Monday, October 30, 2006

Soft With Sorrow

Probably unlike most great songwriters, Leonard Cohen’s songs often seem to lend themselves to being interpreted by others. I don’t think the same is true of Dylan or Lennon/McCartney. I’m not sure what this might mean. It’s not that Cohen’s recordings of his own tunes aren’t excellent either. I just read that Cohen was the president of the debating society when he was at McGill University. His grandfather was a Talmudic scholar. I was just looking at a Cohen songbook yesterday and there was curious ID picture of him from sort of Greek driving club. I wondered why that was, but then I just learned that he -- like the great painter Brice Marden whose retrospective just went up at MoMa and about whom there have been a bunch of articles appearing lately - owns a house on the island of Hydra. Must be a fun place to hang out.

Cohen, it turns out, is one of the most quotable singers ever. He said this about working with Phil Spector, who produced Death of a Ladies’ Man. "I was flipped out at the time and he certainly was flipped out. For me, the expression was withdrawal and melancholy, and for him, megalomania and insanity and a devotion to armaments that was really intolerable. In the state that he found himself, which was post-Wagnerian, I would say Hitlerian, the atmosphere was one of guns - the music was a subsidiary enterprise ... At a certain point Phil approached me with a bottle of kosher red wine in one hand and a .45 in the other, put his arm around my shoulder and shoved the revolver into my neck and said, 'Leonard, I love you.' I said, 'I hope you do, Phil.'" According to the Guardian he described the album they made together as "grotesque."

But this isn’t about Leonard Cohen. Nope. It’s about Roberta Flack. I love the cover (help me Lefty) of her album First Take so much. She’s got this great floral print dress on and she’s playing the piano with a rapt concentration or else it could be a sort of spiritual focus or maybe autistic despair or maybe self-obliterating doubt. Hard to say. What drew me to this record was the fact that bassist Ron Carter, who had probably only recently stopped playing with Miles Davis at the time, plays on it. One thing I can’t quite figure out is that it lists guitarist John Pizzarelli on the credits. But the John Pizzarelli I know of, son of Bucky, was, like 9 years old at the time, though he evidently started performing out at age six. I do like the thought of a 9-year-old joining Carter and Flack, though, whatever the case may be.

According to the Leonard Cohen Files there are at least 20 recorded covers of "Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye," many of them by Norwegians (who evidently love L. Cohen). I think it’s safe to say that Roberta Flack’s version rules the most.

"Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" - Roberta Flack

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Future Past

I’ve got a complicated theory to advance here, and I hope you’ll hear me out on this one. Like those internet sleuths who’ve uncovered Bob Dylan’s thieving from Civil War era poet Henry Timrod, I too think the bard has been stealing. But it’s more convoluted than that. Let me put it this way: Dylan’s been stealing from someone who was stealing from Dylan. Although maybe the theft was, at the time, from a future, not-yet-realized Dylan. Basically Dylan’s been mimicking Ronnie Wood who was somehow channeling a version of Dylan to come. I think Duke Ellington once said something like "It’s not plagiarism if you’re stealing from yourself." Maybe the rule holds true here too.

Recently EMI released a career-spanning two-CD Ronnie Wood anthology. I was very excited, having been thoroughly jazzed by one of Django West’s early posts of a tune from Ron Wood’s first solo record, "I’ve Got My Own Album To Do." But after spending some time with the set, I was disappointed. The collection left me with two impressions: 1) whoever compiled the anthology somehow astoundingly managed to leave out the sporadically good material from Wood’s solo records, while larding it with much of the plentiful mediocre stuff – it’s not like there’s so many great Ronnie Wood tunes out there that one can justify withholding any of it, much less when you’re beefing the collection up with work that Ronnie did with Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and a lame Stones tune (Mick and Keith probably wouldn’t give him the rights to any of the good stuff off Black and Blue). 2) The other response was, My God! Ron Wood was ripping off Dylan. Much of this stuff sounds like it was lifted directly from Slow Train Coming or Infidels. It’s so blatantly like Dylan that Ronnie should really have been embarrassed. Someone should have told him it wasn’t ok to do that. Only thing is, the lyrics are real dumb, like the fetal alcohol version of Dylan. Then again, it answers the question: is Dylan good only because he’s a brilliant songwriter? Answer: No, since Ronnie’s poetry-free Dylan-esque tunes are good, it’s not just the lyrical artistry.

