Even Reverse Cowgirls Get The Blues

It’s hot as hell down in Sin City where Frank Miller calls the tunes. In a rundown dive on the sleazy side of town a man sits on a stool at a battered piano. He’s unshaven and blinded milky-white in one eye. The other is bloodshot from all the years of cheap whisky.

He plays the keys like he’s a junkie romantic in a fever dream. Just don’t mention the name Tom Waits to him, whatever you do.

He used to be good-looking but that was years ago and now he resembles a tattooed candle that’s been left in the sun too long.

He has a voice like a bag of nails and he insists that people said that about him before they’d ever even heard of goddam Tom Waits. It’s wrecked and barely there, but no-one’s listening so it doesn’t much matter.

He sings a song he wrote decades before for the one that got away; he knew her before she was a somebody, before she was the somebody. And he knew her again when she wasn’t and came back as an empty shell. Before he sings the song he tells the story behind it that no one believes is true.

But it is true, he insists, every word; even the lies.

I burned for an old flame yesterday
I was drunk but she was pretty all the same
She caught me at the bar
Said ‘I been wondering how you are’
I caught fire

She said I’d like it down where she lives;
That it’s not quite rock bottom
But it is
Said she had a heart of gold
I said I’m buying; she sold
And I whispered

‘Chain me to your radiator
I want you on your worst behaviour
Girl I don’t believe in saviours
But I’ll make an exception for you’

‘You know it’s true’

Even cowgirls get the blues
Cowgirls get the blues
And when cowgirls get the blues
They seek comfort in the arms of a bull.

In the heat of my desire she melts
I got scratches I got bruises I got welts
Blood drawn from my wrist
Reminds me of the bliss
Of our tryst

I chained her to my radiator
I gave her all my worst behaviour
She said ‘boy I don’t believe in saviours
But I’ll make an exception for you’

‘you know it’s true’

Even cowgirls get the blues
Cowgirls get the blues
And when cowgirls get the blues
They seek comfort in the arms of a bull.

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Real Men Don’t Dance

An Evening Of The Blues Feat Ben Harper Plus Charlie Musselwhite, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 16 July 2013

Some kind of venue, Shepherd’s Bush and the lights go down.  This is no rock n’ rolling blackout, but I like it.  The Empire strikes back on a Tuesday.

Sideshow Bob’s seedy uncle takes the stage to bang the drum.  They begin with the bassline and feel of Who Knows by the Band of Gypsies.  A savage child of Chicago blues, this.  Ben Harper on vocals with an old harmonica legend name of Charlie Musselwhite.  Bobby D gulps at his beer without spilling a drop – this old man’s a pro.  The girls in front of us take pictures of the band.

Charlie sings with a classic bluesman’s roar, a guttural take on the Howlin’ Wolf school.  Harper exchanges his Telecaster for a square-neck resonator, played like a lap steel with a slide.  The other guitarist plays Stratocaster solos that drown out the sound of the harmonica break.  He’s not really much cop, this guy.  Got no chops, this guy.

I could do what he does and with more balls, and if I could do it, it ain’t all that.  The girls in front log in, one on Facebook the other on Twitter.  No experience is authentic unless it’s shared online with strangers.  Welcome to the gestalt groupthink.

Getting down with the minors and the sevenths.  Charlie lets off a howl – the sound of coming back swinging with everything you’ve got (even if it isn’t much).  I feel the kick of the drum and the thrum of the bass in my ribcage.  Bobby D hands me another beer – first one nailed in seconds flat. Don’t look twice, ‘cause I’m in, and I’m out, and I’m gone.

The stomp and the shuffle continues, subsides.  Harper’s crazy talented, why have I never paid him much heed?  The next one’s a little bit country.  Maybe that’s why.  The girls log in to email and Instagram, eyes never leaving the comfort of tiny screens.

This heat makes men crazy, makes me want to shed my skin.  The atmosphere grows ever more fetid, beer down my back spells welcome relief.

Later on Bobby D and me will watch a blubbery man in an ill-advised hat argue with the security.  One of them pushed him, he says, and that’s illegal; worse: it’s a crime.  He’s talking about a common law assault, and yes it is technically a crime albeit only in the minds of law students and whiners.

