Joe Dolce

TrackAlbum
Jack Of Diamonds, Jack Of SpadesSteal Away Home
Lickity SplitMemoirs Of A Mouth Organ
Un Homme JalouxMemoirs Of A Mouth Organ
Gift (From One Iraqi Child)The Wind Cries Mary
Armonica FAHNTAH-C In B MinorMemoirs Of A Mouth Organ
The House Is BurningMemoirs Of A Mouth Organ
IntimacyThe Terminator OST
La Flamme RenaissanceMemoirs Of A Mouth Organ
Smokin'The Wind Cries Mary
Marchin' With Martin Luther King Jr.Freelovedays

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Contributor: David Lewis

At Toppermost, we’ve seen that the One Hit Wonder is not usually the lesser talented, less important act. The one hit wonder can make a large artistic and aesthetic statement – either on the hit record or outside of it. One of the biggest selling singles of this kind is Shaddap You Face. A hit in a dozen and a half countries, the word ‘ubiquitous’ doesn’t quite cover it. Its author and performer, Joe Dolce, is an artist of rare talent. His work is of high calibre. A multi-faceted artist, Joe is a poet, an intellectual and an interesting and thoughtful man.

Usually here at Toppermost, we pick an artist we like, and find 10 songs and talk about them. For this one, I approached Joe who graciously granted me an email interview. I picked the songs, and he speaks about them. He also talks about, among other things, the importance and appeal of one hit wonders, the blues, blues harp, the Beatles, the Who, orchestral music, poetry, and what he is working on. I give this to you unexpurgated and unaltered, save for a couple of typos which have been quietly corrected.

DL: I was going to ask your opinion on Shaddap You Face, but I found the essay you wrote in its defense in Artview in 2016. Has your opinion changed since then? Is there anything you’d like to add about it?

JD: That Artview interview pretty well sums up my thinking about this kind of material, which influenced me in my childhood and just about every other kid I can think of, including, no doubt, Lennon and McCartney. It basically is music, out of the box, with a sense of humour and fun – something Ringo Starr seems to understand – he could have done a great version of SYF.

The song is now in its third generation. My grandkids sing it and it is as relevant, funny and naughty as it was in 1980.

This year there was the first Russian language cover version – 38 years after it was a hit in Australia and the UK – by Kristina Orbakaite and Philipp Kirkorov, two of Moscow’s most celebrated artists. Orbakaite, whose mother was also a legendary pop singer, won the best-selling Russian artist at the World Music Awards in Monte Carlo, receiving the award of “Honoured Artist of the Russian Federation” from Russian president Vladimir Putin (in 2017 her European tour had 100 sold-out shows), and Kirkorov is also a five-time winner of the “Best Selling Russian Artist” title at the World Music Awards. Who would have thunk it?

DL: You describe yourself firstly as a poet – is that something you came to later in life? Or was it, as many poets, something you’ve felt you were born with?

JD: Before I learned to play the guitar, I had romantic fantasies of myself as a poet. (Musical fantasies came later!) My first serious girlfriend, in 1965, was two years older and an honours student in creative writing at a local all girls college – when I was seventeen, and still in High School. There is a note in my yearbook, from her, thanking me in French for my help with her sonnets. I have no recollection of them but do remember her.

My return to poetry started initially as a desire to write a better song lyric – something that could stand alone, like the works of Homer and Sappho, which were originally sung, but also the great British lyrical ballads which have been passed down for hundreds of years, without music – the words alone were strong enough to survive the test of time.

DL. Tell me about those 35 songs you’ve recently done. In a previous correspondence, you said you felt that they were your best work. Is there a new album in the works?

JD: I made a silent vow years ago never to record another song that hadn’t first been published as a stand-alone poem. Once again to ensure the lyrics were strong enough to survive the musical setting, which is very addictive especially if the tune is memorable. This was when I had about six lyrics published that still hadn’t been recorded.

Now I have almost forty, including a recent murder ballad and an incest ballad, and fifteen or so published lyrics from a single long work of 35 songs called The Leadbelly Ballad Novel.