It was only after repeatedly shaking my head in disbelieve about the Dylan-mimicry that one day I noticed that these particular Ron Wood tracks were recorded around 1974 and 75, around the time of Planet Waves and Blood on the Tracks. But it wasn’t these Dylan records the Ron Wood seemed to be pilfing from. It was the Dylan circa 1979 -83. But how could this be? Was Ron Wood adumbrating the Bob Dylan to come, or was Dylan, the famous magpie, simply finding inspiration in the music of someone who had practically already copied Dylan’s style? Remember, Dylan had already shape-shifted a few times already, doing whatever country-crooner thing it was that he did on Nashville Skyline. And it was about this time that Dylan, on the cover of his record Desire, seemingly emulated a record cover by John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas. It’s worth noting that Dylan later famously copied those who’d copied Dylan. He began performing live versions of "All Along the Watch Tower" that drew significantly from Hendrix’s cover of the Dylan song. And when I saw Dylan in Hartford in around 2002 or so, I remember he did a version of "Wicked Messenger" that seemed to me to borrow the riffage from the version that the Small Faces (in the incarnation with Rod Stewart and ... Ron Wood) did on the record First Step. Dig the oddball five-beat phrases thrown in on "We Better Talk This Over" from Street Legal (1978), Dylan’s art rock phase.

"Breathe on Me" - Ron Wood

"We Better Talk This Over" - Bob Dylan

"Wicked Messenger" - Small Faces (The Faces)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Take Me ... To Siberia

Let’s hear it, again, for Seattle’s Light in the Attic Records. They’ve made Karen Dalton’s 1971 record "In My Own Time" available on CD. The late Dalton is one of those long-lost craggy cult icons. People like Dylan, Devendra Banhart and Nick Cave have all listed her as an influence. She had a funny croaky voice that would go ghostly dead for microseconds. But she was quite a stylist, working some phrasing mojo, throwing in a weird accent here, flattening a melody there, puffing it up someplace else. Countless artists have struggled to capture that Old Weird America-style creepy strangeness of mountain ballads and old time 78s, but Dalton’s froggy rasp can successfully generate the spookiness. "Something On Your Mind," "Katie Cruel" and her version of "Take Me" are the real killers. She sounds at times like M Ward doing Billie Holiday.

Back in 2003 Light in the Attic also reintroduced the world to the Free Design, a trio of two brothers and a sister who made ‘60s pop with sweet blended harmonies, confectionary orchestral backing and a breezy hint of muzak-style bossa nova. But as anyone from a big family knows, a group of siblings can be like a strange solipsistic unit, lost in a world of their own making. The Dedrick siblings in the Free Design demonstrate a similar terminally insular feeling. They may do a couple soft-serve covers of the era ("Michelle" and "The 59th Street Bridge Song") but their originals were plain disturbing, alternating between a childlike innocence ("Kites Are Fun" and "My Brother Woody") and a seething adolescent contempt for square conformist world of grown-ups ("The Proper Ornaments"). It’s a little like the android version of the Fifth Dimension.

"Something on Your Mind" – Karen Dalton

"Same Old Man" - Karen Dalton

"The Proper Ornaments" - The Free Design

"My Brother Woody" - The Free Design

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Freddy Fender, RIP

UPDATE: A truly bizarre and tragic coincidence: I wrote my post on Freddy Fender yesterday, without realizing that he had passed away.