We’ll try and talk him down but there’s nothing doing when someone is this angry and middle class. 

A woman next to us dances more and more exuberantly, trying to draw focus like the guitarist on the stage.  She sneaks regular glances in our direction (Bobby D’s a devil mix of Irish and Italian).  But we don’t respond – real men don’t dance.

But the less attention you get, the more you seem to crave it.  The guitarist changes guitar again between songs – he’s not played the same one twice.  Spinal Tap rang: they want their schtick back.

He straps himself into a double neck Gibson, wine red like the one Jimmy Page used to play in the 70s.  He plays a decent riff on the twelve string neck, but it’s too chuggy and the tone too distorted to get the benefit of extra strings – it’s all about the look.

Charlie sings again, he sings the blues like a simile in a drain.  He’s clearly more of a traditionalist – twelve bars, down with the minors and the sevenths – but this old bird is game.   Harper harmonises beautifully and the impassive giant to Bobby D’s right finally cracks a smile, a crack so wide it could swallow the world.  He nods his head to the music (somewhere across the globe he’s probably caused a hurricane).

The girls make some videos, but one has to break off to have an email scrap with her boyfriend.  It’s a quiet sort of domestic.  Guitarist gets his Les Paul back – must be heading towards the finale.

This afternoon I received an email from my bank.  Someone tried and failed to log in to my online account 5 times and they need personal details to set me back up.  Security reasons.  Only thing is I tend to avoid online banking (poor memory for passwords), I don’t bank with Santander and that ain’t no Santander email account. 

Snake oil and con art. 

Harper and co come back for an encore; we hit the bar for another.  A new couple has Brownian motioned to our vicinity.  He’s stocky and short with a huge beard.  Looks like a bulldog with male pattern baldness.  He’s having the time of his life with a tall brunette with whom he’s clearly in love.  She pretends not to notice but dances and cackles with him til’ their feet are sore.  But real men don’t dance.

Harper coaxes a tune out of a resonator – his style is simple and unhurried.  London’s the hardest place to play, harder than New York, he smarms to the crowd.  Even us embittered cynics of the seething metropolis love a bit of BS.

Harper wants to get his gospel on.  He edges to the end of the stage and bellows out a vocal with no mic.  The crowd goes nuts – he gestures impatiently for calm.  This is what a voice sounds like, no twiddling across the octaves cramming as many notes as possible until even the cat looks impressed.

You imagine he wants to say something like ‘we don’t need no autotune, we got soul,’ and you’re a little embarrassed on his behalf.

The rhythm section cranks into overdrive.  Harper plays a lap steel solo and Charlie plays the gaps, an echoey sort of call and response.  Guitarist waits his turn, perhaps I’ve been too hard on him.  It’s not easy when the bass takes the accompaniment and the singers take the flash and you’re left exposed like that old lie about how real men don’t dance.

The music leans a little to the south, to the swamp and the delta.  It’s hot, it’s sweaty and time was they said it could kill a man.  And that’s just the music: in the venue it’s so humid I’ve more liquid on the outside.

It’s too emotional and raw for the technique-cliché – modern blues is too polite, but here we’re all too crushed for manners.  It’s got a beat and you can dance, but real men don’t, it has rhythm and it stinks with personality.  It is swing and soul and jazz and rock and blues.

But what it mainly is, is old.

Side 1, Track 1

Blame it on John Cusack, blame it on High Fidelity.  This isn’t a top five as such, so there’ll be no Beatles, Clash or Marvin Gaye here; nor is it in any order.

Although if it were, the first one would be at the top.

Instead, here are five album openers that have maybe been overlooked by list compilers in favour of Welcome To The Jungle and Smells Like Teen Spirit.

The Night – Morphine, The Night (2000)

Morphine should never have been interesting at all.  Mark Sandman sang in a spartan baritone accompanied by a bass guitar (typically played with a slide) and a saxophone plus drums.  Chords and even particularly complex arrangements weren’t a possibility with such a setup although they did utilise a wide variety of instruments in their studio mixes.

