Degrees of Separation — from B.B. King & Pete to Me being Downhearted, Baby
“Jan lays down and wrestles in her sleep/Moonlight spills on comic books
And superstars in magazines/An old friend calls and tells us where to meet
Her plane takes off from Baltimore/And touches down on Bourbon Street”
— Primitive Radio Gods
This is a story about music and a B.B. King song and delicious sample that inspired a Left Coast/East Coast conversation about the darkness and fragility of life (including our own). In keeping with these “happy” themes and of music, there was the recent shuffling off this mortal coil by rock/pop songwriter wiz Christine McVie — girl, you sure left a rich legacy of music.
A lot of it about, we hear. Death and sadness that is. Especially, at this supposedly happy time of the year.
Indeed, with an older Armenian gentleman neighbor who looks on his last legs and another friend’s friend given days to live, the theme of that poignant B.B. King song, “How Blue Can You Get,” so rings true.
“We sit outside and argue all night long/About a god we’ve never seen
But never fails to side with me/Sunday comes and all the papers say
Ma Teresa’s joined the mob/And happy with her full time job
Do do do do do do…”
Well, blue can get pretty bluesy.
Anyway, while sharing a pre-dinner single malt, my dear pal Peter Rosenthal, a music publishing legal executive based in New York, heard me randomly play a 1996 hit song I had just rediscovered by Primitive Radio Gods (PRG), poignantly called “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand.”
Pete, a bit of a music buff like myself, immediately said the very seductive chorus in PRG’s song was borrowed from B.B. King’s own 1964 hit. the aforementioned song, “How Blue Can You Get.” Moreover, he read off his phone that the original song is a slow 12-bar blues written by Leonard Feather and his wife Jane Feather. PRG’s “Standing” song uses a sample of King singing the incredibly simple but powerful words, “I’ve been downhearted baby, ever since the day we met.”
Yeah, if you’ve ever been in love, you know it.
The PRG song had just been re-introduced to me through another friend. And on Thanksgiving, some of us family-less singles sat in an LA courtyard sun, and one asked my Google AI speaker system to play PRG’s “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand.”
You gotta love the borrowed B.B. King sample with the words:
“I’ve been downhearted baby/Ever since the day we met…”
For background, in 1996, “Standing” peaked at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks and Adult Alternative Songs charts. It became a crossover radio hit over the following few months, reaching #2 in Canada and #10 on the US Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart.
“Am I alive or thoughts that drift away?/Does summer come for everyone?
Can humans do as prophets say?.And if I die before I learn to speak
Can money pay for all the days I lived awake/But half asleep?
Do do do do do do”
And there I was getting sucked into the verses from “Standing” and that awfully seductive King sample, as we were sipping some pink champagne and I’m internally pondering the meaning and nothingness of life, as inspired by that song.
A few days later, when I played the “Standing” song for my visiting pal Pete, he immediately knew the sample, which is from the King song. Moreover, he Googled to show me that the song is actually on one of his favorite LPs, “B.B. King: Live at the Regal.” Pete suggested the record reveals a live performer at the peak of his powers, conducting every second of the rousing show with masterful command.
“I’ve been downhearted baby/Ever since the day we met…”
Prompted by “Standing’s” philosophical lyrics and by that sweet sadness of King’s sample, Pete and I had a deep, heavy discussion over dinner at Little Doms in Los Feliz. As we live on separate coasts and hadn’t seen each other for several months, and being the curious journalist I am, I just bluntly asked Pete what had life taught him recently. Obviously inspired by the “Standing” song, we got into a discussion of looking after family members who are going through fragile times, like Pete’s parents.
“A life is time, they teach us growing up/The seconds ticking killed us all
A million years before the fall/You ride the waves and don’t ask where they go
You swim like lions through the crest/And bathe yourself on zebra flesh”
I had opened it up and it was good to empathize with my pal’s family challenges, and talk about my own — although, both my parents have moved on. That’s what breaking bread and friendship is all about. What did Gibran say in The Prophet: “Your friend is your needs answered. He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving. And he is your board and your fireside…And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.”
We didn’t solve anything, but we did deepen the spirit of our friendship by opening up about the fragile lives we actually live. Then back at my place before Pete left, I looked up how the title of Primitive Radio Gods “Standing” was actually borrowed from a similarly titled but completely different yet eminently listenable song by Canadian Bruce Cockburn, which is called, “Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money In My Hand.” I have met and interviewed Bruce several times and even written about him for SPIN and Canadian Musician magazine, but didn’t know about this early song of his.
So, after our deep existential talks, Pete took his Uber and went off into his night. And, I was left with my late night/early morning thoughts of being downhearted—you know the feeling, we’ve all been there.
“I’ve been downhearted baby/I’ve been downhearted baby/Ever since the day we met…”
Then again, in the bigger picture, if my pals and I were ever to figure out how to deal with life’s unexpected challenges, where would it really leave us? Standing outside a broken phone booth with change in hand, but it really wouldn’t matter, because the phone’s broken, anyway. So, who you gonna call?!