*Author’s note: Click on the words in green throughout this article for links to related video and audio clips.

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by Bob Langham
 
As you can tell if you have read more than one post on this blog, music is a big part of my life. Since I wasn’t, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “born with the gift of a golden voice,” and I have yet to learn how to play an instrument (even though I gave the guitar a try as a teenager), I have had to enjoy it from the sidelines, but I’m okay with that. I listened to records and the radio from an early age, because back then we didn’t have the opiate of cable television to conquer our imagination and steal our creativity. Personal home computers were years away and the Internet, like flying cars and time travel was a science fiction dream.
I was nervous and anxious by nature as a child and there was some turmoil in our family, which added to this. Besides being a chronic nail biter, I was, like most young kids, also afraid to go to bed in the darkness of my room by myself. Each night I would try to get to sleep, but every sound would be magnified in my mind as something that was after me – vampire, monster, burglar, kidnapper, alien, you name it, in my mind it was either under my bed or lurking just outside my bedroom window.
In the early ‘70s for Christmas, I got a pea green, box-shaped portable radio as a gift. It plugged into the wall, and it had two dials on its ridged face – one for volume and one for tuning. I was able to find a local FM station that was either a top 40 or top however many they had back then for radio formats of the time, and that is where the dial stayed. That radio became my audio night light. It shouted down all of those scary sounds and noises that had taunted my childhood imagination from the dark crevices of my room, and beyond the intimidating panes of my bedroom window. One song that really made an impression on me and shaped my musical taste as I lay in the darkness of my bedroom, most likely the only person still awake in my house, if not the entire neighborhood was Whole Lotta Love  by Led Zeppelin; especially, the part of the song at about 4 minutes in when that blood curdling voice came groaning out of my tiny green innocuous box of a radio in a howling scream:
Way down inside… Woman you need me…angry guitar and drums, then a long scream without musical accompaniment as if the singer, (who I assumed at my naive age was a woman, because only a woman would have such a high-pitched scream) was falling into a dark bottomless chasm, and finally the voice was answered with more hostile guitar and drums.
There was something about that song and the environment in which I first heard it, that scared me, but also excited and enticed me at the same time. It introduced me to the power and pull a good song can have on the listener. I had a visceral reaction to that song as a child. This is why it is hard for anyone to say with any certainty what makes a good song. There is no cookie cutter formula, despite the marketing strategy of some of the record companies and radio stations today. Lyrics play a big part, but so does the music, how it is arranged, and how either the lyrics or music, or both touch you on an emotional level. Your life experience and situation when you first hear a song also contribute to how you receive the song, so everyone has a different reaction. Had I first been exposed to Whole Lotta Love in the light of day, surrounded by other people, my reaction to it would have been different. Naturally, someone else may hate a song that you think is the best one ever released because their life experience and situation is not the same. This may be why people, seem to choose and defend their music, like they choose and defend their religion. They don’t know why they are right about either one, but they know they are, so everyone else must be wrong.
To take the religious metaphor a step further, the musical equivalent of the church, the commercial radio stations, at some point became just that – too commercial, both in too many commercials and the deejays (the musical equivalent of the clergy) playing songs with commercial appeal over lyrical or musical quality. The same songs are played over and over again across multiple stations with no effort to push the creative envelope or expand the artistic landscape. It has gotten to the point that you can tell time by what song is being played. Classic rock stations are notorious for clinging to a handful of songs by an artist or band and not venturing away from this list. This is true even for bands that have extensive, quality discographies. For example, at least on the classic rock stations in Houston, if the deejay goes into a commercial break and says we will be right back with some classic Pink Floyd, you can pretty much count on it being Run Like Hell, or if they promise classic U2, it will most likely be Pride in the Name of Love ,or Where the Streets Have No Name. There is nothing really wrong with any of these songs, at least not the first 3,000 times they played them, but how about a little creative ambition and initiative? Try playing, something else from these artists’ vast libraries, like The Final Cut, or The Gunner’s Dream by Pink Floyd, or Running to Stand Still or Bad by U2.
Sometimes, the classic rock stations give the illusion they are playing some rarity with a feature they give a fancy title like, Deep Cut where they play a song from “deep in their musical vault” that isn’t necessarily rare, but may just get less of a rotation, so the audience may have only heard it 1,500 times before instead of 3,000. However, sometimes one sneaks through, (maybe the deejay was in a rush to get back after a long bathroom break and snatched up the wrong album/disc and played it before he realized what he had done).
Whatever the reason, I was recently introduced to Black Cloud by Trapeze from 1975 (complete with cowbells that would make Bruce Dickinson [Christopher Walken] salivate) during one of these Deep Cuts features. I have logged many hours listening to classic rock stations all of my life, and I had never heard this song before. Could that be possible in a city whose radio stations’ musical offerings in various musical formats have less variety than my iPod? At the moment, I only have a little under 2,000 songs on my iPod, but I can play a better selection of music on my hour long commute to work, than all of the radio stations in this city combined. But as sad as this is, it was on one of these stations where I first heard Black Cloud, so I guess I have to at least credit them with that whether it was a fluke or not. This song, like Whole Lotta Love, is not a lyrical masterpiece, but it is one of those songs that I had a visceral reaction to. However, instead of hearing it for the first time in the darkness of my childhood bedroom, I heard it after a long day at work on my frustrating commute home. I was probably cranky because it wasn’t Friday yet and I knew I had to be back again the next day to tackle a pile of unfinished work. I was expecting the next song to be one of the same old classic rock songs that inexplicably get entirely too much airplay. Instead, Black Cloud car jacked my soul at a traffic light that day, and continues to linger there as a reminder of how music can help you deal with life’s black clouds whether they be imaginary childhood monsters lurking in your bedroom or real adult monsters lurking in the cubicles at work.

 No time to stop, keep on movin’
The whole world is to see
No time to think of things that I am missing
Wherever I go
Black cloud’s following me

Each and every town
I’m father’s last relation
Doing what I can just to eat
Never ‘wanna settle down
I ain’t got the patience
Wherever I go
Black cloud’s following me

I’m a citizen of no where
The sky’s above my head
I wonder where the grass grows
Looking through the sunshine
‘Til my judgment day, my judgment day

Wherever I go
Black cloud’s following me, yeah
Oh, it’s following me around
Don’t leave me be

No time to think of the things that I am missing
I’ve got to keep on moving along, babe

You know I can’t settle down, or I’d be dead
Come, come, come here

No time to stop, keep on movin’
‘Cause all the world is to see
No time to think
The thing that I am missing
Wherever I go
The black cloud’s following me

I’m a citizen of nowhere
The sky’s above my head
I wonder where the grass grows

Looking through the sunshine
‘Til my judgment day, my judgment day

Wherever I go
Black cloud’s following me
You know it’s following, following, following me
Never let me go

Keep on moving

We have got to make it
We are going to take it, yeah

We are going to take it I am not ‘gonna make it
Never talk to a rich man, yeah

Black Cloud, Trapeze

 

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