I haven’t recorded any of them yet because there is no urgent need to. Since I learned to notate music on paper, I now use that process for my ‘recording studio’, so to speak. Recording in the studio is a separate and very costly and time-intensive craft which, unless you have a ready-made market for your work, is a bit indulgent. I’d done heaps of records that I liked but discovered had no market and ended up with boxes of records lying around. Now I have stacks of paper!

I hardly ever do live shows now and I am evolving as a poet/musician, I think perhaps a little too fast for any commercial music market to make any sense of. Who knows? Maybe I’ve just grown out of pop music as a lifestyle choice.

But I also believe that the serious lyric-based songwriter has been forced back in the trenches, while X-factor, dance, cover-version and stadium artists rule – perhaps the wheel will come around again before I die. If not, I am happy with what I am doing and the possibility of leaving something quite extraordinary behind for the next generation. But I don’t worry about that kind of legacy too much, as someone once said: “The future is none of your business: do the best you can and leave the rest to a power greater than yourself.” Robert Johnson didn’t live long enough to know he would influence Clapton (and myself, John Hammond Jr, and many others) but he certainly had a big impact on us. It would be naïve not to consider this possibility.

 

Now to the songs:

1. Jack Of Diamonds, Jack Of Spades

DL: What were the lyrical and musical ideas you were trying to convey? You’ve moved away from Dylan but I hear a Dylan influence in here?

JD: This song and the following song, Lickity Split, both have lyrics written by Melbourne playwright, the late Phil Motherwell, with whom I worked on a half dozen plays back in the 90s. During the process of setting, say, a dozen of Phil’s lyrics for each play, I learned how to think in terms of context – how to write many songs around a central theme. This was a key factor in my ability to write effective sustained poetry and larger musical works later.

Phil was a big Dylan and Nick Cave fan and the plays he wrote had a folky fusion of Australian and US sensibilities so I thought the ‘Dylan template’ would be a good structure to use. Easily understood on first listening. But in the best folk tradition, of course – of creating something new, around a scaffolding of something past. Salvador Dali once summed up this process as follows: “He who is afraid to imitate, creates nothing.” I like the key line in Jack Of Spades: “If I’d seen both your faces, I’d have turned and walked away.”

 

2. Lickity Split

DL: Tell me about your relationship with the blues – the blues infuses a lot of your work – who are your favourite artists and biggest influences in the blues.

JD: My strongest blues influences, in the order I discovered and became obsessed with them, were: Paul Butterfield Blues Band (blues harp) – my first instrument. I met Paul when I was a teenager and he showed me how to soak the wooden-reeded harps in whisky and then file down the wooden teeth that would swell out so that you could bend notes better.

Slim Harpo came next (blues harp) for his brilliant minimalistic style and tone.

Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix (electric guitar). First Beck in Yardbirds and the eccentric phrasing and sound ideas; then Hendrix for his 360 degree polymathic embrace of playing, singing, showmanship and writing.

Next major guitar influence was Albert King. Everyone else liked B.B. King but I learned more about simplicity of phrasing an attitude from Albert.

I played blues harp for Muddy Waters one night and also impromptu bass for Johnny Winter once when his bass player didn’t show up. Those are some of my main blues influences but I learned something from everyone.

 

3. Un Homme Jaloux

DL: I nearly picked For No One but the French translation of Jealous Guy I thought was unique. I take it you’re a big Beatles fan, or at least a Lennon fan. What was the idea behind taking this song and translating it into French? And what does Lennon mean to you today?

JD: Often I work from an idea first and then seek to realise it – rather than just intuitively pick up an instrument and start fishing around. I had the idea that Jealous Guy would work in French (as I studied French in High School) and found someone to help me translate it. It is pretty basic and there is a better translation out there for anyone who wants to have a go.

