Tremble Like Flowers

This was almost 10 years ago. I was half asleep, half awake. My alarm was set to a radio station, WERS from Emerson College in Boston, and as it came on I was drifting in and out of consciousness… perhaps more balanced between the two than ever before. I heard a little piano, than an acoustic guitar. I thought maybe the piano was from the station was getting interference from a neighbor station. The guitar quickly settled into a very gentle, understated groove. I can’t tell you how fast I knew the song – I got it right away. Within seconds, maybe five. But I couldn’t believe it. It sounded so different than the original version… could it really be? I was also surprised at how recognizable the tune was. There is very little to go off of, but it couldn’t have been anything else. I knew the proof was coming soon – how many song lyrics start right off with the title? A croaky voice crooned, “Let’s dance.” I laughed in my head, giddy with what a wildly different interpretation this was shaping up to be. And I was still completely drunk on sleep, gravity was at a delicious quadruple strength.

As he started the chorus, I was on the edge of my seat, lying in bed, ready to go back to sleep if it came, wondering how he was going to handle the climax which is just bombastic in the original and that wouldn’t make sense for how he was doing it and I didn’t think he could pull that off anyway. Then he creeps up into falsetto and tenderly sings, “Because my love for you / would break my heart in two / if you should fall / into my arms / and tremble like flowers.” What a perfect delivery for those words! I was practically ecstatic, and still totally sleep-drunk.

The piano crept back in and confused me again. More importantly, I didn’t want to lose the signal. A harmonica came in for an instrumental section. Not playing too many notes, it was weird-sounding, but fit perfectly, thought that piano was still wandering in. Well, the song goes along, just killing me the whole way through. It ends with him singing, in falsetto like before, “if you should fall / into my arms / and tremble like flowers” several more times, letting me enjoy that bit of prettiness and contrast against Bowie’s original.

What a 5 minutes! That was a perfect, and unrepeatable, listening experience.

Well, after that, I had to get up and make some notes, then email the station later that morning to find out who did that. M. Ward was the answer and I have been a fan since – he’s quite a fine guitar player. Actually, I’m not such a fan of his more popular work with Zooey Deschanel in She and Him, but then I haven’t given them much of a chance. He’s got a new album coming out soon, I hope it’s good!

Here’s a video of Bowie’s original:

For the record, Bowie sings, “treble like a flower,” but it sounds like Ward has it like the title of this post.

How I became a
Richard Thompson fan

In the year and a half between Berkeley and Berklee (late 1990 – 1991), I had a job at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel as a bellman. One afternoon I was wheeling a bellcart back to the lobby when I passed a meeting room that had a function going on for some music label people. I heard a man playing acoustic guitar and singing. While I’m no guitar expert (and was certainly less so then), I could recognize that he was playing it well, not just strumming big open chords, but very specific stuff. So he could play. But I heard that voice and said, well, he’s not going to be the next big pop star. But fine, so what, I did notice that at least he had a distinctive voice, and that counts for a lot.

So, maybe 6 months later (I can’t be sure at this point), I wandered into Rhino Records (the store, not the label office) on Westwood Blvd. Right inside, where they were pushing the new releases, I saw a handwritten write-up for a new album by Richard Thompson. I didn’t know him from, well, from anyone else I didn’t know. The write-up mentioned that he had been in Fairport Convention, and damned if that didn’t sound like a classic band that I should be familiar with (I was about 24 at the time, just for reference) even if I couldn’t think of just who they were. (Years later I would finally read a bit more about Fairport Convention and realize that I didn’t know them even a little bit.) Anyway, the write-up basically said, that after his time in that important band, he has had a long and, if underappreciated, damn fine solo career* and here was his latest, and it’s damned fine, too, so you really oughta pick it up right now!

So I did. I kind of liked it at first, but there was a lot to chew on, and something else kinda bothered me about it… I could swear I knew that voice. Hmm, from where… Then it dawned on me that this was the guy I heard singing in a meeting room at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel!!!

Well, I have no proof, but I still believe that it had to be him showing off his shiny, new material to industry types before the release of the album – I’m 99% sure of it. I’m in LA now (though he is of English extraction, he lives in LA these days) and hope I run into him so I can bombard him with this story and have him corraborate it. (Teddy, do you read music blogs? If you see this – ask him for me! By the way, A Piece of What You Need is a great album, Teddy!)

So Rumour & Sigh will always seem like one of his most important albums to me, but I have almost all of them and have become a huge fan, and I must say, I think my favorite must be Mock Tudor. In fact, I suggest you go buy it right now! If you don’t know anything about RT, well, now’s the time to start learning. I’ll keep it simple: he writes great songs and plays awesome guitar. At #19 on that Rolling Stone link, I think he might still be under-rated.

The first song is, to me, very representative, and a charmer at that. The second one is for my friend Helen, she has a horse (Hi Helen! Hi Chris!) (No, Chris is not the horse.) The third one is the most famous song from Rumour & Sigh, and quite a dramatic story! The last one ROCKS. Enjoy!

And here’s one from Teddy (that would be RT’s son, Teddy Thompson):

* I don’t recall if the write-up mentioned anything about the Richard and Linda years.