“X” is for “Xanny”

Trying to come up with an idea for this “X” blog, I kept coming back to one question: Why did pirates use “X” to mark the spot? Why not a circle? Think about it. In the olden days before internet and ubiquitous GPS, people used maps to orient themselves and to plot a course. In my experience, most people would draw a circle around their destination. Why didn’t pirates?

Welp, I hopped down the old Wikipedia rabbit hole and learned that “X” is used to indicate a variant or unknown value in mathematics, which led to its use representing the unknown in other contexts; for example, X-rays, Gen X, “The X Files,” or as a designation for an unspecified non-binary gender. “X” is used to represent negation (“this is wrong”) or absence ( in place of an illiterate or unsighted person’s signature).  Conversely, and illogically, “X” used to “mark the spot” on a map signifies a known location.

I learned a lot about “X” but found nothing to explain why pirates used “X” to mark the location of their treasure stash. I did, however, find a surprising connection between pirates and “X.” That link is American singer-songwriter Billie Eilish, who has, in a BBC interview, confirmed  her full legal name is Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell. “Baird” and “O’Connell” are her mother’s and father’s last names, respectively. “Pirate” was conferred by her older brother, then-four-year-old Finneas.

The home-schooled siblings are singer-songwriters working independently and together. They co-wrote Billie’s song, “Xanny,” the third track on her 2019 debut album (produced by Finneas). “Xanny” is a reference to Xanax, brand name of the generic tranquilizer alprazolam. Eilish, who eschews drug use, has said “Xanny” is a cautionary plea to drug-using friends to “be safe.”

 

 

 

“W” is for “Wildfire”

Wildfire,” a song written by Michael Martin Murphey and Larry Cansler, was all over the radio when Murphey released it in 1975 on his fourth album. His most successful single, it peaked on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart at number 3 and at number 1 on other charts — Billboard’s Easy Listening, Canada Top Singles, and Canada Adult Contemporary Tracks. The Western Writers of America included it at number 15 of the Top 100 Western Songs of all time.

Murphey has attributed the song’s origins to Native American legends re-told by his grandfather “about a horse that could never be captured, and that horse represented freedom and escape.” Enlarging on those themes, Murphey’s take “is very much about escaping hard times.” The lyrics came to Murphey in a dream about a girl and her white horse who both disappeared when a “killing frost” became a blizzard. The song’s narrator, a disillusioned homesteader whose crop may have been ruined by “an early snow,” listens to a hoot owl’s howling nearby for six nights and surmises the girl and ghost horse are coming for him.

While the lyrics are memorable, intro and outro piano music bookend the haunting story. Most people have not heard that mystical framework, unless they listened to the album version; the piano sections were trimmed for radio play.

Enjoy this video of the untrimmed song!

 

 

 

 

 

 

“U” is for “Universal Soldier”

Awaiting a flight from San Francisco to Toronto one night in 1963, Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie saw a group of Viet Nam veterans who were wheeling and carrying their wounded brethren. She thought of them during her flight, her mind tracking back through Army hierocracy and the political landscape, wondering who originated the order that sent them to war. She wrote her ruminations and conclusions in “Universal Soldier” upon her arrival in Toronto that same night. An anti-war protest song, “Universal Soldier” is also, as she explained years later, “about individual responsibility for war and how the old feudal thinking kills us all.”  She released the song on her 1964 debut album, “It’s My Way.”  Never a “hit” for Sainte-Marie, it was more successful for Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan Leitch and for American singer Glen Campbell, both of whom covered it in 1965. Coincidentally, both versions peaked on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart on October 30, 1965; Donvan’s at #53 and Campbell’s at #45.