I was always a great Beatles fan since the first song I ever heard: She Loves You. I was surprised in later years to learn that Paul sang many of the songs I had thought John was singing. That’s how close their styles were at first, especially in rock and roll singing. Later, they went in quite different directions artistically and we could see the real differences between Paul and John. I liked John’s rebellious thumbing his nose at the upper classes but in a humorous way. He had a profound understanding of deep nonsense writing in the style of Edward Lear and Ogden Nash, but unfortunately didn’t fully realize his potential as a serious writer, except in a couple of songs. He could write and sing so many different styles that it must have been confusing for him. He also made some serious judgment errors in the last years: the atrocious rock and roll album with Phil Spector, and his foolish statement: that he didn’t like Help and that it should have been recorded as a slow ballad (like John Farnham did here in Australia). I think he heard it as another Don’t Let Me Down, which is also pretty saccharine. Help totally fails as a slow ballad – the up tempo way the Beatles recorded it, for the film, with that brilliant guitar theme, was perfect. Despite his great gifts, sometimes Lennon couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

 

4. Gift (from One Iraqi Child)

DL: What inspired the writing of this one? The opening is terrific, by the way.

JD: I was a strong activist against the Iraq War and wrote a weekly newsletter protesting it. Gift was one of the songs I used to sing at rallies. Another song I wrote with the ‘Dylan template’ which was a good structure to connect the dots with Iraq, and the protest songs of the 60s.

 

5. Armonica FAHNTAH-C in B Minor

DL: You describe yourself as a harmonica virtuoso (and then walk the walk with some really great playing right across your work) – what is it about the harmonica that appeals to you? How long have you been playing? (And for the tech heads, did you use a minor harp or did you transpose a major – a D – harp?)

JD: Blues harp was the first instrument that I began playing in 1966, at nineteen, and got really good at quickly.

This recording uses a B-minor harp but in an atonal way. I discovered in performance that if I stood out in the audience in front of the speakers, the harp would feed-back. Sometimes it was irritating and deafening but when the EQ and the room was just right, I could use the feedback melodies in a pleasing way, to extend riffs way beyond the range of the blues harp. No one had ever heard anything like this. This track is my exploration of that technique. (During a special show I created, for blues harp and string quartet, I actually set my harmonica on fire and cut it in half with a chainsaw! Burning metal was flying everywhere. It made the string players with their expensive instruments very nervous.)

I generally like the less-is-more approach to blues harp playing that most of the great players had – with two or three notes, and a strong tone, you can create an overwhelming effect. (Think of the opening of Sympathy For The Devil – one note!)

I also learned to improvise fluently in a free-jazz style over long extended breaks, often just harp and drummer. In early days, I also used a lot of vocal groans and throat effects, while playing, to create very therapeutic results in performance. Quite scary sometimes. (See Remembering The Headstone Circus on Memoirs Of A Mouth Organ – I was about twenty when I recorded that.)

Ultimately, I channel too much anger when I play the blues harp (I want to break things!) so I tend to stay away from it these days, as I like to be mellow!

 

6. The House Is Burning

DL: This one to me sounds like The Who. What is the idea you were trying to convey behind this song?

JD: I loved the early Who. Pictures Of Lily. My Generation. Substitute. If Happy Jack (like the Beatles Yellow Submarine) had been the only hit for them, they would be considered a novelty act. But in context of their wide repertoire, it makes perfect sense. Brilliant songwriters and awesome performers. I hadn’t noticed the similarity before with The House Is Burning, which wasn’t written by me but by Graham Lowndes. I just liked the driving rhythm. It also contains one of the two electric guitar solos that I’ve recorded, that I am most happy about. Over the ending. The other solo I am particularly satisfied with was over the long ending of Cocaine Lil on The Wind Cries Mary – forty bars, one take, no overdubs. I removed the high E-string so I could get a better pull out of the B-string for vibrato. This solo was featured in Australian Guitar Player Magazine.

 

7. Intimacy

DL: Another big song for you – what was the idea behind the song? How did it get onto The Terminator soundtrack?

