Adventures Through The Mines Of Mellow Gold 18

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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).

[youtube]RFDVBXzfoaY[/youtube]

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:

[youtube]Y5H9eOzrSuo[/youtube]

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!

  • I like this song. Thanks for reminding me. It actually helped me get over a girl once, in its own small way – a long, long time ago – that’s the first one on Melooow Gold (typo, but it looks kinda cool and in context (luv? low?), so I’ll keep it). I have a version of Bluer Than Blue with Randy Goodrum. Adds nothing to the song. The most interesting thing about the Goodrum album is that he does a breezy, laid-back smooth jazz version of – you’ll never guess it – Mustang Sally.

  • Fartsgo

    Yeah, thanks.I always thought the verses sounded like something that Randy Newman might write.  I like the stripped down, slightly countrified remake better than the original.

  • I remember "This Night Won’t Last Forever" but didn’t realize it was by the same guy.  It’s an upbeat "Greatest American Hero"-type song, apparently about a guy who’s goes to the same party as his ex-girlfriend and watches as she flirts with other guys and eventually leaves with one of them for a Cool Night.  Does he leave?  Tell her off?  Advise her to "not let the door hit you on the way out?"  That wouldn’t be Mellow Gold, would it?  He sits there moping about it, apparently cornering some poor person with his tale of woe.

  • David

    I want “3 Time Grammy Award Winner: Michael McDonald” as a t-shirt.

    … Does he know he’s the Mellow Gold mascot?

  • I bet we could get Jefito to make one.  I’m still waiting on his "Al Jarreau Appreciation Society" shirt.

    I don’t think he knows he is, David, but I do plan on letting him know at some point…

  • Stephen

    As a Nashville resident it’s amazing to me how many of these Mellow Gold artists have folded into the Nashville music scene whether through country music, or just living there. We’ve got Michael McD, Walter Egan, and I’m assuming Johnson lives here too. Has Nashville replaced SoCal as the new Mellow Gold mecca? Surely Mellow Gold music will always reside in the canyons of Los Angeles county in spirit.I listened to "Bluer than Blue" a couple of weeks ago for the first time on a day long search to gain all the mellow gold music I could. Great stuff.In other news, I suggest all Mellow Gold fans buy ( or at least sample on iTunes) the new Autumn Defense album (from Wilco bassist John Striatt). Somehow they’ve captured mellow gold or yacht rock at its best; even outmellowing that new America album. It’s amazing how well they capture this genre, and every review I’ve read has used the phrase "mellow gold" or "yacht rock" (or both) to describe its sound, so it’s not just me. Even the album cover screams early 70s mellow and I’m not even sure it’s intentional. There’s elements of Bread, America, Chicago…the only thing its missing is a "What a Fool Believes" rip off. Maybe next time.

  • MC

    Wow.  Here’s proof of the human ability to surpress certain memories. As I began reading this week’s MG edition, I didn’t recognize the title of this gem, Bluer Than Blue… or the name of the artist.  Then I downloaded it and wham! it hit me like a hard dopeslap across the head.  What a horribly depressing (and pathetic) anthem this was!  I especially liked this part:
    I don’t have to miss no TV shows / I can start my whole life over / change the numbers on my telephone / but the nights will sure be colder…
    She was causing him to miss TV shows, for crying out loud.  Does anyone need more reason to end a relationship than that?

  • woofpop

    Stephen,
    TONS of mellow rockers migrated to Nashville after the collapse of the franchise in the mid 80’s. Many switched musical genres as performers, but many more went behind the scenes as writers or producers. Your mention of ‘Autumn Defense’ reminded me of the Thorns record a couple of years ago, where Matthew Sweet, Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge got their mellow on big time..

  • Oh, how I love that Thorns record.  I was absolutely obsessed with that record for months and months.  It was the best thing since sliced Bread.

    It doesn’t look like the new Autumn Defense is up on iTunes yet, unless I’m missing it?  I’m hoping it appears on eMusic…

  • Stephen

    Good call on the Thorns…Matthew Sweet was also mentioned in some of the reviews I read. I just love that there are people out there keeping the mellow alive, and even manage to do it in a non-embarassing way.I’m not sure why it’s not up on iTunes yet…but for now, this site has a couple of sample mp3s that should give you a good idea of the mellowness that these guys are bringing to 21st century ears.I definitely see what you mean about the soft rock people and Nashville…whatever the reason, I’m pumped to call them my neighbors. Is it sad I’d be more excited to see Michael McDonald or Walter Egan out on the street than Ben Folds or Jack White?

  • woofpop

    Jason,  
    I agree on the Thorns – also that album that Sweet did with Susanna Hoffs.. Stephen – kudos on the neighbors…

  • She was causing him to miss TV shows, for crying out loud.  Does anyone need more reason to end a relationship than that?
    To be fair, there was no Tivo back then, and VCRs and Betamaxes were primitive and expensive.  So you can kind of see his point.

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  • dan s

    The middle eight are brilliant. Also I liked the acuostic version better ,but that makes me slightly embarresd because I fear that maybe I’m just not mellow enough.Anyways Jason, cheers, always entertaining!

