Saturday, December 18, 2004

The Greatest Song Ever Written

This past week I spent some time on an airplance, so I loaded up on reading material. One of the mags I picked up at the airport was "Rolling Stone".
Remember that rag? At one point in history I thought it was so-o hip. That's where I learned about Santana; the review made me rush out to find that first album and the rest is, as they say, history.

Anyway, RS has aged, as have we all, and neither it nor I are as hip as we once were, or at least thought we were. However, I bought it for the trip because the cover said that it was a "Special Collectors Issue" featuring The 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time. How could I pass up that?

Of course, the first thing I do is look for the Latinos--I'll take Chicanos if there are any, and lo and behold, there at number 210 is ? and the Mysterions and their ultimate garage song, 96 Tears. Cool. That song is like number 5 in the Chicano All-Time Hit Parade. RS says that when ? promoted the song in Michigan (where all the band members were living in 1966), he never revealed his real name (Rudy Martinez) or took off his sunglasses. Cool again. I also learned that the original has never been on a CD; all the CD versions are rerecordings. So now I got to find that 45.

Good start, I keep looking. There's songs that I liked when they came out and I still think are great: Be-Bop-A-Lula by Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps (#102); She's Not There from The Zombies (#291); and Marvin Gaye doing What's Going On (#4). Many more, of course. But except for one more, that was it for Chicanos.

Ah, but that one more.

According to RS, the greatest song of all time is Like A Rolling Stone, recorded by Bob Dylan in 1965. Ooh-Ahh. That is a mighty song, no doubt. I read the piece on the song and came across this bit of info: (The author describes the roots of the song): "Later, Dylan sits at a piano, playing a set of chords that would become the melodic basis for 'Like A Rolling Stone,' connecting it to the fundamental architecture of rock & roll. Dylan later identified that progression as a chip off of Ritchie Valens' 'La Bamba.'"

And there it was. La Bamba ranked only #345 in the RS list, but the greatest song writer who ever lived had given credit for some of the structure of the greatest song ever written to a chubby seventeen-year old West Coast Chicano. I was all tangled up in blue thinking about the irony. The Chicano kid had taken the old veracruzana wedding song and recorded it as the B side for what would become his hit "Donna". And that B side has gone on to immortality.

What Chicano band doesn't insert the Valens' arrangement into their lineup? Even Los Lobos couldn't escape the power of this song - it finally wore them out and they quit performing it for a time. The cross-rhythms are textbook, the guitar solo is fine, so fine.

We all know the story about Richard Valenzuela. We all saw the movie, right? No need to dwell on what could have been. We know what it was, what it is.

Here's one final bit. The rarest version of "La Bamba" probably is the 1961 recording by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who were seventeen at the time. They recorded a jam session in the living room of a friend's house. The tape of that session later was auctioned in the mid-Eighties for $81,000.

You can listen to songs like La Bamba and 96 tears on the best Chicano music show in the nation at KUVO, 89.3 FM (in Colorado) or at, every Sunday from 1 - 2 PM (mountain). Check it out. Pocho Joe and Gabe do a great job pulling together the classics and the new stuff. The Rolling Stone list is on the RS website.