New York Daily News -
Tex-Mex singer Freddy Fender is dead at 69

Sunday, October 15th, 2006

CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. - Freddy Fender, the Tex-Mex border balladeer who had a string of smash hits in the 1970s including "Before the Next Teardrop Falls," died yesterday. He was 69.

Fender, who was diagnosed with lung cancer early this year, died at his Corpus Christi home with his family at his bedside, said a family spokesman.

Over the years, he grappled with drug and alcohol abuse, was treated for diabetes and underwent a kidney transplant.

Fender, born Baldemar Huerta, hit it big in 1975 after years of struggling - and a stint in prison - when "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" climbed to No. 1 on the pop and country charts.

"Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" rose to No. 1 on the Country chart and top 10 on the pop chart that same year.


My real name is Baldemar G. Huerta. I was born in the south Texas valley border town of San Benito. I'm a Mexican-American, better yet, a Tex-Mex. I just picked up my stage name, Freddy Fender, in the late fifties as a name that would help my music sell better with "gringos." Now I like the name.

That's from the back of Freddy Fender's 1975 ABC Records LP Before the Next Teardrop Falls. Freddy Fender was a local legend in Corpus Christi, Texas, where I grew up. Most of my high school friends were Mexican and their parents invariably had Freddy Fender albums in their record collections at home. The afro, the moustache, the crinkly eyes, the huge floral lapels, the sad-soul quiver of his voice, it was the essence of South Texas AM radio in the late 70s. He pioneered Spanish-Country crossover, which was no small thing considering how institutionalized anti-Mexican racism was even when I was in high school in the late 80s. Freddy paid his dues. In the liner notes he goes on to explain how his career was nearly derailed in the early days:

Everything went beautifully until May, Friday the 13th, 1960. I was busted for 'grass' in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I'm not bitter, but if friends ask I still say that the three years I had to spend in Angola State prison was a long time for a little mistake.

And that was after his first big radio hit with "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," which he re-records on Before the Next Teardrop Falls and dedicates to Doug Sahm, of the Sir Douglas Quintet, the white Texas rocker who played with Freddy through the years, most recently with Tex-Mex supergroup the Texas Tornadoes (check out this amazing video).

Wasted Days and Wasted Nights - Freddy Fender

Before the Next Teardrop Falls - Freddy Fender

(Just to give you an idea of how small the Texas music world is, here's the Sir Douglas Quintet covering "You're Gonna Miss Me" by Texas psych-rock legends 13th Floor Elevators.)

Freddy apparently resisted getting into "country" music early on because he really wanted to make it as an R&B artist, like his crossover soulmate Ronnie Milsap. (The two eventually made an album together.) You can really hear that in this fantastic John Loudermilk cover.

Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye - Freddy Fender

Freddy's roots were in Tejano rock and accordian-driven Tex Mex. I found an all-Spanish Freddy Fender LP on the Crazy Cajun label also entitled Before the Next Teardrop Falls, but it's not really a one-to-one Spanish version. The hit is here -- "Estare Contigo Cuando Triste Estas" - and the rest are various Tex-Mex originals ... Or are they? For a tune called "Esta Noche Mia Seras," Kris Kristofferson doesn't get any songwriting credit, but the melody is awfully familiar. So is "Vivo en El Sueno," but I can't pinpoint it. Can you? Under the cover of Spanish, anything is possible.

Esta Noche Mia Seras - Freddy Fender

Vivo En El Sueno - Freddy Fender

Estare Contigo Cuando Triste Estas - Freddy Fender

What's really fascinating and wonderful are some early, rough Tex-Mex recordings with Freddy's vocals sung over backup music that sounds completely disembodied from the mix, with ghostly horns, snappy snare drums and slinky guitar riffs strikingly similar to stuff heard on Jamaican reggae and dub albums of the late 60s and 70s. You can easily imagine Lee Scratch Perry dubbing out "Fuera De Alcance."

