Winter Wanderlust from Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Yes + others: Odd Couples

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One of Shakespeare’s most famous lines comes from the historical tragedy Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Students of drama know that in context of the play the quote doesn’t actually apply to the weather; instead, the opening monologue serves as a way to provide some introductory background.

But Shakespeare was a genius, and his true genius lies in how easy it is to take his words out of context and still make them quite useful. For instance, there are probably a whole lot of people who think of this line near the end of a long and particularly chilly winter and take “now is the winter of our discontent” to mean: “Yeah, I’m so done with all of this snow stuff.”

Well, don’t put your boots, mittens, and snow shovels away just yet, but be comforted that spring is always just around the corner; as the Bard also said, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”

“CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'” by THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS vs. “A HAZY SHADE OF WINTER” by SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: John and Michelle Phillips wrote “California Dreamin’” while living in New York City in the early 1960s, so it’s usually assumed that the Big Apple is the inspiration for the gloomy landscape and grey skies found in the first verse. How cold is it? Cold enough for the singer, out for a walk, to stop in at a church along the way and say a few prayers – or warm up, at least.

Paul Simon’s “A Hazy Shade of Winter” seems to function as an allegory, easily discovered by connecting the dots found in lyrics like: “seasons change with the scenery,” “springtime of my life,” and “there’s a patch of snow on the ground.” Although the song wouldn’t quite make the Top Ten when it was released as a single in1968, California paisley pop princesses the Bangles would hotwire a cover version of it all the way to Number 2 nearly 20 years later in 1987.

Winner: Give this one to “California Dreamin’” mostly because the vocal harmonies themselves manage to make California sound so wonderful despite the fact that the Golden State actually gets little mention in the lyrics.

“WINTER” by the ROLLING STONES vs. “CONEY ISLAND WINTER” by GARLAND JEFFREYS: The Rolling Stones manage to turn out a song that somehow straddles the line between mid-tempo rocker and ballad. The lyrics are likewise ambivalent; “Sure been a cold, cold winter” contrasts with more tender images like “Sometimes I wanna wrap my coat around you.” Oddly enough, it turns out the track was recorded in Jamaica, known for (among other things) its complete lack of snowflakes or freezing rain.

“Twenty two stops to the city / Boardwalk’s dead on a midnight creep / It’s colder than a polar bear / But I don’t care,” sings Garland Jeffreys on his 2011 release The King of In Between. In other words, a typical winter as seen through the eyes of one born and bred in the Big Apple. And backed up with a solid rock ‘n’ roll band beating a two chord riff all the way to the Ferris Wheel.

Winner: “Coney Island Winter.” When in doubt, don’t sit on the fence: Go with what you know.

“SOUTH SIDE OF THE SKY” by YES vs. “WINTER OF ’23” by the GREEN PAJAMAS: The closing cut from the 1972 album Fragile, “South Side of the Sky” by Yes contains all the band’s most recognizable characteristics: strong instrumental and vocal work, interesting arrangements, and striking yet abstract lyrics. Most Yes compositions can be interpreted many different ways and this one is no different, but at its most basic level this song seems to be about a doomed Antarctic expedition. It doesn’t get much colder than that.

“In the winter of ’23, it snowed like a bastard” opens this long, winding track from Green Pajama Country, the 2011 release form Seattle indie-rock veterans the Green Pajamas. The song progresses through confrontations with death, sex, and religion, and somehow finishes up as a reminiscence of lost love. Powered by the usual Green Pajama assortment of tremolo guitars and keyboards, there’s also a hypnotic banjo riff that drives much of the song, like the ghosts of Doc Boggs and Clarence Ashley dropped in to invoke their spooky blessings.

Winner: Close, but this one goes to “Winter of ’23.” Not only does it meet all the seasonal requirements, but it’s also one of the most claustrophobic performances since Dylan’s original version of “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.”

“IMMIGRANT SONG” by LED ZEPPELIN bs. “COLD WIND TO VALHALLA” by JETHRO TULL: What’s better than a winter song about ice and snow? How about ice and snow and Vikings? Much has been written about this Led Zeppelin classic, so suffice it to say it practically invented a sub-genre of rock all by itself.

On the other hand, take the ice and snow, add “Valkyrie maidens cry” and a dash of the usual electric-acoustic Jethro Tull musical blend, and that’s a pretty good encapsulation of “Cold Wind to Valhalla,” the second cut from 1975’s Minstrel in the Gallery. Also a very strong track based on Norse mythology and culture.

Winner: Another close call, but the victor here is “Immigrant Song,” basically for saying about the same thing in about half the time. “Valhalla, I am coming!”


JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito spends most of his day keeping the wolves from the door. When he's not occupied with this pastime, he's interested in all things rock and roll -- which may or may not have died back in the late 1950s, the late 1970s, or the early '90s, depending on who you believe. Contact Something Else! at
JC Mosquito
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