  • Tyrion

    Woofman was right. So many Calipussies moved to Nashville in the 80s. In the case of Dan Seals, succesfully.
    I had forgotten this great song. It may be the least rocking of the Mellowdrama you have posted. The chorus is eternal and as self pitying as anything you’ve posted (except Van Warmer, RIP)

  • Pete

    I get a little excited whenever I see that Michael McDonald pic in one of these posts…but I suppose I’m not the only one around here. Another great post Jason!

  • Woo-hoo! I provide a song and Jason provides the facts. I like this arrangement.

    By the way, I only own four volumes of the “Super Hits of the ’70s” series, although I used to own six, and I’m thinking of buying the volume that contains Samantha Sang’s “Emotion” (another candidate for female Mellow Gold?) and, yes, “Heaven on the 7th Floor.”

    I just got back into town after a few days away, so I’ll write more later. I’m looking forward to hearing the 1997 version of “Bluer Than Blue.” Who knew? Jason Hare, that’s who.

  • MC

    To be fair, there was no Tivo back then, and VCRs and Betamaxes were primitive and expensive.  So you can kind of see his point.
     
    Good point.  And going back to 1978, we have to recognize that this was, in fact, a sort of "golden era" of television.  I’m not sure if Johnson was aware, but the impending termination of this relationship that he sings about was about to free him up for the debut of such instant classics as Diff’rent Strokes, WKRP in Cincinnati, Mork & Mindy, and Battlestar Gallactica.  There was something good on every night and, thus the legitimate chance to start my whole life over, as laid out in the verse.

  • Benton

    Here’s proof that you’ve dug up a true nugget of mellow gold. I hit the snooze button 4 times this morning on the alarm clock, and finally turned it off because I was ready to wake up. Silly me. I stayed in bed for a few seconds more, and "Bluer than Blue" popped into my head thanks to having read your post yesterday, and I FELL RIGHT BACK TO SLEEP! I overslept, and the day’s been a rush ever since. Darn you Mellow Gold!!
    Loved the post, Jason. Thanks!!!

  • Wow.  I feel like I’ve truly done my job if I can help put you back to sleep.

    I totally sang "Bluer Than Blue" – out loud – while waiting for the bus this morning.

  • Elaine

    "Is it sad I’d be more excited to see Michael McDonald or Walter Egan out on the street than Ben Folds or Jack White?"  It is absolutely NOT sad commentary.  Ben and Jack ain’t got nothin’ on their Mellow Gold ancestors.  I mean, Ben sings about abortions and collaborates with Weird Al. 

  • jb

    Michael Johnson also recorded another great mellow tune called “Sailing Without a Sail”–“Sailing without a sail/rolling without a rail/travelin’ along a mysterious trail with you.”

    Also: I own 24 of the 25 volumes of “Super Hits of the 70s.” You wanna make somethin’ of it?

  • /bows down in reverence

  • I own all 20 volumes of Rhino’s “Didn’t It Blow Your Mind! Soul Hits of the ’70s” series, JB. I don’t think I could stomach all 25 volumes of “Super Hits of the ’70s,” though. Unlike the “Soul Hits” series, the “Super Hits” CDs I own don’t contain lots of average-on-the-first-listen songs that get better and better with each spin.

    Josh Rouse and the Bees (whose Web site, like this one, was apparently designed by none other than Jefito back in ’04 or ’05) and Curt Perkins are bringing the mellow to Nashville these days. (Well, Rouse is in Spain now, but he used to live in Nashville.) And David Mead can get mellow too. Nashville is the place to be for pop music this decade, if you ask me.

    Jason, you’re absolutely right about “Bluer Than Blue” being the kind of song that’s depressing without actually making you feel depressed. To quote a Michael Franks song, “I don’t know why I’m so happy I’m sad, but I am.” I think I first heard “Bluer Than Blue” around seventh grade. It was on a tape that my dad had made of songs from the radio back in the ’70s. I liked it then, but I really liked it when I heard it in K-Mart a year later. The night before this trip to K-Mart I had gone to an 8th-grade party at which I was one of only two boys who’d been invited. Jackpot! And Kathryn, the girl I had a crush on at the time, was going to be there! Tonight’ll be the night she realizes she likes me just as much as I like her!

    Or not. Instead of flirting with me, Kathryn chose to make fun of me the entire night, and not in an “I’m making fun of you because I secretly like you” way. I went home disappointed, and “Bluer Than Blue” provided the soundtrack for my own pity party at K-Mart the next day. I felt your pain, Michael Johnson, even if I was only 14 at the time.

  • It looks like Jason and the guy who runs soul-sides.com are thinking along the same lines this week.

  • woofpop

    Now wait a minute.. there’s nothing wrong with Ben Folds – He is clearly inspired by some mellow roots. His ’97 tour shirts used an exact replica of the Doobie Brothers eagle logo with his name where the Doobies name had been. I got a chance to meet him after the show, and I asked him to autograph the shirt. I told him that I loved when he had done "Minute By Minute", to which he laughed and broke into an impromptu version of the chorus.. Plus, speaking of current mellow artists, the EP he did with Mr Kweller and Mr. Lee – the Bens – is mellow epitomized (and pretty freaking wonderful). "Just Pretend" is the lost CS&N song.. 

