Because of the Wind (Joe Ely)

I first heard Joe Ely in 1979-80, when I was visiting my erstwhile washboard player, Rob Forbes, in Ithaca  and a friend of his played me Honky Tonk Masquerade. Rob’s friend introduced it as a fusion of new wave rock with country music, but I didn’t hear anything new wave about it — the country sounded country and the rock sounded like Jerry Lee Lewis. Which said, the band had a unique mix of high-powered electric guitar and steel with accordion, and the songs were my first taste of the new Texas scene, which was a huge relief from the singer-songwriter stuff I was hearing back east. (I later learned that the new wave connection was kind of guilt by association: the Clash were huge fans and took Ely on tour with them, so a lot of people first heard him in that context.)

I bought that album, listened to it over and over, learned more than half the songs on it, picked up Ely’s next couple of records as well as his first, which preceded Masquerade, and eventually had the luck to see him live and solo. I saw him a few times with bands as well — a loud rock group with Bobby Keyes on sax and then the reunion of his old Lubbock/Austin band with Lloyd Maines, Ponty Bone, Jesse Taylor, and the addition of a Dutch flamenco guitarist named Teye — but the shows that blew me away were the solo ones. He would come onstage with just an acoustic guitar and I swear he rocked harder than I ever saw him do with a group. His charisma was incredible, his guitar work was as effective as anybody’s this side of Lightnin’ Hopkins — ok, that’s an exaggeration, but in context it was terrific — and I can’t think of any concerts I’ve loved more.

I sang a lot of Joe’s songs in my touring days, and ended up recording one of them, “West Texas Waltz,” because it gave me a chance to play diatonic accordion (of course that song was written by Butch Hancock, Joe’s sometime partner with Jimmie Dale Gilmore in the Flatlanders, but I’m one of the many people who mostly know Butch’s work through Joe). I rarely played this one onstage, because I had other quiet songs and was looking for something else when I went to him, but I always loved it and did it when I had the right crowd, and almost recorded it on my LP… and I still think it’s one of the simplest, prettiest lyrics I’ve ever heard. Pure Texas, without any mythic posing or overstatement.

Incidentally, my own experience of “the breeze that blows from Corpus Christi” is a good deal less romantic. I hitchhiked through there in early December, 1987, as the temperature dived to freezing, with nothing but a light wool jacket. Fortunately  a friendly bum had an extra sweater, but it was still damn cold.

Honky Tonk Heroes (Waylon Jennings)

I owe this song and my further acquaintance with Waylon’s ouevre — and much else — to Peter Guralnick. I first became tangentially aware of Peter when I got into blues as a kid and my mother mentioned that Dr. Guralnick’s son wrote about blues. Dr. Guralnick had removed her impacted wisdom teeth and later dealt with my impacted canines, and he recently celebrated his 102nd birthday. But being a pigheaded kid I didn’t follow up on this first clue and only discovered Peter’s work in my late teens — I don’t remember whether I read Lost Highway or Feel Like Going Home first, because I immediately read the other and in my memory they are merged into a single book.

I learned a lot from those books, but the most important thing was that you didn’t have to sort music into categories — that you could like Waylon Jennings and Howlin’ Wolf for the same reasons, and think of them as singing variations of the same kind of music, along with Hank Williams, Skip James, and Elvis Presley. I didn’t necessarily share all of Peter’s tastes — though I shared a lot of them, and  later found we share many others that didn’t get into those books — but I hunted up every record he mentioned and many of them became central to my understanding of music and led me down the paths I’ve followed ever since.*

Peter described Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes as his “landmark album,” so I went right out and bought it, and it sure was a landmark for me. I had tended to dismiss contemporary country music, but that album got me on a kick that extended through another eight or ten Waylon albums, a couple of Willie Nelson’s, at least one of Tompall Glaser’s, and then I connected to Joe Ely and Merle Haggard and worked my way backward to Hank Williams and Bob Wills and forward to Lacey J. Dalton, John Anderson, Dwight Yoakam, and so on and on.

I learned at least a dozen songs off Waylon’s records, but most of them didn’t really suit me — I could never sing “The only two things in life that make it worth living/ Is guitars are tuned good and firm-feelin’ women” with a straight face. This one became a regular in my repertoire, not because it suited me in an autobiographical way but because it suited my ragtime-based guitar style. I learned it one afternoon, played it at the Nameless Coffeehouse in Harvard Square that evening, and got applause for the guitar break, which had never happened before, so I kept playing it.

