“Let’s Have A Party,” Wanda Jackson

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It’s been a worried and stressful week but as the saying goes when life gives you lemons, play rockabilly. Loud.

This one starts full-tilt, with the party midway through. Wanda’s voice is already raw but she can still clobber the big notes and throw in some Little Richard “woos.” The music’s driven by Jerry Lee Lewis-ish honky tonk piano. “Some people like to rock/some people like to roll/But moving and a-grooving’s gonna satisfy my soul” is irresistible. There will be dancing at this party!

Elvis did the song originally in 1957. Wanda’s version came a year later but didn’t hit the charts until 1960. They toured together and the story is Elvis was a key figure in her career and that the two of them even “dated” That part seems fanciful, not just because at 20 Wanda was probably already too old for him. Elvis’s version is more sedate, a party at which wine will be served. Although even he would have some explaining to do about these party ambitions:

I never kissed a bear
I never kissed a goon
But I can shake a chicken in the middle of the room…

This seems like the sort of thing you’d want to jump in and do rather than announce, and one hopes that “chicken” is slang for a dance move. “Goon” must have originally been “coon” for raccoon, but appropriately changed for racial sensitivity. Or, maybe the play on coon was someone’s idea of funny at the time. Either way, glad they changed it. But does kissing either bears or goons come up very often in real life? Country matters, I suppose.

In general, the party doesn’t seem to totally live up to either Elvis’s or Wanda’s enthusiasm for it, revolving as it does mostly around food. Joe shows up and they feed him and sit him on the floor. Why doesn’t he get a chance to move and groove and satisfy his soul? There are references to chicken, meat, bread, possum (in Elvis’s version shot by his own papa) but no mention of liquid refreshments. “Send him to store, let’s buy some more,” Wanda sings, more than once, to which one can only say, about time.

Still, Wanda does seem to be having a good time so what’s the use of complaining from a distance of almost 60 years? She’s still around and made some fun albums this side of the 21st century; I’m partial to her version of “Funnel of Love” with the Cramps from 2003. Retired now after a stroke but perhaps still capable on a good day of shaking a chicken in the middle of a room. I hope so.

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“Me and Jiggs,” Josh Ritter

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Headed out to see Josh next weekend so thought I’d mark the occasion with this, the first song of his I heard, courtesy of the great Vin Scelsa back in 2000.

Josh has written better songs, and certainly more serious ones–he is even guilty of the dreaded “divorce album”–but this one was an out-of-nowhere, gotta-hear-it-again-immediately pleasure that still makes me smile every time.

It’s a hymn to the eternal present, and like so many hymns to the eternal present is about the singer’s teenage years, a portrait of small-town life spent with friends drinking beer, making music, painting names on the water tower. I grew up in a small town that had a water tower and it never would have occurred to us to paint our names on it. There are far more rules on the East Coast than in Idaho, where Josh grew up.

I was on the other hand very concerned as a teenager with the eternal present, with the sense of time slipping away, experience as a diminishing pool. Hold on tight to every moment, I continually chided myself, often ruining the moment by doing so. Thankfully that unsustainable intensity eased up a bit, though I still occasionally long for those times that Alan Watts described as “just the sense of flowing with the course of events in the same way that you dance to music, neither trying to outpace it nor lagging behind.”

“Song on the jukebox/you in my arms/heaven and earth pretty much the same” Josh sings and had I heard that when I was 17 I would have nodded my head sagely, been there, done that, but I also would have empathized with the line in the chorus where he admits not being sure he can make the feeling stay. I don’t know what age Josh actually was when he wrote this, but I think it’s a neat trick, to have written a song about adolescence that sounds like it was written from the inside.

I guess it was a semi-hit in Ireland. Also very fond of the “Hello, Starling” album and the song “Where the Night Goes.” More partial to his wandering troubadour side than to the ranty visionary stuff he’s gotten into lately. Haven’t had a chance to listen to the new Jason Isbell-produced album yet. And it’s not the divorce I object to, it’s the exploitation of it in the promotional material.

