Tuesday, June 24, 2008

It was the time of the preacher...

Let's talk briefly about Willie Nelson's acting career. Very briefly. Yeah, he was pretty great in "Half Baked" playing, well, a stoned Willie Nelson. Which is to say Willie Nelson on any day you might happen to meet him. And I wouldn't admit to having seen "The Dukes of Hazzard" if you held me at gunpoint, but we all know the only REAL Uncle Jesse is Mr. Denver Pyle. Or possibly John Stamos.

But from what I can find, Willie's only star turn was in 1986's "Red Headed Stranger", a bastard version of the album I'm here to discuss co-starring Morgan Fairchild and supposed to include in its cast the Band's Levon Helm, who apparently shot himself in the leg practicing quick draw techniques for his part. How many times do I have to say it? Method acting doesn't work, people.

The movie came a brief eleven years after Nelson's concept album of the same name. Before we really get to that album, it must be mentioned that with Johnny Cash dead, Willie Nelson is a strong contender for the title of Coolest Living White Person (and anyone who says Dylan is going to get some serious glares). Hell, even Bill Hicks paused in the middle of his anti-celebrity-endorsement rant (which includes a brilliant impression of Jay Leno's Dorito ads from my youth) to give Willie a pass. Anyone else who shills, according to Bill, off the artistic roster. But Willie, well...

Inexhaustible cool aside, Willie's not necessarily what you'd call "a big ideas guy". His strength, to my mind, lies in crafting brutally short songs that impart a feeling of utter openness, utter bereavement, in under two minutes. If you've never heard the album of his early demos, recorded for other artists when he first got to Nashville because his Texan accent was deemed too unpalatable to record, you need to. It's like being punched in the guts repeatedly for forty-five minutes, with tracks like "I've Just Destroyed the World I'm Living In" and "If You Can't Undo the Wrong, Undo the Right". But as big ideas go, the first one that springs to mind is Willie's recent "Countryman" album, an hour's worth of (wince now so you're ready for it when it comes) reggae versions of his early songs. I was in the middle of a semi-regular pilgrimage to SoundGarden in Syracuse, a good hour's worth of driving, when I was first assaulted with this album and I nearly turned right around and drove home.

But "Red Headed Stranger" is indeed a concept album. The story, constructed in loose poetics, follows a preacher gone drifting after killing a woman. Bare, stripped and haunting, the album is almost entirely rendered by Nelson on lead and backing vocals, acoustic and piano. Nelson produced the album himself, having left Nashville for Austin after his home in Tennessee burned down. Columbia Records was wary of releasing such a sparse country album in the mid-seventies, when most country had drifted even further towards an electrified Bakersfield sound, but Nelson, along with fellow Highwayman Waylon Jennings, pushed them on it and the album was a commercial and critical success. Country Music Television recently named the the greatest country album of all time, and if you can't trust CMT, who can you trust?

(Huh, I just checked that list, which I had to find on a Shania Twain fan forum and DAMN, CMT! Putting Ray Charles's "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" at number two? Pure balls! Not to mention completely defensible. I'll talk more about Modern Sounds later, but number two? Man, that's likely to get the head honchos at CMT lynched. In your face, Garth Brooks. And Chris Gaines. The folks on the Shania forum were pretty pissed, too. Ms. Twain doesn't show up til number eight. Also of note, former 120 Minutes host, Matt Pinfield was on the panel as a "music historian". That guy just makes me chuckle.)

