Monday, July 22, 2019

Feelin’ Alright? | Lefsetz Letter

Feelin’ Alright

“Feelin’ Alright” is the song FM radio played first, this is the track that broke Joe Cocker in the U.S. “With A Little Help From My Friends” really didn’t supersede “Feelin’ Alright” until the release of the Woodstock movie, and its subsequent use on “The Wonder Years.” And Cocker’s iteration became so famous, it completely replaced the Traffic original.

Traffic really didn’t gain mainstream success in the U.S. until the band broke up, Stevie Winwood went to work in the supergroup Blind Faith, and then reformed with “John Barleycorn Must Die.”

“John Barleycorn”‘s release was perfectly timed. The late spring of 1970, when the Beatles had their last hurrah with “Let It Be” and FM had finally ascended to domination. Everybody was aware of album rock, singles were for sissies.

But there were three LPs before “John Barleycorn Must Die.” Ironically, the last, the worst, a mash-up of studio and live tracks, got the most traction, or as Joni Mitchell sang at the same time, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. “Shanghai Noodle Factory” was all over the airwaves, and “Medicated Goo” too. And they were a pretty good distillation of the Traffic sound, which was thought to have expired.

But the two LPs that came before, they were the essence of Traffic, then and now.

The first had the most impact. Musos cherry-picked it for covers. You know “Heaven Is In Your Mind” by Three Dog Night, not Traffic, and I hate to say it, Three Dog Night’s version is better, Traffic got the chorus right, but the verses? And Al Kooper made “Dear Mr. Fantasy” ubiquitous with its inclusion on the double album “The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper,” remember the mic cutting out midstream? And Kooper covered “Coloured Rain” on his initial solo LP, “I Stand Alone,” and I must admit I prefer the over-produced Kooper iteration, but no one could exceed the original version of “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” a classic rock track if there ever was one, which Winwood still performs just as well, his electric guitar picking in the outro will blow your mind, have you nodding your noggin, getting into the groove.

But I didn’t get on board until the second Traffic album, when Dave Mason was ensconced in the band once again. Actually, it was two Mason tracks that originally entranced me, the opening “You Can All Join In” and the second side’s “Cryin’ To Be Heard.”

“You Can All Join In” was especially noteworthy because of the lead vocal being in one channel and the supporting/backup vocals being in the other. And we all know the jaunty tracks reach us first.

As for “Cryin’ To Be Heard,” it was exactly the opposite, quiet and dreamy, as if cut in Morocco, this was not made for the radio so much as your bedroom, it still stands up today.

But this is about “Feelin’ Alright,” the first side closer.

Now some people might be aware of Three Dog Night’s 1969 cover of the track, but that never was a hit single, and nobody with cred was buying their albums.

But Three Dog Night’s version was like Joe Cocker’s version, it was UPBEAT! You listen to them and think everything is ALL RIGHT, when the truth is it’s not.

Now at this point, Dave Mason is most remembered for his soft rock hit on Columbia, “We Just Disagree.” But before that he was momentarily legendary for his Blue Thumb solo debut “Alone Together,” which not only came on multicolored pizza vinyl, but featured a triple-panel cover.

At the time the most noteworthy cut was his version of the Delaney & Bonnie cover of “Only You Know And I Know,” but every cut on “Alone Together” is genius, I don’t think younger generations have picked up on it.

But before Traffic splintered, there was that rendition of his song “Feelin’ Alright?”

Now I won’t say I never think of it, that it never crosses my mind, as a matter of fact, I sing it in my head on a regular basis, it’s Dave’s vocal so world-weary, almost understated. But still, at this point, I always think of “Feelin’ Alright” as an upbeat song, hell, the Cocker version is a tear. But last night, “Feelin’ Alright” revealed itself to me.

Of course I got it back in ’68, reading the lyrics, but I was inexperienced then.

You see “Feelin’ Alright” is a breakup song, one not of exuberance, I’M FINALLY FREE, but lamenting what once was, with the singer licking his wounds.

Seems I’ve got to have a change of scene
‘Cause every night I have the strangest dreams

Yup, he’s moved on, physically, leaving the bad memories and mood behind. BUT THAT’S NOT TRUE!

Imprisoned by the way it could have been

The average person is not a celebrity, they don’t crawl from the wreckage into a brand new car. No, they break up and…they’re left alone, contemplating what’s been lost, what’s been left behind.

Left here on my own or so it seems
I’ve got to leave before I start to scream
But someone’s locked the door and took the key

Wow, it’s like solitary confinement. But that’s the way it is when you break up. You can walk outside the house, go to the city center and be around people, but you can’t get the other person out of your head, they don’t leave your mind for a minute.

You feelin’ alright?
I’m not feelin’ too good myself
Well, you feelin’ alright?
I’m not feelin’ too good myself

Honesty. He’s in a bad space, he’s wondering if she is too, you always believe your ex is living it up, are they?

But boy you sure took me for one big ride
And even now I sit and wonder why

Hindsight is 20/20. How did you get wrapped up in their web? You compromise, buy into one thing, and then it’s a slippery slope, you’ve lost your perspective, you’re in a cult of two, and you’re not the leader.

And when I think of you I start to cry
‘Cause I just can’t waste my time, I must keep dry

You’re stuck. You can’t move forward, you can’t live. The world progresses around you, and you’re chained to the past.

Gotta stop believin’ in all your lies
‘Cause there’s too much to do before I die

He went through the meat grinder. He knows there’s a better future out there, he’s got to put one foot in front of another, but right now that’s impossible.

Don’t get too lost in all I say
Though at the time I really felt that way

He’s drunk-dialing, through a song. This is the worst, when you profess your undying love and get no response at all, or the brush-off.

But that was then and now it’s today

He’s apologizing, the tears have stopped, but she’s gotten the message, he’s desperate.

Can’t get off yet, so I’m here to stay
Till someone comes along and takes my place
With a different name yes, and a different face

He truly can’t get off. The merry-go-round of his mind and sexually. And he knows it’s only a matter of time before he’s replaced. But when that happens it will be a bitter pill to swallow, but it will allow him to go on, however haltingly.

You feelin’ alright?
I’m not feelin too good myself
Well, you feelin’ alright?
I’m not feelin’ too good myself

He wants to get his message across, he wants acknowledgement, of his bad space, of how she manipulated and hurt him. But still, he wants to believe she feels what he does and there’s a chance…guys always think there’s a chance.

And even the title is important. The Cocker cover is entitled “Feeling Alright.” It’s clear, he’s fine. But the Traffic original is called “Feelin’ Alright?,” with a question mark, it’s not about him, but her.

I guess that’s something amazing about music, how it constantly reveals itself to you over time, as you gain experience and perspective.

But “Feelin’ Alight” is another reason classic rock is classic. Sure, there’s bombastic stuff like “Smoke On The Water,” and then there’s more subtle stuff like “Feelin’ Alright,” which encapsulates the human condition in sound and lyric.

This is why we keep listening to this music.


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