But they rehabilitated the saxophone from the Kenny G wilderness, and between that, the voice and the bass (3 monotonal instruments) and a properly decent drummer they proved that alchemy does in fact exist.

Call it a tone poem if you will; a series of strangely evocative images wrapped in a pleasing cadence.  But in its vaguely meaningless way the song conveys a sense of profound emotions deeply felt, of longing for something that’s never entirely clear – Lilah is possibly a person, or perhaps it’s metaphorical.  In fact it’s possible that Lilah refers to the sound of the song itself – deep and dark, bittersweetly melodious.

The name Lilah means seductive, languishing, lovelorn, night beauty.

Mark Sandman died before the album could be released, which means that the song almost inevitably feels like something of a parting gift, a final distillation of his talents into what in my opinion is his most accomplished song.

Five Years – David Bowie, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust (1972)

If The Night makes me want to dust off florid superlatives, Five Years inspires the opposite.

Traditionally, side 1 track 1 is supposed to excite you and serve as an introduction to the sounds and themes of the rest of the album.  But aside from the rather tenuous thought that 5 years represents the longest possible shelf-life for the majority of pop groups, Five Years at first seems to have little to do with the rest of the album.  Moreover it doesn’t throw down the gauntlet so much as disinterestedly drop it.

In many ways the song is standard pop fare – 3 or 4 chords bashed around in 4-4 time with a hook-laden belter of a chorus.  But it subverts the typical structure by lumping all the verses together and following up with an extended chorus that would go down a treat at your average sporting venue.

In that sense it comes off as pastiche, opening the album with a desultory drumbeat leading into precisely the sort of prosaic, middle-of-the-road pop for squares that the Ziggy Stardust character seemed designed to reject.  In fact by the end of the verse section you might find yourself feeling bored (unless you’ve paid attention to the unsettling lyrics).

And then the song cranks into life as Bowie bellows out the chorus, sounding increasingly unstable as it progresses.  Bowie’s voice teeters on the edge of control, as though the singer is peering into the abyss wondering when he’ll hurtle into it.

And in that vein – the conflation of plastic popstar and sense of heading for a fall – it’s the perfect primer for the themes of the album.

Flatlands – Chelsea Wolfe, Unknown Rooms: A Collection Of Acoustic Songs (2012)

Moving back to another artist who remains criminally underexposed, Chelsea Wolfe is a singer-songwriter and band leader whose music is described as a drone/metal/art/folk hybrid.  But despite that she’s actually pretty good, with a startling voice and strong songwriting chops.

Her 3rd album, Unknown Rooms, is not an album so much as a gathering together of songs old and new that have failed to find a home on ‘proper’ releases.  Between them they convey a sense of sadness laced with menace, the sparse production and quiet arrangements creating an intimacy that is faintly uncomfortable at times.

It also serves as a solid platform for her reverb-accented voice, which (again) is chills-up-the-spine sublime.

Flatlands opens with a simple fingerpicked acoustic guitar and builds to an unhurried peak, an elegiac rejection of the attendant baubles of modern life.  As a statement of intent it’s calmly powerful, although (as with The Night) the rest of the album feels lacking by comparison.

I find it oddly reminiscent of the Smashing Pumpkins during one of their more reflective moments (such as the first track of Adore, appropriately enough), which might be reason enough to leave well alone for non-Gen Xers or those who managed to get over the 90s.

But you’d be missing out.

Gold Lion – Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones (2006)

A good opening track might be the song the artist feels is best placed to grab the listener’s attention.  It might be a statement of intent setting the tone for the album, or it may seek to summarise the themes – CliffsNotes for the band.

In the case of Kurt Cobain, the first track of In Utero served as a caustic rebuke to the label, the fans and indeed the world at large.

Gold Lion is very much a statement of intent, but not just for the album.  Their debut Fever To Tell was critically lauded as a jagged slice of glitzy, sleazy New York ‘punk’ – following a long tradition of achingly cool, camp New York outfits from the Velvet Underground to the New York Dolls and beyond.

I call it lipstick grunge.