Fuera De Alcance - Freddy Fender

Alguna Vez - Freddy Fender

I'm truly sad to report that Fender's now dying of cancer . He's such a folk hero in Corpus Christi, his family has had to ask the hordes of fans to stop flocking to the house. Some Driftwood love is the least we can do. The above picture is Freddy hanging out on the pier in Corpus Christi where I once went fishing.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Born to Lose, Dying to Win

The annual music issue of the Oxford American is a pretty reliably good read, and the accompanying mix CD is usually equally excellent. I’ve gotten turned on to a few groups that ended up becoming favorite obsessions – My Morning Jacket and Esther Phillips in particular - as a result of their inclusion in the OA music issue. This year’s no different. Among the great tracks included this year are Big Star’s "Stroke It Noel," We the People’s "She Does Everything for Me," The NuGrape Twins’ "I Got Your Ice Cold NuGrape," and Townes Van Zandt’s "Nothin’" – and the essay on the NuGrape Twins is well worth sinking into. I was already familiar with all those. As a result of this mix I'll have to reconsider Drivin' 'n' Cryin' too (an entertaining essay addresses the question of apostrophe abuse in band names). I may even have to go ahead and track down some records by Bob Dorough, the guy behind School House Rock. But what came as a real revelation was this track by Gary Stewart. I guess this was Stewart’s hit. And it’s pretty catchy, with that winning country mix of self-pity and self-destruction. If you didn't already, this'll make you want to drink some cheap whiskey.

"Single Again" - Gary Stewart

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Starched White Shirts, Buttoned at the Neck

With the success of Brokeback Mountain last year, a lot was made of the gay cowboy. It didn’t take much reflection to reveal that Western films – filled as they were with chaps-wearing, gun-toting and leather-obsessed cow rustlers and horse wranglers – were, in fact, gay all along, as many have noted. But then again, the case could be made that just about every movie genre has its homoerotic elements. Ever seen Smoky and the Bandit?

But what about the gay country singer? There are fewer paradigms there. For the ladies, Patsy Cline was embraced as a sort of lesbian icon; Loretta Lynne had her candid feminism of the people ("Rated X" and "The Pill"); and then there’s Dolly Parton ... shhh, don't tell anybody. For the dudes, that leaves Randy Travis, who, it turns out, was from Marshville, NC, not far from where I sort of grew up. Rumor always had it that Travis, who, like Parton, married his manager who happens to be quite a bit older than him, was gay. I suspect that Nashville is sort of like Hollywood in the 50s (and today) in that there are probably loads of stars that everyone knows are gay, but who still have to maintain their hetero image in order to keep their fans. You have to really see the cover of the record No Holding Back (I still can't seem to post images), from which comes the great, sappy song "He Walked on Water." There's a lot of gay semiotics at work. The muscle-T, the jeans, the stance, the general equestrian scenario. I remember raising my opinion of Robert Christgau when I read a short piece in which he praised "He Walked on Water." This song is basically about a kid who idealized his old toothless great-grandfather. Aside from the lines of the opening verse: "He wore starched white shirts, buttoned at the neck/And he's sit in the shade and watch the chickens peck/His teeth were gone, but what the heck/" there are some other choice ones (Travis didn't write it, BTW), like "He could handle a rope and he was good with a gun/And my mama's daddy was his oldest son." Travis, whose voice can dip and puff and get all bowels-of-the-earth deep, is the only real heir to George Jones.

"He Walked On Water" -- Randy Travis

I pretty much failed as I tried to come up with some other gay country stars. Turns out there's plenty of gay-bashing country, but that's a whole different deal. Here's one, sort of. From the still mind-blowing Song-Poem Anthology that came out in 2003, this is "I Lost My Girl to an Argentinian Cowboy" -- just savor the lyrics on this one.

"I Lost My Girl to an Argentinian Cowboy" - Artist unknown

Finally, here's two from old Hag. Merle Haggard makes a condescending little chuckle when he talks about the "two kinds of fairies" in "My Own Kind of Hat." He has perplexing distinct emphatic taxonomies. It's sort of a question for Magritte or Sartre or someone, but what does it mean to wear your own kind of hat?

