“Yesterday When I Was Young,” Roy Clark

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At my cousins’ apartment in New York City, I was in the bedroom talking about Bobby Sherman. My cousin Lucy was trying to explain why he was so good. She said it was part his voice, and part the songs he sang, but mostly his personality. She played me one his songs as she showed me a picture from one of her magazines. “You can see it, right?” she said. “You know he would be so nice, if you met him and talked to him.”

My brother and my cousin Eileen were in the bedroom, too, watching television. Eileen yelled to turn it off when Lucy played the Bobby Sherman song, even though Lucy played it really low so it wouldn’t bother them. I wondered if it would have been worth having to share a bedroom with my brother if it meant we could have our own TV in there.

“I think my friends would beat up any boy who wore that necklace thing,” I said to Lucy, as I looked at Bobby Sherman’s picture in her magazine.

Lucy tsked. “It’s called a choker. And it looks good on him. You’re just making fun.”

We heard the door of the apartment open, which meant our Uncle Mike was home. We all went to the kitchen to say hello. We knew Mike would be mad if we didn’t.

Our mothers were in the kitchen with their friend Ed, who lived in the building with his sick mother. We’d been hearing their whoops of laughter from the bedroom. Ed was the kind of person who could make anyone laugh.

Uncle Mike nodded hello to us all, pulled a chair from the kitchen table, turned it backwards and sat down. “How are you doing, Mike?” Ed asked.

“I’m doing fine. Kind of beat. Long day.”

Uncle Mike was supposed to work as a bartender. But even I knew he had strange hours for bartender. Sometimes he worked in the middle of the afternoon, sometimes the middle of the night. Whenever we visited Lucy and Eileen, he was always just showing up. He never came along when my aunt and cousins visited us in Monroe.

“You all staying over tonight, Eileen?” Uncle Mike asked my mother.

“Yes,” she said quickly. “Just for the one night. If that’s okay.”

Everyone always acted like this around Uncle Mike, kind of nervous. Which was funny, since Mike was a short, wiry guy, not someone you’d expect people to be scared of.

“That’s fine,” Uncle Mike said, and stood up abruptly. “You know, I think I’m going to take a shower and a nap. I really am beat.”

“We can leave…” Ed began.

“No, no, stay,” Uncle Mike said. “You know me. I can sleep through anything.”

Uncle Mike walked over to the refrigerator, got himself a beer. He paused for a second in the kitchen doorway. “Okay then, enjoy it, anyway” Uncle Mike said, and laughed to himself.

That was another thing about Uncle Mike, he was always saying weird little things that made no sense to me but he thought were really funny.

Once the shower water started running everyone calmed down. We kids went back to the bedroom. Our mothers and Ed began telling stories again.

About a half hour later I had to go to the bathroom. “Hey,” a voice called out as I passed the living room. “Hey, Chris. Come in here for a second.”

It was Mike. He was in the living room with the lights out, sipping on his beer. I came in, sat on the far end of the couch.

“You like music, don’t you?” he asked.

I said yes, although I didn’t know how he’d know if I liked music or anything else. We never talked much.

“I heard this on the radio today. I had to go out and buy it.”

He took a 45 record out of a plastic Korvette’s bag. “Just listen to this.”

He put the record on the turntable. It started out with guitars that sounded like the country music my father listened to, but then a deep, sad voice began singing words that were nothing like any country music I’d ever heard:

Yesterday, when I was young
The taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue
I teased at life as if it were a foolish game
The way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame….

As I sat on the couch listening, I watched Uncle Mike. He stood at the record player, his ear dipped toward the speaker, getting closer and closer as the song went on. It was like he wanted to crawl inside.

“Isn’t that great?” he asked, when it ended.

“It’s really good.”

He nodded. “Let’s listen again.”

He restarted the record. Again, he listened with fierce concentration. At the end, he shook his head, then looked up at me as if waking up from a dream. “You don’t want to be here,” he said. “It’s okay. You can go.”

As I walked away, I heard him cueing up the record again.

I went to the kitchen, where there was light. Ed was telling another story. Aunt Julie was laughing, my mother was laughing, which wasn’t something she did very often. Ed paused long enough to say, “Lose your way somewhere, Chris?” which made everyone laugh even harder. Then he picked up right from where he’d left off.

