Monday, August 25, 2008

Adventures in the Skin Trade

The Road. Econo Lodges. Thin sheets. Thin soup. New songs. Forget the "road blog" deal. The road journey is worthwhile 'cause it centers around "The Song." The Minstrel trail; gone back to Homer and his autoharp. The Song! People whine about the demise of the album - the cd - the record store - the music biz - and, finally, downloading wiping out records.. Let me lay it on you: I told an executive at Capitol Records that digital downloading was perfect for young kids 'cause there are no young writers capable of writing 12 great songs for a full cd. I expected him to blanch. He looked me in the eye and said: "That's true." We are in the age when it's all about "form"and "concept" and not about content and great writing. (Ditto the art and literature worlds.) There are wonderful new "folk sounds" out there, and great cross pollinations of world music, and 20,000 celtic girl bands who are cute. There are no songs at the core of it all that give you "The Chill." We have lost our creative core. I'm speaking as a American music fan; not as a songwriter who should shut up and deliver. I'll keep trying to carve out a great song. Promise. We have created hundreds of bullshit magazines in the last thirty years that pretend to cater to songwriters and guitar players; we have folk alliances and SXSW conferences up the ass, and yet all this stuff has just led the young writer AWAY from the true journey of finding out who He or She is; as an artist. Doing the homework and learning fifty Hank Williams songs and 1000 year old folk songs, and building an individualistic-artist core; as Dylan and Van Morrison and Lucinda Williams did. The industry just wants to sell guitar tuners and tattoos to 10,000 core-less kids trying to establish a fake "edge." Tattooed kids are the new Middle Class. There is no "edge." All the digital paraphenalia in the word hasn't created the next Beatles. It's about heart and soul, and we're lost - wandering around folk alliances like zombies with cd's in our paws….praying for gigs and instant credibility. But I wax on….nothing more to whine about….everyone is whining….it's back to the pen and paint brush, the buck stops here; and somewhere in Hibbing or St. Louis or El Paso, a giant Sphyinx-like creature bats it's eye in the desert and moves toward Bethlehem, or the Newport Folk Festival, with a batch of songs that wipes out boredom, bullshit, songwriter magazines, conferences, rock and roll museums, and the booing that will certainly ensue from the Old Guard that tried to stuff wax into the mouth of Bob Dylan. It ain't about "looking back" at the '60's…it's about looking down into your heart and seeing if you have a soul that rings with a little truth, and then praying for the guts and the duende to make it rhyme and resonate, and finally, work as a song that might move The Tribe. Song!
Me? "I'm just on the road, heading for another joint…." Walking down those tracks with blood on them.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Crucifix in a Death Hand

Writing these short pieces feels like being a newspaper columnist. Hell, that's ok.
Let me tell you a little story about my favorite newspaper column, back when times where interesting and gas was thirty cents a gallon. In 1967 or so I was dating a nurse named Penny who had an apartment near Macarthur Park in L.A. That's the place Jimmy Webb sang about: "someone left a cake out in the rain." Oh really, Jimmy? Someone left a lot of winos and junkies out in the rain too. They were lying there smoldering in the Los Angeles heat; below the windows of those old worn out apartment hotels. This was no country for young men or civilized women. I used to sit in the park all day and talk to the Indians and pigeons. Waiting for something. Waiting for Penny to come home with the grub, maybe. One day here comes a man with a bunch of newspapers under his arm and he hands me one. It's "Open City," and it contains a column called: "Notes of a Dirty Old Man," by one "Charles Bukowski." Now I doubt if there's ever been a column such as this - now or ever. This gent Bukowski wrote about working for the Post Office and drinking and trying to date women; every rank American male frustration in the book. The read was highly entertaining. Consider: Jonathan Swift meets Mark Twain and Henry Miller at Raymond Chandler's house; with a savage dose of Celine and Nathaniel West. It was drunken rant; like he was putting words in the mouth of a million American blue collar workers. A touch misogynistic. But, oh the humor! I saved all the columns in a box in my garage. Later Bukowski's publisher, through a long grapevine, found out I had the columns and Bukowski had burned all of his. Could Bukowski borrow my stash? Of course. And that started a correspondence with Buk that lasted thirty years or so. You can find all of that in a book titled "Tough Company" on Black Shark-Mystery Island Press. Well…I don’t know what the hell I'd think of Bukowski now. Never read him anymore. He told me once that: "Hemingway is better when you're young." Well old Buk's stuff was probably better when you're young too. But, hell, I wish somebody wrote columns like that now or had something passionate to say on the news or in a magazine. Political correctness has choked us down and hobbled our guts and forced Spaulding Gray to jump into the East River. He left a note to that effect. But Buk wrote one classic L.A. poem….
"Crucifix in a Death Hand."
"Yes, they begin out in the willows, I think.
The starch mountains begin out in the willows.
And keep right on going, without regard
For pumas or nectarines."
Somehow, he nailed it. I leave you with that.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Long Time Rider

I was walking through the streets of Oslo, Norway one night and chanced to run into Steve Young. It was the early 1980's and I was singing seven nights a week in the oldest Honkytonk in Oslo. Steve Young I had known from his groundbreaking records; I'd also met him in Greenwich Village. He was, and remains, a pioneer who invented cross pollinations of country-folk-rock-blues-gospel music in the late '60's. Gram Parsons gets most of the credit for early country rock thing, because he died young and used to hang out with The Rolling Stones.
But Steve Young was there, and he drew from the same deep Southern Well that Gram had drawn holy water from. That night in Oslo Steve handed me a cassette of "new things" he'd been working on. "I don’t know," he drawled. "I've been writing these things on the synthesizer and I don’t know how people are going to take it." I went back to the nunnery we were staying in and listened. Hair raising. Chilling art. Steve sang about his divorce, his conquered drinking problem, and death. It was messianic. But it also had that "hearts of space" musical backdrop that a lot of folk-nazi's were not ready for. The Folk Club protégée's of Pete Seegar and the Lomax family were always waiting with the raised hatchets to cut synthesizer cords. And so it went - Steve tried to perform these classics on synth and was soundly told it didn’t work. Fast forward to yesterday in El Paso, when I received "Long Time Rider," in the mail from Steve Young. A signed and numbered re-released copy. Recorded in the 80's.
"In that bottle I have been a long time rider…" It shook me back to that midnight meeting on the streets of Oslo. The only thing missing on this cd is a song I heard that Oslo night called "Look Homeward Angel," about Steve meeting Thomas Wolfe at the pearly gates of the Promised Land. Fellow southern souls.
Let us now praise the folk music pioneers, madmen, and those with the artistic "cojones" to see deep into the future. This sound ranks with Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison: ethereal, deep hearted folk. Heavenly. Amen.
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