Recent Songs #8

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A dip into my Q1/Q2 Spotify playlists:

  1. “Beginners at Best,” Tullycraft. I love these guys! Sure, a lot of the songs sound the same, sort of breathless-bratty-twee with clever lyrics about being in various degrees of love, and I don’t think even they would consider themselves essential (they named an album “Lost in Light Rotation”) but fun. This sounds like a song about young, hesitating love happening to people not so young, but I could be wrong. Better not to worry it too much and take pleasure instead in the way the lead singer tosses off the words “Jinx…light.” (I’m not sure what that means either.)
    ***
  2. “Downtown Lights,” Frankie Lee. A song that sounds like a thousand other songs (with minor variations) and tells a story we’ve heard before (with no variations). Our hero has been whipped by the big city and is going back to where he came from. Hearts will be broken in the process! But I like the slow sway of it and Lee’s sweet voice where we’d expect to hear someone like Waylon Jennings. The singer says there’s nothing left on Memory Lane, but this song kind of is.
    ***
  3.  “I Wanna Keep Yr. Dog,” illuminati hotties. I am developing quite a crush on these guys, who are really not guys at all but one woman, Sarah Tudzin, who will live to regret her band name. “Paying It All Back” was one of my faves of 2018 and this single rocks just as hard. It has one of the best song premises I’ve heard in a while: she wants to break up with a guy but can’t because she’s grown too attached to his dog. I have a friend who was going to have a no-fault divorce until he and his wife couldn’t agree to dog custody and had to bring in lawyers! There is of course an Iggy Pop reference and Sarah even has a public playlist on Spotify of other dog songs. I like someone who does their homework.
    ***
  4. “Randall Knife,” Steve Earle. I’d heard the song, written by Guy Clark, before, but Steve’s version from his new album of Guy cover versions destroyed me. Just beautiful writing about fathers and sons and life and grief. “I’d cried for every lesser thing/Whiskey, pain and beauty.” Play it on Father’s Day and try to hold back the tears. (I will be on a plane on Father’s Day and out of respect to fellow passengers will not take my own advice.)
    ***
  5. “Pearl Cadillac,” Guy Clark. Saw him perform this on Saturday Night Live and was so impressed. That shredding guitar! That Prince-like vocal! It sounds so sexy but the lyrics could as well be addressed to the singer’s mother as girlfriend. “Late nights, fussing and fighting at home/I’m sorry for the things I did wrong.” So play this one on Mother’s Day, and maybe follow it up with Chance the Rapper’s “Sunday Candy.”

“Northsiders,” Christian Lee Hutson

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My son said to me, “Here’s a song that me and my friend decided was perfect for Dads.” They were right, but hey, they must have liked it too or else why were they listening in the first place?

It sounds like Elliott Smith, or the Milk Carton Kids, hushed vocals, acoustic guitar. (My son said Sufjan Stevens.) The first verse describes a high school meeting involving drugs and lying about drugs and kindness and instant connection. “Nothing’s going to change it now,” the singer says, and we’ve all felt that sense of arrival, that anti-scavenger hunt feeling of finally finding what you didn’t even know you were looking for.

Christian describes the relationship like this:

Morrissey apologists
Amateur psychologists
Serial monogamists
We went to different colleges

Which is just about perfect and probably the Dad-bait my son was referring to: the details, the unexpected off-rhyme. They are moving in different directions, but she tells him they will always be together in a way, branches on the same tree. The singer takes some comfort in that: “Nothing’s going to change it now,” he repeats, no one can take away what they shared.

There’s a missed chance at a last hurrah and then…the woman dies. Car accident. Again, the matter of fact details: “You were probably reaching for a cigarette.” You don’t expect death in pop songs, and I have to say this one caught me off guard. I winced at the line, “I hope it was an instant death.”

The singer allows himself a glimpse of an alternate happier future where they get back together, share a life getting fat in the countryside. “It’s crazy how things shake out sometimes,” he says, pulling himself back to reality, and then repeats: “Nothing’s going to change it now.” This time meaning, tragically, what they have has been frozen by death, will never get a chance to grow or change.

Which isn’t true. Our relationships with the dead change all the time. But Christian is young, he’ll find that out. In the meantime, heartbreaking song. Enjoy, Dads everywhere!