I sat down at the table. I was relieved to be back here, away from Uncle Mike and that dark living room. This was where I belonged. But then how to explain how badly I wanted to hear the song Uncle Mike had played for me again?

RIP Roy Clark. Never much of a Hee Haw fan but I’m sure it made a lot of people very happy.

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“Beyond,” Leon Bridges and “Leave It Alone,” Amanda Shires

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This week: two newish songs about ambivalence.

Which is by the way a word I first encountered in Greil Marcus’s “Mystery Train,” when he referred to Randy Newman as the “master of ambivalence” or “poet of ambivalence” or some such. I had to look it up. To this day I’m not sure how it applies exactly to a song like Randy’s “Old Kentucky Home,” which seems pretty singleminded in its skewering its target…though whether that target is rural life or songs about rural life is an interesting discussion. And while we’re on the subject, did you happen to catch Greil’s recent article about how the new Bob Dylan “Blood on the Tracks” outtakes aren’t really any good despite how good they sound? Recondite even by his own high standards!

But I digress. So: ambivalence, “mixed feelings over mixed drinks,” in Tom Waits’s clever phrase. Soulman Leon has finally found a woman who “might just be (his) everything and beyond” (he even throws in a second “beyond,” she’s beyond beyond!) but he’s not sure if he’s getting, well, beyond himself.

An argument for that could be made: he is already projecting marrying her, having kids, having her as his eternal companion in the afterlife. That’s a lot to take on!

But he’s also reluctant about being reluctant: “Do you think I’m being foolish if I don’t rush in?” he asks us. Sorry, Leon, you’re going to have to answer that one yourself.

Which he does, by the end of the song, admitting to himself he’s in love but casting it in terms of “giving up.” That checks the boxes in my definition of ambivalence much better than Randy Newman did.

Love the strummy guitar, the background vocals, the multitrack main vocal. Sounds great on the radio. Bound to show up at many future weddings.

Amanda Shires multitracks her twangy voice on “Leave It Alone” too, and sets it against an almost techno drum-machine bed. I love it, but don’t think it would sound good on the radio.

No nicer way to put it, this is a song about being in heat, infatuated, obsessed…but not doing anything about it. It’s not clear in the context of the song why she doesn’t do anything about it. She talks a lot about what she intends to do about it, but it’s all future tense. There is a touch of Leon’s fear of intimacy–“Careful, you’re getting too close”–but she is also envying the clothes the song’s object is wearing (no gender specified, let’s say guy to avoid labored constructions like that) for their proximity to his body. She can’t leave it alone–“it” being him, or maybe lust itself–but it’s unclear why she would have to. Just go for it, Amanda!

Some great images in here: the hands in places they’ve never been because they have a mind of their own, the noise of the guy’s nerves like question marks, the words they are not saying like swarming bees, the neglected fish tank green in which this either hopeful or doomed encounter is taking place. If they make it to morning, Amanda says, that fish tank green will turn into cold blue. Again, and notwithstanding some of the jagged relationship songs on the rest of the album, it seems a chance worth taking.

Recent Songs #7

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Heavy rotation here on a cloudy day in early October:

  1. “Running,” Ryan Downey. “Hey, that’s the best song Chris Isaak has come up with in years!” thought Newsome on first listen. Well, no, but silly/earnest promises of love delivered via a clever extended metaphor is always going to land in my sweet spot. “You better get your Nikes on/I’m about to start my song for you honey.”
  2. “I’d Ask the Questions,” The Proclaimers. These guys are still around? Maybe they are still huge in Scotland. But this is a charming little ditty about an absent friend and the types of conversations you have with someone you’ve known forever somewhere around the third round. Is the absent friend gone on holiday, moved to America, dead? At my age I’m thinking dead, although Charlie and Craig’s voices seem too cheerful for that. But on the other hand, they do things differently in Scotland (and everywhere else). “I’ve lost my bounce/Without you to bounce off.”
  3. “Confidante,” Paul McCartney. “Hey, that’s the best song Paul McCartney has come up in years!” thought Newsome on first listen. And this time, a happier ending. I wouldn’t trade the nice uplifting Paul but a little dose of vitriol occasionally does everyone some good. “My underneath the staircase friend” captures a certain kind of relationship well, but I also like the butterflies in army boots verse as a terrific example of the stupid, embarrassing things lovers actually confide. Among his many well-deserved accolades, Paul McCartney is truly the king of the unembarrassed.
  4. “Slow Burn,” Kacey Musgraves. I’m not just Mr. Indie! I like popular stuff too! I picture two lovers in bed, or the singer waiting for a lover to arrive, anticipation leading to free association. I love Kacey’s dreamy voice, I love the sense of time as freefall when you know something good’s about to happen. “Old soul, waiting my turn/I know a few things but I still got a lot to learn.”
  5. “Nobody,” Mitski. And sometimes you can be Mr. Indie and like popular stuff! One of the most self-possessed expressions of loneliness I’ve ever heard. “Nobody, nobody, nobody” the singer says over and over again, baiting her own emotions, but there’s no way she’s going to settle for just anyone…or maybe she will, but just temporarily, and what’s up that these are the options? It’s desolation viewed through a gimlet eye, informed by the age-old Elvis Costello question of who put these fingerprints on my imagination. “Give me one good movie kiss and I’ll be all right.”

“Breathless” and “The Carny,” William Prince

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Here in our Internet age the first question you ask when you hear someone new with a couple of songs this good is, does everyone know about this person already?

I personally found out about William Prince from a mention in an NPR article about an Americana festival. He’s a folk-country singer from Canada who’s won some music awards up there, so not exactly obscure but he didn’t show up on my radar until about a week ago and I’ve been playing these two songs obsessively. So I guess even if I am late to the party I’ll jump right in.

“Breathless” is the stunner, quiet start with strummy guitar and piano accents and an expression of exhaustion, ennui–every road’s been followed, every mistake’s been made–but then a recovery, there’s still a lot to be desired, a lot to remember, the more I seek the more I find I had it all along, we’re off to see the wizard but just before you roll your eyes at the cliche and move on the killer chorus shows up:

I never heard a song sung quite like Elvis
Not much beats the sound of the pouring rain
There’s something in your kiss leaves me so helpless
You leave me breathless…

Swelling music, lots of background vocal, just a gorgeous production by the ubiquitous Dave Cobb (there have to multiple people with the same name producing all these albums!) You suffer through a strained second verse because you want so bad to hear that chorus again, to make sure it’s as good as you thought it was, and it is, and then you’re hooked, like a great mid-60’s pop song. William sings that he can never see the sun rise too many times. I can’t hear songs like this too many times.

(A quick Spotify search tells us that many rock’n’roll people have been left breathless over the years, but I’ll add a shout out to my favorite, Jerry Lee, who of course makes the feeling not an elegy but a come-on. Especially love the moments about 3/4 of the way through when he gets so caught up in marveling at the depth of his emotions for a few seconds he seems to forget the object of them. Ahhhh-breathless.)

“The Carny” is more modest but has better lyrics, a simple story about a best friend who goes off to work for the circus and turns out to be better at it than the singer imagined he could be:

So by the end of it
The tilt a whirled and the zipper zipped
And he had both hands in it
From sunup until they tore down

The singer feels a mix of pride and jealousy, the way you tend to at a friend’s success, especially an unexpected success. The chorus on this one includes the lines:

Most these folks ain’t like most these folks
Keep in mind that some folks lie…

…which are just enough to the left of coherent that I wonder if William should have gone back for a rewrite. But in Creative Writing class we were encouraged to act as though every decision in a story was intentional so I’ll give it a try. The people who work at circuses are just like our idea of what people who work at circuses would be like. But they are at the same time regular people like the singer’s friend, acting out their idea of what people who work at circuses should be like.

The song ends on an image of happy families enjoying their night out at the fair. The singer admits it would be nice if we all could be out there there among them but then who’d run the rides? And suddenly, sneakily, we’re in the head of every artist looking out over his or her audience. Great stuff, however early or late you happen to find out about it!