I only saw Waylon live once, and he was as good as I’d hoped — he still had Ralph Mooney on steel, and the rest of the band was loose and powerful, and he seemed natural, charming, and wild, just like in Guralnick’s piece. His records were mostly spotty, and when I listen back these days I tend to put together my own mixes, but there’s still something in his voice that I can’t get anywhere else, and I still enjoy fooling around with a lot of those songs:

The highway is hotter than nine kinds of hell
The rides are scarce as the rain
When you’re down to your last shuck, with nothing to sell
And too far away for the trains

Like “Honky Tonk Heroes,” that one was penned by Billy Joe Shaver, who wrote most of that landmark Waylon album and deserves his own entry. I saw him a bunch of times over the years, interviewed him a couple of times, love his writing, and he’s a whole other story.

 

*In an earlier post I credited Doug Sahm and Band with setting me on that path, and that record probably hit me at about the same time as Guralnick, though I don’t think I made the connection at the time.

Run Red Run (The Coasters)

Among the fringe benefits of hanging out in Vancouver was a friend of Maggie’s who collected old 45s and made me a tape of oddities and rarities, including LaVerne Baker’s “Saved,” the Court Jesters’ “Roaches,” and the Coasters doing “Run Red Run” and “What About Us?”

Produced and supplied with songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the Coasters were far more political than most fans or historians recall. I’ve already written about “Framed” and “Riot in Cell Block #9,” but this 1959 pairing was their most explicit protest single to hit the charts. “What About Us?” was a thinly disguised plaint for social justice, couched in typically humorous terms:

He goes to eat at the Ritz — big steaks! (That’s the breaks.)
We eat hominy grits, from a bag. (What a drag…)
What about us? What about us?
Don’t want to cause no fuss, but what about us?

“Run, Red, Run” was an urban update of the African tradition of  animal trickster tales, and more directly a hip reworking of the “Signifying Monkey” toasts.  (For more on that, check out a terrific book, Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me, by Bruce Jackson.)  On the surface it’s about a monkey who turns the tables on the man who has taught him to drink beer and play poker — but it didn’t take much imagination to see the monkey as a stand-in for Africans, Red for white America, and the story for the changes that were happening in those years, from the southern marches to the ghetto riots and the rise of black power.  As Leiber later said, “Once the monkey knows how to play, he knows how to understand other things. And once he understands that he’s being cheated and exploited, he becomes revolutionary.”

In that context, it is ironic that the song appeared on an album that, as was typical at that time, masked the race of the artists with pictures of white people. It’s possible that this was unintentional — in the sense that a white artist may have drawn white people without even considering other options — but that is no less noteworthy, and it’s equally possible that the choice was made with full intent. Berry Gordy, for one, was open about avoiding showing pictures of his groups on Motown album covers in this period, to avoid alienating white buyers — or, perhaps, their parents.

All of which said, it’s a great song, and in 1984 I included it on my LP, Songster/Fingerpicker/Shirtmaker. The guitar part was loosely adapted from John Hammond’s arrangement for Mose Allison’s “Ask Me Nice,” though he made it significantly funkier.

Incidentally, listening back to the Coasters’ records, I seem to have added a touch from the B side: they sing that the monkey is going to go to town in Red’s “new brown suit,” and refer to the rich guy in “What About Us?” as having a car made of suede… I turned the suit into a brown suede suit, having once been impressed to see Tom Lehrer wearing a suede suit at a benefit concert.

 

A Man’s a Man (Bertolt Brecht/Dave Van Ronk)

The title song from Bertolt Brecht’s early play Mann ist Mann, this was my professional recording debut, arranging and playing guitar for Dave Van Ronk. Dave was a great interpreter of Brecht’s songs, and even appeared in an off-Broadway production of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, singing the “Alabama Song.” He recorded that, and “Mack the Knife,” and his own fine translation of “As You Make Your Bed,” and then in the early 1980s Gary Cristall arranged for him to do a Brecht workshop at the Vancouver Folk Festival with the English singer Frankie Armstrong, and then for them to do an album together for his Aural Tradition record label.

I happened to be in Vancouver in the summer of 1982 or thereabouts when Dave came to record and, since he didn’t have any of his New York stalwarts around, I figured it was my chance to get on a Van Ronk session. So I volunteered and Dave — by way of gently brushing me off — said, “If you can come up with a decent arrangement for ‘A Man’s a Man,’ I’ve always wanted to do that one.” He added that it would have to be an arrangement that could be capoed up the neck, since he didn’t know what key was good for him, then left to play at the Edmonton folk festival.

In those days before the internet, it wasn’t easy to find a recording of the song, but fortunately my friend and hostess Maggie found a copy of Eric Bentley’s Brecht album in the library at Simon Fraser University. Fortunately, again, Bentley was a pretty rudimentary pianist and played a simple ragtime accompaniment that transferred easily to the bottom five frets of the guitar… so when Dave got back to Vancouver, there I was with an arrangement and he was stuck.