 

“Coming Up Close,” til tuesday

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Home is the place you haven’t to deserve, as the poet says (Robert Frost, specifically). Meaning, there’s stuff in life you shouldn’t have to earn. Which I’m not a big fan of, given that I pride myself on having earned everything. Which I realize is an idiotic and self-indulgent point of view. Call it privilege, or grace, or fate, but there are things that just happen. We remember the bad ones, but there are plenty of good ones too.

We were driving home from school the other day with my sophomore-year son. He was filling us on on his life, his academics, what he’d been listening to lately. He provided the most detail about the last, controlling the car radio with his iPhone, but that’s sort of the family we are. “Play something about coming home,” I asked, and being a smartass he put on Gil Scott-Heron, “Home is Where the Hatred Is”:

Home is filled with pain
It might not be such a bad idea if I never, never went home again

Not what I had in mind! So as a corrective I requested the first song that came to mind with a more sentimental view of home, til tuesday’s “Coming Up Close”:

Coming up close
Everything sounds like welcome home
Come home, and oh, by the way
Don’t you know that I could make
A dream that’s barely half-awake come true

A beautiful song: perfect melody, great twangy guitar riff, Aimee Mann’s smooth, emotionally open vocal. (She stayed smooth but lost the emotional openness later.) And it reminded me, like I wanted it to remind my son, of being home during the summers while I was at college, familiar places, familiar faces, slipping back into being a person I wasn’t anymore, the melancholy of knowing it was all temporary.

Only, as I was listening, it struck me the song isn’t about that. It’s about two friends or lovers who may not be either of those for very much longer having an evening where it feels like those are the only things that matter. The singer isn’t even home–she’s in Iowa, driving a borrowed car, staying at a hotel!

So why will this song always say something special to me about going home? Maybe because it was playing during those summers I was home. Or maybe because its bigger feeling, of finding if only for a little while mooring in a world where you feel uncertain, is more important than the details.

To me. In this case. But like Robert Frost says, you don’t have to earn everything, not even a song interpretation.

“Ditch,” Sam Baker

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Thanks Spotify! Their robot geniuses offered this up to me, the best Bill Morrissey song I’ve heard since Bill drank himself to death at 59 in 2011, which I missed when it came out in 2013.

A little research shows that others didn’t miss it: Rolling Stone said it was “hilarious and tragic” and named it one of the best country songs of the year, Robert Christgau offered one of his cryptic appreciations of the album it came from. NPR covered Sam Baker’s sad and fascinating backstory, which has to do with a bomb on a bus in South America, and is worth seeking out.

It’s a simple song, a folky strum, all of one minute and fifty-three seconds long. A guy describes his construction job laying pipe in ditches in the “pouring-ass” rain. The boss is a shit, the crew are a bunch of stoners, and he doesn’t have a high opinion of job site safety standards. Yet his attitude is positive:

I am crawling back down in the ditch today
I got a crazy-ass wife
got a baby on the way
glad I got work
glad I got pay
I’m crawling back down in the ditch today

Later he’ll mention one of the reasons his wife is crazy-ass, which is she thinks she and Taylor Swift were separated at birth. He regards this as well with an affectionate shrug.

Unlike Rolling Stone I don’t hear tragic, unless you consider it tragic that people have to work construction jobs, in which case you should probably get out a little more often from whatever office where you spend your days. I do hear: tenderness, resignation, acceptance of diminished expectations and how mostly that’s a blessing, a “how the hell did I ever end up here” sense of wonder. The song sounds like someone in the middle of an all that’s only going to get more complicated, coming up for a quick gulp of air before going under again. As I listen I find myself thinking of a young relative of mine I don’t know very well but follow on Facebook who has a 13-month old baby, how even her happiest posts have a feel of exhaustion and struggle. I find myself thinking of that old cliche, life is hard, but you don’t have to be.

Still pissed at Bill Morrissey for drinking himself to death at 59, though. Alcoholism is a disease, not a choice; addicts hurt themselves worst of all. Still pissed. For the record I am privvy to no actual medical information that lists that as the cause of death, but one just knows such things.