My first encounter with the "Red Headed Stranger" predates my country music listening days: snippets of the album's recurring "Time of the Preacher" theme haunt the first issue of the DC Comics series "Preacher", which remains one of the more entertaining runs of a comic book you're likely to find. "Haunt" is certainly the right word: borne on Nelson's reedy tenor backed only with sparse guitar playing, the theme floats in and out of the album like an inescapable memory, trading dance steps with the main narrative of the title character so that the past and present crimes weave gently together. The entire first side of the album constitutes an elaborate murder ballad that abandons the standard trope of including the killer's capture and punishment in the narrative and shrugs off the idea of rule by law with the almost rueful line, "You can't hang a man for killing a woman who's trying to steal his horse." By the time the shooting rolls around, the title character is so detached from society at this point, the listener doubts the little town he's rolled into could punish him if they wanted to, they're left to only hope "maybe he'll ride on again." Unlike the usual perpetrators in murder ballads (think "Cocaine Blues"'s Willie Lee or Tom Dooley"), the punishment doesn't come from society, the punishment is a kind of exile from society. The Red Headed Stranger, no longer a preacher, floats nameless through towns that cannot and will not hold him, separated from his fellow man by his past crimes, but not the noble outsider of the traditional western or the image of "the Outlaw" Nelson and his fellow Highwaymen affected. A pariah, diminished.

The album's second half offers the hope of redemption and reattachment. The title character meets a woman in Denver who grounds him once again. The pair dance across two instrumental arrangements before the plaintive "Can I Sleep in Your Arms?" Granted, the narrative falls apart a bit here, softening the hard and cold edges of the album's first half, but the sweetness of songs like "Can I Sleep in Your Arms" and "Hand on the Wheel" are effective in painting an image of the title character slowly and carefully rising out of a period of emotional numbness, returning to reality.

The brilliance of the album lies in its restraint, both lyrically and sonically. The narrative never dominates and the set pieces can easily stand alone. The one possible misstep is the upbeat honkytonk number, "Down Yonder", which serves as the couple's second dance. The plunking piano seems out of place between the gentle "O'er the Waves" and "Can I Sleep in Your Arms", but aside from that, the album drifts over the listener with the slow cadence of the best westerns. None of which include Morgan Fairchild.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Tried So Hard

Yes, there's something hilarious about a member of the Byrds (who were originally called the Jet Set) being kicked out of the band due to a fear of flying. But Gene Clark's story isn't quite that simple. If you're feeling motivated, head over here for some Gene Clark tracks and thematically similar items of interest. Might make for good listening while reading along. You'll know it's time to turn the page when you hear the chimes ring like this.

Like his more famous former bandmate Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark started out as a devoted practitioner of folk music, getting his start with the New Christie Minstrels in the early sixties. Also like McGuinn, Clark had a moment of epiphany when he first heard the Beatles and abandoned straight folk to develop a hybrid of folk and rock (although pop would probably be a more accurate term) he heard inherent in the Beatles' sound.

Despite being the Byrds' most talented and prolific songwriter, Clark was always low man on the totem within the band. For starters, manager Jim Dickson preferred McGuinn's voice to Clark's, particularly for the Dylan covers that scored the band its first hits. A soft-spoken and nervous cat, Clark was outshined and slightly bullied by his bandmates. There's a story about the band's earliest days as the Byrds. With his first advance check in hand, Gene Clark went out and bought himself a brand new red guitar. At the time, Crosby could barely play guitar and played tambourine, but after someone made a crack about how he looked on stage, Crosby stole Clark's guitar and declared himself the Byrds' rhythm guitarist.

On top of that, Clark was making more money than anyone else in the band, since he was writing most of the songs and receiving most of the royalties. This created bitterness within the band, especially from Crosby. But what ultimately did Clark in was anxiety. Keep in mind, the Byrds were really huge. On par with the Beatles and the Stones for a little bit and arguably the biggest American band of the mid-sixties. Clark was never much for the spotlight and hated traveling. The band's incessant touring schedule proved too much and he left the band after two albums, later rejoining for three weeks before suffering a panic attack attempting to board a plane.

The first track here, the classic "Eight Miles High" is a bit of an oddity. The songwriting credit is shared by Crosby, McGuinn and Clark, although the melody is unmistakably Clark's. The noodling guitar stylings reflect Crosby's growing interest in raga, which wouldn't come to a head until The Notorious Byrd Brothers, after Clark had left the group. But notice the strength of Clark's vocals, particularly when gilded by McGuinn and Crosby's high harmonies. McGuinn's thinner tenor was perfectly suited for harmonizing, although his ear for harmony couldn't match Crosby.