Brecht wrote Mann ist Mann in 1924, and described it as a comedy, apparently taking Chaplin’s films as a model. He directed the most famous production of it in Berlin in 1931, starring Peter Lorre, who performed during breaks from the shooting schedule of M. It was meant to exemplify Brecht’s theories of modern theater, and was acted in a highly stylized manner, fitting his theory of “alienation” — which in this case apparently meant “purposefully presenting the character in an episodic and incoherent manner in order to emphasize the changing nature of social relations.”* Berlin audiences were effectively alienated, and it closed in five days.

Dave also considered alienation a useful performance technique, though what he meant was that you can make a lyric more effective by framing it in a way that goes directly against its meaning: singing a tender lyric in a rough voice, or a brutal lyric over a gentle accompaniment. This song is a perfect example, using a perky ragtime tune and cheery chit-chat to underline the dehumanizing horror of war. The soldiers are interchangeable cogs, all named Dan, all having the same experiences, and all meaninglessly expendable.

I worked this out for Dave and had no plans to sing it myself, but my friend Monte fell in love with it while I was practicing for the session and made me do it whenever I was back in town, and I got to like it.

As for the Brecht album, it came out in 1989 and this song was Dave’s weakest performance on it — he had very little practice time, and sounds rushed — but he’d been singing the other songs for decades and did them brilliantly, in particular an a cappella version of the title song, “Let No One Deceive You”:

 

*Sarah Thomas, Peter Lorre, Face Maker

Pancho and Lefty (and Monte)

This song will always be associated in my mind with Monte, a longtime friend who played harmonica with me whenever I came through Vancouver. He wasn’t usually a singer, but on this one he sang Lefty’s part and his rough, dry voice perfectly fitted the character.

I’ve written a bit about Monte and his affection for Townes Van Zandt’s work in a previous post, but there are so many stories… we met during my first couple of weeks in Vancouver, staying with my friend Maggie, and for some reason we hit it off. He was a tough, gentle man and a tasteful, rowdy musician. In the early 1980s he was drinking at least a fifth of Jameson’s a day, always had at least five lady friends rotating through the week, managed a halfway house for juvenile delinquents, and never seemed to slow down. I remember once arriving in town, calling him, and getting the response: “I’m sorry, Lije, I’ve just finished a 36-hour shift and I’ve got to get some sleep. I’ll meet you at Joe’s in two hours.”

Joe’s was the coffeehouse where everyone I knew in Vancouver used to meet over the course of the day to chat and shoot pool. It was famous for serving cappuccinos with an inch and a half of foam above the edge of the cup and never a single drip down the side — later on, Monte worked there and made the cappuccinos, and later still he helped organize a strike and was fired on national television.

Another story: Monte had booked us to play at a Portuguese restaurant called Santo’s, but when I hit town and called him he sounded kind of concerned:

“So, Lije, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.”

“OK, Monte… what’s the bad news?”

“So I was over at Santo’s last week, and Santo’s brother got in an argument with his wife and slapped her, so I had to ask him to step outside and… I broke his arm, so the gig’s been cancelled.”

“OK, Monte… so what’s the good news?”

“I was in there again last night and won two hundred dollars off Santo playing poker dice, so I can pay you anyway.”

I loved Monte, and loved playing with him, and for a few years made sure to spend at least a week or two in Vancouver. Then Maggie died and I cut down on hitchhiking and touring around the US, and what with one thing and another there was a gap of almost twenty years.

When I got back out there, though, it was like old times. The first visit of the new millennium I was supposed to get in around 10pm and Monte arranged to meet at a bar called Bukowski’s. The bus was more than three hours late, I arrived after last call, and Monte was sitting with two double shots of Jameson, one for each of us, to welcome me back. Then we went over to the Wise Club, where he was tending bar, and he opened it just for us and we spent hours catching up.

For the next few years I got to Vancouver pretty regularly and Monte usually set up a gig, typically including a phenomenal guitarist named Paul Pigat who could play anything, and often Paul Rigby on mandolin, and maybe a bass player or a drummer — I didn’t deserve those guys, but they turned up for Monte and it was great.

Monte died a couple of years ago, after a long, hard battle with heart trouble, liver trouble, cancer — his body held up longer than any of us expected, but it could only take so much. He was himself to the end, though: I made it out for a final visit and found him sitting in an armchair in a friend’s living room. (The friend, Jason, had invited him to crash in the guest room after the last hospital stay and was seeing him through to the end.) He was on a lot of morphine, which made him groggy, and was smoking cocaine-laced cigarettes to stay alert, and I sat there while he slowly got one to his lips, reached for his lighter, tried to get it to light… dropped the cigarette, painfully bent down, picked it up, tried again and dropped the lighter, slowly bent over again and felt for it under his chair, found it, tried again, dropped the cigarette… and like that, for maybe five minutes, until he dropped the lighter yet again and I reached down to hand it to him, and he fixed me with an icy glare and said, “Lije, you’re just going to have to learn to control yourself.”

I still hear his voice singing Lefty’s part.