JD: This song was co-written with my partner Lin van Hek. We had a band called Skin the Wig and were aiming for the same techno-pop market as Human League. The single went nowhere in Australia – but I still liked it a lot so I took it to the music market place in Cannes, MIDEM, and got it into the hands of Budd Carr who has done the music for all of Oliver Stone’s movies. One day Carr faxed me that there was a film he could use the song in, with a well-known bodybuilder-turned-B-grade actor and a Canadian filmmaker and special effects editor. I didn’t think much more about it, as I wasn’t that familiar with either of them – until I heard that the film had broken all the box office records in the US. The Terminator made the film careers of Schwarzenegger and James Cameron and suddenly we were part of something magical. Even part of the US Library of Congress Film Archives! By the way, Cameron has a new species of Venezuelan frog named after him: Pristimantis jamescameroni.

 

8. La Flamme Renaissance

DL: A departure from the rest of the Memoirs Of A Mouth Organ album – what were you trying to achieve with this one? Would you do more classical (orchestral?) music?

JD: This the final movement of my oratorio Joan On Fire for string orchestra and SATB choir, performed twice at the Melbourne Baptist Church by the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and Chorelation Choir.

There is a connection with the Beatles here. I’ve always considered George Martin to have been instrumental in re-routing the Beatles from a pop band into a sophisticated art band. Martin introduced Paul McCartney to the music of JS Bach. In a couple of his books, Martin continually referenced Bach as the supreme composer so I started listening to Bach until it finally went in and turned a switch. I began self-teaching myself theory and orchestration over the next year which led to the creation of this oratorio. Bach is currently my favourite composer-musician (he was a keyboard virtuoso).

Since then, I have written many more large scale works, one of the latest choral librettos And Let The Wonder In won first prize in the 2017 University of Canberra Health Poetry Prize – a major Australian poetry award.

I gave up studying classical music theory seriously a couple of years ago, although I occasionally teach, and decided my true contribution to music lay in my particular skills at fusion of poetry and music into singable songs, and to that end I am now applying myself.

 

9. Smokin’

DL: What was the idea behind this light-hearted number?

JD: I wanted to write a variation of the brilliant guitar theme of Doc Watson’s Deep River Blues so that led to this idea. Sometimes I pull this song out when I have a coughing fit on stage and encourage the audience to ‘cough along’ – you’d be surprised how many people appreciate doing that!

 

10. Marchin’ With Martin Luther King Jr.

DL: What inspired you to write this one?

JD: This is part of a duo of songs, the other being Coretta – for his wife. Both these people had a strong influence on my youthful non-violent activism. I think differently now – but always get inspiration from the Kings’ vision and courage.

People tend to forget about Coretta’s bravery – it is so much harder for a mother to put her children in harm’s way than for a father to do it. She was a superhuman soul. The song is also a great live vehicle for blues harp playing.

 

DL: Anything else you’d like to talk about?

JD: One of the strongest song lyrics (and also songs) I have written in the past five years, is The Green-eyed Boy Of The Rain. T.S. Eliot Prize and Queen’s Medal for Poetry winner, Les Murray, published this, in 2010, and told me it was magical. He has never heard the music to it to date, but his sub-editor heard me sing it recently and told me the music brings the poem to life in a very multi-dimensional way. Here are the lyrics:

THE GREEN-EYED BOY OF THE RAIN

Somehow we drifted into this wet place
I just couldn’t feel any pain
he came and stole her away from me
the green-eyed boy of the rain.

I wanted to kill him to tear him apart
until nothing of him would remain
when I thought of him kissing her mouth
the green-eyed boy of the rain.

I thought I had rights to her body and soul
now I can’t even say her name
I drove her away and right into the arms of
the green-eyed boy of the rain.

Anger and sorrow become the same thing
two sides of a dark window pane
I’d give everything to see her look back from
the green-eyed boy of the rain.

My partner of 38 years, Lin van Hek, has been the single greatest influence on my work, as she is a gifted writer, painter and singer. Her inspired life, and her love, and belief in me – no matter what art form I choose to focus on – has been inestimable in my growth.

We started with the thirty-five unrecorded songs I have assembled – but to be more specific, they are actually 35-40 unrecorded songs whose lyrics have already been selected and published as stand-alone poems by established and respected poetry editors, without these editors having ever heard the music.

I’m in a rare position at the moment, to take time crafting songs over months and even years, (slow-cooking) because I am not under 24-hour a day scrutiny like, say, an artist like Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney, who have a huge fan base that follows their every utterance.