"Feel a Whole Lot Better" is Clark fully out front and was one of the early non-cover hits for the Byrds.

The next couple tracks are from Echoes, essentially a solo album aided by a slew of other folks from the LA scene, including some of the Byrds. Most of these tracks were intended for the Byrds anyway and share sensibilities with earlier efforts. But while McGuinn and Crosby drifted into eastern music, Gene Clark began to explore country music with an earnestness mostly lacking from the Byrd's first country effort, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Clark gives the impression of not just learning country songs, but absorbing them into his musical vocabulary. The songs are inflected with a sense of humor that isn't the hokey performance of McGuinn's take on the Louvin Brothers' "The Christian Life", but the glee of a songwriter finding a new set of toys. The heartfelt regret of "Set You Free This Time" is complimented nicely by the nearly goofy "Elevator Operator".

If you really concentrate, you can totally sing Hubcap's "Birthday Song" along with "Here Without You". Try it.

The real prize here, though, is Clark's "Tried So Hard". While it suffers from muffled production, with the guitars trampling Clark's mildly trembling George Jones delivery, the power and economy of the song is undeniable: it's as swift, brutal and efficient as a Willie Nelson composition. Also included here is the Yo La Tengo cover from Fakebook, which ups the bounce and loses a little of the pathos in the process.

Finally, I've been trying to clean up my recording of Clark's No Other from 1975. Eight tracks long and...well, bizarre. Clark claimed he was going for a "Cosmic motown" sound, but the limp funk basslines and fuzzy vocals that permeate the album make it more of a cult object than anything else. Touring for the album, Clark shared a couple bills with McGuinn and Chris Hillman of the Byrds. Apparently the three got along well enough to join up again, releasing a few albums as McGuinn/Hillman/Clark. This is indicative of how the LA scene worked through the seventies: former allstars on the circuit paired up for albums that sold moderately well and have gone mostly unremembered.

Clark's unreliability and drug use eventually got him ousted from the group and in 1989, Clark would make the ill-advised decision to tour with former Byrds drummer (and one time Burrito Brother) Michael Clarke as "A 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Byrds". This billing, occasionally shortened to just the Byrds, got Clark and Clarke sued by all three of the other original Byrds, although the group managed to get together on stage for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately, by that time Gene Clark's health was in poor shape. An influx of royalties from Tom Petty's cover of "Feel a Whole Lot Better" on Full Moon Fever was spent restarting Clark's drug habit and 1991 he passed away from a collection of ailments.

Update on the Book

This has been sitting idle long enough, and now that clouds have parted and the future is marginally more clear, it seems a perfect time to pick it up again.

As you might have guessed, this blog is designed to sort of augment the forthcoming book, "The Gilded Palace of Sin" which is being published as part of Continuum's 33 1/3 book series. I should start here by mentioning that, following certain snags, the book is definitely being published, although not, as originally planned, in April and not, as secondarily planned, in July. In point of fact, the book will be out in late September, just sneaking in under the wire of my looming thirtieth birthday.

The original plan for this blog was to cover aspects leading up the release and subsequent tour, but since those have been pushed back and I'm biologically incapable of doing nothing for five minutes, over the summer this blog will serve as a sort of series of appendices to the book proper. As anyone who's ever embarked on a research project with a length or time constriction can probably tell you, plenty of stuff ends up on the cutting room floor. Last year was a flurry of books and music, a fraction of which made it into the 150 pages you'll see in the fall. Until plans for the release and tour start amping up again, this is where I'll be coming to talk about (and post) old country music, other important albums and issues associated with the fusion of country and rock music and a lot of .the images that, for copyright reasons, I just can't use in the book. Yep, it's a total vanity project. Hope you enjoy and even if you don't, we'll see you in the fall.