n-Pepa/En Vogue song, and he singled out “And he knows that my name is not Susan” as a particularly clunky line in an otherwise smooth pop song. “Oh, it’s a reference to a Whitney Houston song called ‘My Name Is Not Susan,’” I reminded him. That’s how famous Houston was in the early 1990s—rappers could drop a reference to one of her lesser-known songs, which only peaked at number 20, and still count on audiences knowing it. The “My Name Is Not Susan” name-check captures Houston’s place in the pop pantheon: Ubiquitous for a time but unable to extend her moment of glory. The news of her...

A Super Bowl for the People

Led by Madonna’s halftime act, this year’s telecast included something for everyone.

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Somehow Madonna pulled off an amazing feat during the Super Bowl: bringing gay culture and aggressive female sexuality into the heart of masculinity’s holiest of days without anyone seeming to care. While the cheerleading segment was embarrassingly silly, I otherwise have to disagree with Tom Carson’s assessment that the Super Bowl’s narrative was Clint Eastwood versus Madonna, with Clint winning. I’m more in the camp of Tom’s friend who said, “It was Clint AND Madonna.” Madonna was hauled onto the field by an army of half-naked men in gladiator costumes and then sang “Vogue,” a song about a dance style invented and nourished in gay nightclubs. Madonna even rolled out “Like A Prayer”, a number that used to bait conservatives with its provocative blend of sexual and religious themes. Yet, the only offended response from the guardians of moral purity the Monday after the show was half-hearted complaining that hip-hop performer M.I.A., who joined Madonna and rapper Nicky Minaj onstage,...

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