And like all zeitgeisty, terribly fashionable bands they were expected to have the lifespan of your average mayfly.  They were also expected to follow up with more of the same – shiny but shallow, like a person who’s fun to date for a while but who won’t ever break your heart.

Instead they produced an album which is largely led by the acoustic rather than electric guitar.  And nowhere does the acoustic feel quite so prominent as it does on the opening track, which puts me in mind of a night round a campfire, albeit with a drummer somewhere off in the distance keeping the wolves at bay.

The band would repeat the trick with their next release It’s Blitz!, yet again receiving critical acclaim for reinventing themselves without distancing themselves from what came before.

I’m A Fool To Want You – Billie Holiday, Lady In Satin (1958)

Even soundtracking a Chanel perfume advert couldn’t detract from Holiday’s take on I’m A Fool To Want You.

Today Billie Holiday is most famous as something of a tragic figure – a supremely talented jazz singer beset by the demons of a neglected childhood, heroin abuse, racism and domestic violence.

It may be confirmation bias that leads us to attribute extraordinary talent to extraordinary pain – that the likes of Van Gogh, Holiday and so on wouldn’t have shone so brightly without the darkness.  And each iteration of the artist who’s too sensitive to live reinforces the archetype.  But this seems too mawkish to my mind, too romanticised a view; perhaps even a little brutal in the way that the pain of others is waved away so easily.

Whatever, by the time Holiday came to record her penultimate album, Lady In Satin, the years had chipped away at her voice.  There’s a cruel irony that it was towards the end when her voice had lost its power and lustre that she returned to the orchestral arrangements of her Decca years.  The weary, scratchier tones would have seemed more at home with the smoky jazz accompaniments she’d mostly performed and recorded with.

But great music is as much about flaws as it is polish, and however much Lady In Satin’s chocolate box orchestral flourishes should cloy, however much the production would seem to be geared towards hiding her vocals, the contrast elevates the material to something wonderful.

I’m A Fool… isn’t exactly subtle lyrically, but Holiday delivers it in a way that imbues it with the feel of a more profound truth than the song really warrants.  Tired old Billie should know better after a lifetime’s worth of heartbreak and sadness.  She wears her scars on her sleeve so that when she sings that she’s a fool for her feelings of longing for a wrong ‘un, she really can actually understand what she’s banging on about.

Other versions of the song may be better sung technically, but as with Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, this is an old dog’s love song, not a gauche young pup’s.

I live in constant dread of the day this pitches up as an X Factor winner’s Christmas single.

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So there’s your lot – as a challenge why not try and come up with 5 side 1, track 1s that don’t routinely feature in top five lists and share in the comments below – see if we can’t all spread the love around.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Take some musicians, marinade them for 10,000 years in a mix of bourbon, tar, methamphetamines, nicotine and the essence of John Lee Hooker, Charles Mingus and Howlin’ Wolf. Dab them dry with a paper towel and set them up with a trumpet for emotion and a guitar for rage. They stare numbly at the page then creak into a rattling, minor key take on the 12 bar blues.

A piss and vinegar voice cuts through, part mumble, part howl.

Basically, the Cheers theme tune if it had been written by the band Morphine.

The woman on the stage
Screws her face up with such passion;
She can barely get the words out
But she can sing after a fashion
She tells you Christ was here last night
Standing same place where you are
She smiles at your disbelief
At the prophets to be found in bars

Your drink is coward weak
At the bottom of your glass
If liquor comes in grades
It’s the bottom of its class
But it does the trick;
It makes you sick
Like a lover so forgiving
You feel you deserve a better life
But life is for the living

A place that’s open 8 ’til late
A place where the light won’t penetrate
Where everybody knows your name
But nobody cares

In this place we’re all disgraced
I won’t repeat the things I’ve heard;
These people will embrace you
But they’ll never say a word;
The burning man, the broken man
The cuckold man; the damaged man
The godless and the ungodly
And then there’s you and me

So raise your glass I’ll raise a toast
To the people and things I love the most
Where the holiest spirit is not the Holy Ghost
And everybody knows your name

Everybody knows your name