  • woofpop

    I have almost all of the "Have A Nice Day" collections – but I think it’s more of a ‘you-had-to-be-there’ with a lot of those songs. I can see where a lot of those songs aren’t essential, but each coleection has at least a couple of priceless gems. Robert, Josh Rouse rules. "1972" is the coolest! He’s a total ‘Lightning 100’ artist!

  • David

    All this love for Ben Folds … and to think, I was about to leap to the defense of Weird Al.

  • "Lightning 100"?  What’s that?  Fill me in.  If you haven’t heard the Bees or Curt Perkins already, you should check them out.  These guys know what they’re doing.

    I was really into Ben Folds in college, and I guess I didn’t stop being a huge fan until Songs for Silverman was released in 2005.  I thought breaking up Ben Folds Five was a dumb move (I assume it was Ben’s idea, but I have no way of knowing, and if the three of them were sick of each other then it’s a good thing they all moved on) since Ben immediately went back to the piano-bass-drums setup on Silverman after playing almost everything by himself on Rockin’ the Suburbs.  For more of this rant, see my comments here.  I just feel like he’s capable of so much more.

  • woofpop

    Robert,
    Lightning 100 (WRLT) = good radio station in Nashville with a wide playlist – especially generous with local artists. Will check out the Bees (I like the other Bees – the UK ones – a lot).
    I agree about Ben Folds. His first two albums are perfect, essential releases that are just as enjoyable today. Messner is very good, but I can’t tell you the last time I heard it. Beyond that, I don’t think I’ve listened to anything more than once except for the Bens. I agree that he’s absolutely capable of more.
     

  • I wonder if my brother listens to Lightning 100 in Nashville. I’ll have to ask him. I heard some songs by the U.K. Bees, but they didn’t hit me the way the U.S. Bees’ songs did. Daniel Tashian of the U.S. Bees is a gifted guy.

    I listened to “Reinhold Messner” again recently to see if I’d like it more now than I did in ’99. No sale! (But I am hoping to sell it back to a used-CDs store.) Concept albums aren’t Ben Folds’s specialty. I just think he’d benefit from bringing in a collaborator for his lyrics. Bens Kweller and Lee, use your connection to Evan Dando to make that collaboration happen!

  • Stephen

    Lightning 100 is great! Speaking of mellow and Ben Folds…has anyone heard Five drummer Darren Jessee’s band Hotel Lights? They have a song called "AM Slow Golden Hit" and it sounds exactly like you’d think it would, with a few eclectic modernist touches. It’s similar to Josh Rouse, but a little more low key, and a (very) slight electronic influence.

  • woofpop

    OK – now Daniel Tasshian I know – he had a solo album about ’96 or so that was really good. Never knew what happened to him. The other Bees have a song called "These Are The Ghosts" that’s just great. Stephen, I will look for that Hotel Lights record.

  • Chris

    You are doing a magnificently mellow job – keep up the good work.
    Any chance of featuring Paul Anka and Odia Coates’s wonderful  "(You’re) Having My Baby" – it would be a lovely way of showing how much you love us. 

  • Oh yeah, Hotel Lights … I’d forgotten about them. “AM Slow Golden Hit” is great, as are “Miles Behind Me” and “The Mumbling Years.” (Jessee played on Rouse’s “Under Cold Blue Stars” album in ’02.) Stephen, do you own Hotel Lights’ album? I’m curious to know if it’s as strong as those three songs.

    I didn’t know Daniel Tashian had put out an album in ’96. Thanks for sharing that, Woofpop. I originally heard about him when he played on Rouse’s “Nashville” album and cowrote “Quiet Town” on 2006’s “Subtitulo.”

  • Chris, consider it added to "the list!"

  • Elaine

    I’m sorry — didn’t mean to offend anyone with my Ben Folds comment.  As for Weird Al, I’m a huge fan; he’s just, you know, definitely Not Mellow.

  • Chris

    Thanks. Like Paul himself, you are a true gentleman.

  • Burn in Mellow Hell, Elaine!

  • woofpop

    Daniel Tashian’s album "Sweetie" – readily available on Half, Amazon.. There are audio samples on Amazon. I remember "Where Have You Gone" – very McGuinn-ish. Good Stuff.

  • Woofpop, I found this today on Tashian’s blog:<br><br>http://www.tashian.com/daniel/?p=83<br><br>It's an album of his from 2005 that he’s offering as a free download.  I don’t know if the songs at the following link are on that album, but they’re what I discovered yesterday:<br><br>http://www.tashian.com/daniel/?page_id=470<br><br>I think I’ll have to buy "Sweetie" now.

  • Stephen

    Robert – I don’t own the album, though a friend of mine does and he says it’s all around pretty excellent. Sorry it took me a while to get back to you!

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