Rich Wilhelm

The Best Song I Heard in 2014

In Music/Memory, Music/Opinion on December 31, 2014 at 10:21 pm

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The best song I heard in 2014 was “(Sitting on the) Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding. “Dock of the Bay” is the best song I have heard every year since the first time I spun my hand-me-down 45 r.p.m. Volt single of the song on my toy record player, way back around 1970.

The best new song I heard in 2014? There is only one clear winner in that category.

“Dashboard” by Cliff Hillis.

Shown just below is the video for “Dashboard,” directed by the great Rob Waters of W Films. Watch the video and then keep it in your mind as you read what I have to say about the song. And, yes, my wife Donna and I are among the cast in the video.

There are several reasons for my love of “Dashboard,” the primary of which is this: “Dashboard” is an exquisitely crafted song, poppy but with moody undercurrents. Cliff co-wrote “Dashboard” with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Scot Sax, who I also happen to know. But, again, I’d enjoy Scot’s music even if I didn’t know him. Having listened to both Cliff and Scot’s songs over the last few years, I feel qualified to say that “Dashboard” is an immensely satisfying collaboration between the two songwriters. It’s a Hillis song, for sure, but then there are lyrical and musical moments that remind me a bit of Scot’s work. I just get a sense that there was some serious creative activity going on between Cliff and Scot on “Dashboard” and it shows.

Next, I think “Dashboard” is a beautifully played song thanks to Cliff (guitar, piano, ebow bass, vocals) and his Forward Thinkers bandmates Greg Maragos (bass, piano, keys) and Pat Berkery (drums). Opening with insistent guitar strumming and the lyrics, “Put your feet up on the dashboard, I don’t mind…” the song/story gradually unfolds, telling the story of two people driving somewhere, beginning a journey. It could just be a vacation, but the piano coda that closes the song seems to indicate, without words, that the journey on which these two people are embarking is going to be a transformative experience.

So there you have it: a well-written, well-played, well-sung song that I have been fortunate enough to see Cliff perform, with varying degrees of accompaniment, several times this year. All of this is more than enough for me to confer “Best New Song I Heard in 2014” on Cliff Hillis’ “Dashboard.”

Those are the clear, logical, linear reasons why I love “Dashboard.” But there’s more.

As 2014 progressed, each time I listened to “Dashboard” I felt like the song was nagging at me a little bit, as if it was daring me to a recall a “Dashboard” moment that existed in my own life. Finally, as I was driving through Valley Forge National Historical Park one autumn afternoon, it hit me. My “Dashboard” moment.

When you listen to “Dashboard,” it’s easy to imagine that what transpires is happening between just two people. Probably, though not necessarily, two romantically involved people. Driving on the open road, with no one else in the car. That’s not exactly how my “Dashboard” moment went down, but it was a “Dashboard” moment just the same.

It was August 2005. We were about 36 hours away from a family vacation to Maine. Late on a Thursday evening, the sudden and unpleasant appearance of water in our basement threatened that vacation, which was desperately needed by everyone in our family.

After a frantic Thursday-night-into-Friday-morning and an equally crazy day at work, I arrived home to the constant whirring of several dehumidifiers going about their business downstairs. Despite this, we determined that the vacation was a viable thing that needed to happen and late on that Friday night we got the hell out of Phoenixville. Driving up the ramp to the Pennsylvania Turnpike seemed like a sweet escape from our soggy, noisy house.

Once we hit New Jersey, it rained the entire ride up the NJ Turnpike, as we made the occasional stop at NJ Turnpike rest stop–the stops named for Woodrow Wilson and Joyce Kilmer!–in a futile search for decent coffee. We had told our older son Jimmy that we’d see the Empire State Building as we drove through New York but he and our younger son, Chris, were long asleep by the time we approached Manhattan. It was just as well that they were sleeping–in the rainy weather, there wasn’t much of a view.

For reasons that I don’t entirely remember, I decided that the George Washington Bridge, rather than the Tappan Zee, would be our gateway to New England. If Wikipedia is to be believed, the George Washington Bridge is the busiest bridge on this planet, with traffic patterns that may or may not have been altered by politicians in recent years.

The GW was certainly busy that Friday night–which had by this point turned to very early Saturday morning–in 2005. The approach to the tolls was jammed and we were stuck in the thick of it. Eventually, we got through and made our way onto the busiest bridge in the world.

That’s when it happened. My “Dashboard” event, eight years before Cliff and Scot wrote the song that would retroactively bring the moment back to me.

Crossing the GW that night, ever so slowly, could have been an unbearably miserable experience. Having either kid be awake during that hour would have been tortuous for every one of us, but Jimmy and Chris snoozed happily during the entire crossing. Finally heading out of New Jersey, Donna and I probably relaxed a little bit, knowing that the vacation that almost didn’t happen was now going to happen. We listened to music quietly and maybe we talked (“We can talk but if not then that’s just fine”-Hillis/Sax).

No one put their feet up on the dashboard. But I’ve never forgotten that quiet time that Donna and I spent together stuck on the busiest bridge in the world with the hope that the boys stayed asleep. Which they did.

It was our “Dashboard” moment and when it plays now as a movie in my mind, the final scene pulls back from Donna and me, quietly smiling at each other, and the sleeping boys in our car to reveal the hundreds of slowly moving cars surrounding us on the George Washington Bridge, as that insistent piano coda plays over the fade to black.

Visit Cliff’s website. Go on, now!

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Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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