There’s a scene in one of my favorite TV shows, Arrested Development – specifically, the episode entitled “Good Grief” – that manages to be both hysterical and sad at the same time (which, of course, is exactly the point). And I just happen to have a clip available (the Internet is so wonderful).
I mention this clip because it’s what I think of when I hear today’s Mellow Gold song. In fact, remove Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here” from the scene altogether; replace it with this gem.
Michael Johnson – Bluer Than Blue (download)
This Mellow Gold classic comes to us courtesy of Robert, our frequent, prolific commentator (check out his blog, Mulberry Panda 96, for more great writing). Robert knows his Mellow, and found this song on Volume 21 of the Have A Nice Day: Super Hits Of The ’70s compilation. Let’s not ask him if he has 1-20.
Michael Johnson has had quite the career, even before the success of “Bluer Than Blue.” He picked up the guitar after contracting a severe case of pneumonia at the age of 13. Confined to a hospital bed set up in his family living room, Johnson taught himself how to play the instrument, and as soon as he was well, began playing gigs around his homebase of Denver. As a college sophomore, Johnson entered and won a nationwide talent contest; the prizes were a reel-to-reel recorder (which was broken) a two-week engagement at a well-established Chicago coffeehouse (for which he wasn’t paid), and a contract for one record under Epic Records (“Hills,” from a song written at age fifteen, for which he earned a total of eleven cents for 23 copies sold). What a deal, huh? However, the experience was invaluable – the coffeehouse hired him (for pay, this time) for about 20 weeks, and Johnson became passionate enough about his guitar to move to Spain for a year, learning classical guitar from Graciano Tarrago.
Johnson missed singing, however, and soon moved back to the States. There, he joined the Chad Mitchell Trio, along with David Boise and some guy named John Denver. (Beats me.) The group toured as “Denver, Boise and Johnson” (since, y’know, no original members of the trio were still involved), but soon disbanded. (You can see a rare clip of the trio performing here.) Johnson continued to perform (including a part in the Off-Broadway revue Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris), and in 1973 was signed to Atco, under Atlantic Records, as a folk artist. His first album, There Is A Breeze, was produced by Phil Ramone and Peter “I, Too, Am Torn Between Two Lovers” Yarrow, and featured Johnson’s friend Leo Kottke.
Johnson recorded two other albums with limited success, and began to look in different directions. He even contemplated joining a trio – in fact, here’s a rare picture of him rehearsing with none other than Mary MacGregor! (And Mark Henley! And Mark Henley’s dog! Mellow Gold is so exciting!)
I know what you’re thinking: they’re the two lovers!
Anyway, in search of his new, hopefully more mainstream direction, Johnson went to Nashville and recorded a two-song demo to shop to the labels. One song was “Almost Like Being In Love” from the musical Brigadoon, and the other was “Bluer Than Blue,” written by Randy Goodrum (who has penned, among other songs, “Oh Sherrie” and Chicago’s “If She Would Have Been Faithful”). Chosen from a number of demos by Johnson and his producers, Johnson was initially skeptical about the mainstream appeal of a song lamenting the end of a long-time relationship. However, he was dead wrong: EMI America (then a new label) picked Johnson up immediately, and released the single without any changes to the original demo. “Bluer Than Blue” shot up to #1 on the AC chart, and reached #12 on the pop charts in the Spring of 1978.
Does any song live up to its title more than this one?
“Mas Triste Que La Tristeza” “Bluer Than Blue” sure packs one hell of an emotional wallop on a number of levels. Musically, the instrumentation couldn’t be any more depressing – the plaintive piano, the gentle guitar, the soft drums, and those oh-so-woeful strings. It sounds like every single musician had his or her head hanging as low as possible while recording. In fact, it’s a wonder that one of the musicians didn’t try and stick his bow straight through his heart after this session. Did they have Zoloft in ’78? How did these guys leave “Bluer Than Blue” and not attempt suicide?
Somehow, though, the music is the kind of depressing that doesn’t necessarily make you feel worse. Instead, it consoles you when you’re actually feeling this way. And let’s talk about the vocal: Johnson may not have had any formal acting experience before joining the cast of Jacques Brel, but clearly he learned something: the sadness that he imbues in his lead vocal is damn near heartbreaking.
Lyrically, this song is a little different from other Mellow Gold hits we’ve covered – but you’d never know it if you went straight for the chorus. It’s true that it doesn’t get any mellower than “Bluer than blue/Sadder than sad/You’re the only light this empty room has ever had.” A chorus such as this only makes you feel bad in that “why don’t you go call Dan Hill or something and leave me alone” kinda way. But Goodrum gives the song a little twist in each of the verses: each one is our protagonist trying his darndest to be optimistic in the middle of a heartbreaking moment.
After you go
I can catch up on my reading
After you go
I’ll have a lot more time for sleeping
And when you’re gone
It looks like things are gonna be a lot easier
Life will be a breeze, you know
I really should be glad
And let’s not forget this important point: she hasn’t actually left yet! This, of course, leads us to the question of what’s sadder: when she’s actually gone, or when she’s still there, and you know it’s over…yet, it’s not over? It’s a matter of opinion, but I’m going with the latter. And all of this – the false optimism and the underlying heartbreak – is there in Johnson’s vocal.
Y’know, if I were to make a video for this song, it’d have Johnson lying on the couch in an empty apartment, that book that he’s been dying to read in his hands, sadly staring at the ceiling…ooh, and then the choruses would have a split-screen: one side with him in the apartment, and the other with him singing directly to camera! Oh wait….that was the video:
I’ts unlike most Mellow Gold videos: for one, it’s not just a live performance of the band playing the song. But more importantly, Johnson doesn’t ham it up or overact to try to get his point across. He sings to the camera as simply as he sings into the microphone. And it works. I’m not saying he’s Pacino or anything, but the guy’s got some acting skills.
When Johnson’s producers first played him “Bluer Than Blue,” he couldn’t believe that nobody else had recorded it already. Once Johnson recorded it, a number of other artists followed suit, including Barry Manilow and (who sounds quite similar to Johnson), Livingston Taylor (who makes the song way more depressing).
Johnson wasn’t a one-hit wonder; I’m sure you’ll tell me about your memories of his other hits in the comments, but I can tell you his other big AC hits were “Almost Like Being In Love,” “This Night Won’t Last Forever,” and his hit in the Orthodox community, “Jewer Than Jew.” (Okay, maybe he didn’t do that last one.) In the mid-’80s, Johnson moved from the light pop genre to country, where he had a number of smash hits, including the #1s “Give Me Wings” and “The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder.” And, like many of our Mellow artists, Johnson pulled a Mardones and re-recorded a number of his hits for 1997′s Then And Now. However, the re-recording isn’t too bad – and by replacing piano with delicate guitar fingerpicking, it proves that Johnson’s year in Spain with Tarrago wasn’t a waste.
Bluer Than Blue (re-recorded, 1997) (download)
You might recognize some of the musicians adding their talents to the song: Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss, Ron Block…it’s pretty much Michael Johnson + Union Station. Speaking of Krauss, Johnson co-wrote a song for her album Forget About It. His collaborator?
These days, Johnson keeps actively musically as the touring guitarist for Nanci Griffith, who included a cover of “Bluer Than Blue” on last year’s Ruby Torch release. I encourage you to check out his official website it’s pretty comprehensive (where else could I find a picture of the Spanish “Bluer Than Blue” 45?), and traces his long, interesting path through the music biz.
And with that, I bid you a fond, wussy farewell, and hope to see you next week for another edition of Adventures Through The Mines Of Mellow Gold!