Videos for all three singers are reproduced below. In my opinion, Campbell’s peppy, upbeat, “Campbell-ized” version misses the mark. According to Wikipedia, when “[a]sked about the pacifist message of the song, he said that ‘people who are advocating burning draft cards should be hung.’[28]

First, here are the lyrics:

Universal Soldier
© Buffy Sainte-Marie

He’s five feet two and he’s six feet four
He fights with missiles and with spears
He’s all of 31 and he’s only 17
He’s been a soldier for a thousand years

He’s a Catholic, a Hindu, an atheist, a Jain,
a Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew
and he knows he shouldn’t kill
and he knows he always will
kill you for me my friend and me for you

And he’s fighting for Canada,
he’s fighting for France,
he’s fighting for the USA,
and he’s fighting for the Russians
and he’s fighting for Japan,
and he thinks we’ll put an end to war this way

And he’s fighting for Democracy
and fighting for the Reds
He says it’s for the peace of all
He’s the one who must decide
who’s to live and who’s to die
and he never sees the writing on the walls

But without him how would Hitler have
condemned him at Dachau
Without him Caesar would have stood alone
He’s the one who gives his body
as a weapon to a war
and without him all this killing can’t go on

He’s the universal soldier and he
really is to blame
His orders come from far away no more
They come from him, and you, and me
and brothers can’t you see
this is not the way we put an end to war.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“R” is for “Reddy” and “Ready”

“Reddy,” of course, is Australian-American singer Helen Reddy. Phenomenally successful worldwide during the 1970s, she will forever be known for the feminist anthem, “I Am Woman.” That song and seven others — including “Delta Dawn,” “Angie Baby,” and “Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady” — peaked at number one on the Billboard Easy Listening (now Adult Contemporary) Chart. Her record sales dwindled in the 1980s, and she turned her attention to musical theater, in effect returning to her performing roots: Her parents were professional entertainers, and she got her start at the age of four performing with them on the Australian vaudeville circuit. She retired from performing in 2002, returned to Australia, and subsequently earned a degree in clinical hypnotherapy and neurolinguistic programming. In 2012, she briefly returned to performing but, sadly, was diagnosed with dementia shortly thereafter. She passed away from an undisclosed cause in September 2020.

“Ready” is a fun little Emerson, Lake, and Palmer song, “Are You Ready Eddy?” Eddy was their engineer/producer Eddy Offord. According to Keith Emerson, every time ELP was ready to record, one of them would yell “are you ready, Eddy?” A tongue-in-cheek poke at rock ‘n’ roll standards, the song is one of the few composed by the entire band.

Enjoy “I Am Woman” and “Are You Ready, Eddy?”

 

“N” is for “Nevermore”

“Nevermore” quoth the Raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1845 poemThe Raven.” Anyone who has gone to school in the United States has read this poem at some point in their education. The word “nevermore,” in use since around 900 A.D., means what it says: Never again. Whether or not it was commonly used before “The Raven” was first published, such is the power of Poe that ever after “nevermore” has been understood as a direct or indirect allusion to “The Raven.” You don’t believe me? I did some research and discovered the surprising extent to which Poe’s poem is imprinted on our collective psyche.

The first entry on Wikipedia’s always informative “disambiguation” page refers to a Seattle, WA, heavy-metal band named “Nevermore.” Nevermore is also the title of a few novels, films, a Dr. Who “audio play,” a musical, and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle character. However, three other entries are, to me, the most interesting.

First, the most surprising find was that French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gaugin in 1897 created an oil painting he named “Nevermore.” It depicts his naked Tahitian wife lying on their bed; in the background is a raven, and “Nevermore” is written in capitals at the top of the painting. At the time Gaugin painted it, he and his young wife were grieving the loss of their first child, and Gaugin was grieving the loss of his European daughter.

Second, Queen recorded a song entitled “Nevermore” written by Freddie Mercury. (The short video is included below.)

Third, a young American composer, Edward W. Hardy, created a violin solo, “Nevermore,” and starred in a 2018 short film by the same name. Hardy, in fact, wrote “Three Pieces Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe” that included “Nevermore,” “Evil Eye,” and “A Fantasy.” “Nevermore” is a beautiful, haunting violin solo that, to me, truly evokes Poe. (The five-minute film is posted below.)

So henceforth whenever you hear “nevermore,” you can, if you choose, try to avoid thinking of “The Raven” and think instead of Gaugin, Queen, and Hardy. Enjoy the vids!