“Pink and Gold,” “Riches and Wonders,” The Mountain Goats

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In the middle of an album that’s a gallery of loners and losers, the forgotten and misunderstood, fueled by motion and a vision of home that probably never existed except in the mind of some 10 year old watching a sitcom while his parents argue in the kitchen, two scruffy, beautiful love songs.

In the first a young mother talks to her 9-day old son. (There is no internal evidence in the song the narrator is a woman or the baby is a boy. That’s just the way I hear it.) By “young” I mean very young, a teenager, who against all advice has made this decision to have a child, this stupid, brave decision. She’s smart enough to know it’s both stupid and brave, and I give total credit to the songwriter, John Darnielle, that I get that.

There’s no money; the kid has an “old cardboard produce box for a cradle.” There’s past family abuse; when she considers her family tree she remembers that the “roots reach down to where the bad people go.” But the limbs of that tree in the present tense are “strong and heavy” and the “leaves are all aglow.” She sings:

An what will I do with you, pink and blue?
True gold. Nine days old. 

There’s wonder in her voice. She can’t believe she’s done this, but she knows it’s the best thing she’s ever done. And despite the past, her own and whatever’s been heaped on her, she’s going to pull it off, do her best.

I felt that. We all feel it. We’re all convinced we’ll do our best raising our children. Some people’s best really sucks, though. I hope she’s not one of them.

In “Riches and Wonders” a teenage boy describes what it’s like to fall in overwhelming, all-consuming love for the first time, in terms both poetic:

we live high. our love gorges on the alcohol we feed it.
and it grows all fat and friendly
we have surplus if we need it.

And prosaic:

we write letters to each other, invent secrets to confess to.
i learn foreign and exotic terms of endearment by which to address you.
we feed fresh fruit to one another.

But then this:

I am healthy
I am whole
But I have poor impulse control
And I want to go home
But I am home

And suddenly the scene is some sort of treatment facility where these two lovers have forged a bond above their surroundings, desperate and wonderful, and suddenly you want their love to succeed even though you know it doesn’t have a chance, and suddenly you’re saying “No, you’re crying” to the empty car in which you’re listening when the singer’s voice cracks a little bit on “I want to go home” before the song gives over to a now-we’re-beyond-words guitar solo coda.

The album’s called “All Hail West Texas,” and it was recorded directly to a wobbly cassette recorder. Everything’s fuzzy; tape hiss starts and ends each track. The effect isn’t cinema verite, exactly, since you never forget that this a singer giving voice to other characters, but it does create an atmosphere of spontaneity, urgency. These stories need to be told. I need to tell them.

(And also check out John Darnielle’s slightly-inebriated-sounding tweet from last New Year’s Day, where he thanks the fans who have been telling him all day how they’ve been listening to his song “This Year” and how much it’s meant to them. Charming.)

(His first novel, “Wolf in White Van,” is pretty remarkable too.)

“It Can’t Be Love Unless It Hurts,” Tracyanne & Danny

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Sequence this one right after “All My Shades of Blue” (oh, I guess I’ve done that for you), more bad love with orchestral swirls.

This time though we don’t have the specificity of someone pining for the one that got away. This is a credo, a mission statement. “It started with a kiss/Right between the eyes” the singers (Tracyanne Campbell from Camera Obscura and Danny Coughlan from I-don’t-know-where, he’s probably big in the UK) begin, fatalistically, and they then expand on the notion of the inevitability of heartbreak: “this purgatory love came as no surprise.” Love is also a “fantasy” that “always goes from bad to worse,” and in the background a Burt Bacharach melody and arrangement (those piano trills!) remind of how easy it is to be deceived otherwise. (This is a trick Elvis Costello often plays on us too.)

There’s a clever video for the song, with Tracyanne and Danny playing ghosts who haunt a pair of young lovers, pushing them toward discord and break-up. Does every new love carry the burden not just of past experience but of a profound brokenness with the concept of love? Is what proves love’s reality the pain it causes? It doesn’t feel that way from the inside, but I suppose it’s arguable.

Heady stuff for a Saturday morning! How about that little vocal hiccup on the word “hurts” though: another joke at the expense of love, or a slight moment of self-doubt that maybe the picture’s not as bleak as they have painted? Or perhaps an acknowledgement that such bleakness, although accurate, is untenable in real life? Kind of a dead end in pop music too.