Two songs about a city I’ve never been to.
The first is about arriving there. This song was written by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who also does his own high-lonesome version of it (his voice lends itself to doing a high-lonesome version of anything) but I prefer Joe Ely’s swaggering, horn-squawk fortified rendition. The singer describes Dallas to us as a “jungle,” a “woman who walks on you when you’re down.” But, as he looks down on the lights of the city just before his plane lands, you know he knows he’s going to conquer this place. It reminds me of another great song about arriving in a big city, aware of its dangers but utterly confident about your ability to overcome them, by Steve Forbert:
“I’m goin’ down to Laurel, it’s a dirty stinking town
But me I know exactly what I’m going to find…”
The song also reminds me of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me,” something to do with the meter or the number of syllables–you can sing each to the other’s tune. This is probably true of about a thousand blues songs in this style, but the Dylan song also shares the theme of something difficult, mysterious, destructive–for you, but not for the singer, because he’s got it (the city, the woman) all figured out. As a (part-time, mostly unpublished) novelist, I am more interested in the consequences of such attitudes, but what I love about these songs is that for their 3-minute or so length the attitude can stand unchallenged, untested. Hubris in suspended animation.
The second song is about leaving Dallas, but again on a plane, again at night. It’s from an album by a new artist out of Nashville, Caitlin Rose, who sounds a bit like Zoey Deschanel with more range. Listening to the album, my first thought was that I already own four or five albums that sound exactly like it, which made me suspicious. Is it really any good, or do I just like it because it’s the kind of thing I like? (Do other music fans have this problem?) This song, a cover of the Felice Brothers, stood out: the sad, waltz-like music, the pedal steel guitar, the exhaustion of the vocal and the compelling specificity of the lyrics. Oh, and the casual use of the word “fucking” in the first verse, which jumps out in an otherwise pretty polite setting.
It seems to be about a guy who’s worked his way up through the show business ranks to become a celebrated “late-night host,” which I assume means the emcee of live concerts, but might also mean a TV or radio show. Anyway, it’s the middle of the night, and he’s leaving the city where he’d rather stay, surrounded by an “ocean of stars” out the window that become, in the nostalgic second verse, the music stars he’s witnessed come and go on his path to the top. He’s due to appear at a “three-night run at the palace,” and his admission this leaves him feeling “more alone” than he’s ever felt in his life raises interesting issues of achievement as obligation, of how the rush of having your dreams come true can diminish as you find yourself living those dreams out year after year, turning from a human being into a “portrait done in velvet.” (“Find new dreams!” was Steve Earle’s advice to himself in a similar situation.) The feelings seem real and raw, though that doesn’t keep this guy from parlaying his mid-or-late life crisis into a come-on to the “little honey bee” up there in the plane with him, in a deft bit of character-sketch songwriting.
The last verse I don’t get at all, with its symbolic “all winds bend” and “dreams of light,” and I think I’d need a few more details to totally swallow this guy as on the “road to Calvary.” He may think so, and that may be the point, but I’m not convinced. But I like it up until then, and I’ll get back to you on whether the whole album is a keeper.