And I know this is a stretch, but I thought I could yoke "Rainbow Stew" to this theme. You know, rainbows. This is Merle at his obnoxious best -- a complete curmudgeon, railing against idealistic environmentalists, yet somehow revealing the idiocy of a do-nothing attitude. An added bonus: fake live crowd sounds and an E Street Band-style sax solo. Free bubble up.

"My Own Kind of Hat" -- Merle Haggard

"Rainbow Stew" -- Merle Haggard

"Here's a quarter, call someone who cares": a tangential rumination
For me, the song "He Walked On Water" will always evoke the summer of 1990. There's a "game" you'd sometimes see at truck stops and arcades, at least down south you would, it consists of two tiers that are basically covered in quarters. One of the shelves slowly pushes in a few inches at regular intervals, compressing and reconfiguring the quarters on the bottom tier, nudging them toward an overhang that will dump whatever quarters fall off into a basin that the player can retrieve. A well-placed quarter, dropped carefully into the gap created by the moving shelf can, when the shelf comes back to push it toward the ledge, cause a few dollars worth of coins to drop off into the bin. It always looks like 10 or 12 quarters are dangling, ready to drop, and that's how you get roped in. This was a summer during which I worked at the lesbian cafe/bookstore and basically survived by eating my meals of cheese melted bagels and tempeh and avocado sandwiches during my shifts, or else making big pots of lentils with our housemates. There were some dumpster-diving friends who'd sometimes drop off loads of bananas or day-old bread. Somehow, during this poverty, we got on a cheap-skate gambling kick -- we'd flip quarters, dollars, there was a famous flip for one-hundred dollars. When my friend Andy lost, he decided to pay my other friend Chris off in pennies. So Andy went to the bank and got $100 in penny rolls and we spilled them out on Chris' floor. Seemed funny at the time. Mostly just strikes me as obnoxious now. Anyway, Andy, who was an untapped songwriting/outsider art genius, was also big into the "quarter game" at the arcade. I remember that the game had the a little metal plaque that said "Redemption Game" on it, which also struck us as hilarious. After trying to figure out the key to causing a big pay-off of quarters to drop, Andy eventually settled on the superior-fire-power approach. This entailed getting $20 or so worth of quarters and then frantically trying to jam all of the quarters through the coin-sized slot during the brief time between when the moving shelves pulled back and pushed forth. You only had a few seconds. Anyway, it wasn't foolproof, but if you were lucky you might get around $30 or $35 worth of quarters to drop when you used this approach. That was a big $10 or $12 profit. But you could just as easily get only $4 back. A big loss of $16 to chumps like us. Anyway, it was at this arcade that I remember hearing, Randy Travis' "He Walked on the Water" on what you'd now call the hot new country station. I seem to remember Patty Loveless's "Timber, I'm Falling in Love" being big then too. Anyway, Andy (he was known to everyone as Anj) in his absurdist brilliance latched on to the general melody and a sort of mumbled transliteration of the lyrics. He would routinely sing his version of the chorus, taking "If the story is told, only heavn knows," and turning it into something like "If the story is told, on his briss-preyster rolls." And he could do it with the right earnest twang and dip. This really was funny. As further proof of Anj's gifts, in high school art class he spent an entire semester working on a single drawing, using a ruler and dozens of pencils sharpened to a needle point. He called the drawing "The Molecule of Insanity" -- it was like some sort of op-art outsider-art depiction of an infinitely complex crystal, with thousands of super-straight lines creating crazy convex and concave spikes, completely abandoning the rules of perspective. His art teacher wasn't sure if she should let him continue on such an obsessive project, but he stuck to it diligently and I believe he was given credit in the end. Another of Anj's homespun dadaist efforts was to paper the wall of his bedroom using the small gold foil papers that came with each box of Player's cigarettes. Anj, a big time smoker, saved hundreds and hundreds of the papers and used them to spell out a shiny "PLAYERS" on the wall above his bed.