Because people tend to leave me alone, somewhat, I can work in relative solitude, refining and improving songs and the lyrics over the long term. One day this might not be possible for me either, but for the moment it is a unique opportunity to focus undistracted. Under the radar.

The German poet Rilke once said something to this effect, which Picasso also agreed with, and little children seem to grasp intrinsically in their beautiful and naïve art:

“We keep our eyes down and focused on our work, no matter how much criticism and discouragement we meet in the outside world. Our parents think we are foolish and we ignore them. Our friends, teachers and even loved ones often try to discourage us, but we keep our eyes down and are not distracted. Relationships come and go, we earn no money and most of the time we do it for ourselves. We keep our eyes down and tend to the work. Then one day, suddenly, the world discovers us, throws us accolades, never ending praise, fame and money – and we look up, fatally distracted.”

*

Joe Dolce is a major talent. I strongly urge you to listen to all of his work, where you’ll find an artist of depth, of whimsy, of substance. I thank Joe deeply for his generosity and candour.

 

 

Joe Dolce Albums
Shaddap You Face (1981)
Christmas in Australia (1981)
Difficult Women (with Lin Van Hek – 1992)
Black Pepper With A Hint Of Violets (with Lin Van Hek – 1995)
Memoirs Of A Mouth Organ (1997)
Steal Away Home (1999)
Freelovedays (2000)
Flower (with Lin Van Hek – 2001)
The Wind Cries Mary (2007)

Black Pepper with a Hint of Violets is now available on the Flower CD

For links to Joe’s essays click on his Wikipedia entry and scroll down.

For a selection of his published poems, click here.

You can listen to all the songs on David’s Joe Dolce playlist by clicking on the Spotify link.

Joe Dolce official website

Joe Dolce talks about the difference between poetry and lyrics (YouTube)

Lin van Hek & Joe Dolce discuss their “Difficult Women” show

Lin van Hek official website

Joe Dolce biography (iTunes)

ONE HIT WONDERS ON TOPPERMOST
#1 Jody Reynolds, #2 James Ray, #3 Richie Barrett, #4 Mickey & Sylvia, #5 Scott McKenzie, #6 Blue, #7 Chris Kenner, #8 Dawn Penn, #9 Shep and the Limelites, #10 The Poni-Tails, #11 The La’s, #12 Thomas Wayne, #13 Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford, #14 Carl Mann, #15 Duncan Browne, #16 Harold Dorman, #17 Ned Miller, #18 Gary Shearston, #19 The Fendermen, #20 Jimmy Radcliffe, #21 Joe Dolce

David Lewis is a regular contributor to Toppermost. A professional guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country in several bands and duos. He is a professional historian and a public speaker on crime fiction, adventure fiction, philosophy art, history and popular culture. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website.

TopperPost #698

6 Comments

  1. Alex Lifson
    Feb 17, 2018

    Great essay and interview Dlew. I only knew of Shaddap You Face but I would consider delving deeper into his output. Very entertaining and enjoyable to read.

  2. Neil Waite
    Feb 17, 2018

    This is a great post. I really enjoyed the interview and I guess, like most people, didn’t realise there was other material by this artist which is really good. Thanks for enlightening us. Great stuff!

  3. Andrew Shields
    Feb 18, 2018

    Thanks for this great piece. An excellent interview and it is fascinating to find out more about the origins of the songs. Good to discover also that there is far more to Joe Dolce than I had previously thought.

  4. Dave Stephens
    Feb 20, 2018

    A lovely Topper David, and very largely in Joe’s own words with some subtle direction from yourself. Like the others I only knew what most people knew about Joe but I’m very pleased to have made his acquaintance.

  5. David Lewis
    Feb 21, 2018

    Thanks fellas. It was, perhaps, in one sense, the easiest Toppermost I ever did – I just had to choose the songs and ask the questions. I could have chosen any 10 of Joe’s songs – as I say in the post, check out all of his work.

  6. Phie
    Feb 27, 2018

    Dave, thanks for this great Toppermost. Such brilliant and life-affirming music.

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