Warren Zevon – The Wind

It’s been a long year here at Album Du Jour. From that first day when I had no idea what album to write about and wound up writing up American Woman by The Guess Who just because that was what I had been listening to lately, to just yesterday when I spoke at length about an album that took 37 years to make without even talking about the music within, I feel I’ve accomplished my goal of exploring my often scattered thoughts about the albums that have been a part of my life in one way or another (yes, even Richard Harris’ A Tramp Shining and Hulk Hogan’s Hulk Rules).

While I started this little ol’ blog with no idea about the direction it would go in or what I would write about from day to day, there is one album that stuck with me from the moment I heard it, and I knew that it would occupy the final spot in this project as my pick for the best album ever made. Today, I am extremely thrilled to be writing about Warren Zevon’s final album, The Wind:

Thought my “best album ever” would go to Johnny Cash, eh?

I had probably better explain myself, as I have been thinking about this for months. First, however, we’re going to talk about how this album came about, because that’s kind of important to the story.

In 2002, things weren’t really going bad for Warren Zevon. It had been somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 years since he kicked his alcohol habit, and with the release of his Artemis albums, Life’ll Kill Ya and My Ride’s Here, heretofore known as the albums with the most foreboding titles ever, he found himself with just enough modest success to keep a modest man like Zevon happy. With his new-found quasi-success, Warren decided to change up his daily routine a little with some exercise, a rather ironic health-kick, as he would put it himself.

Right around the time he played the Edmonton Folk Music Festival in Canada, in what must have been a grueling game of Tiddlywinks (kidding), Zevon noticed that it was becoming harder and harder to catch his breath. The problem got so severe that Zevon had no choice… but to go to his dentist.

See, Zevon had a strong dislike for doctors, which he would later describe to David Letterman as “a phobia that didn’t really pay off”. Once he described his symptoms to his dentist, he was referred to a cardiologist and finally an oncologist, and sure enough, he was diagnosed with Mesothelioma, an inoperable and deadly form of lung cancer often associated with breathing asbestos, which they used for insulation in houses a long time ago. Call it irony or poetic justice, but Warren Zevon, who had written far more than his fair share of songs about death, was himself to be done in by a disease more obscure than his career in the 90’s. Yeah, I hated that joke too but I couldn’t stop myself.

Either way, the doctors gave Warren Zevon 3 months to live, which could possibly be extended through chemo therapy. Warren opted out of treatment, and made a remarkable decision: to record one last album as a good-bye to his family and friends.

The doctors said “Fair enough” and proceeded to load him up with enough drugs to keep him going.

Warren immediately began writing new songs, and remarked later in a documentary that ideas and inspiration were finally coming swiftly, whereas his entire career was marked by slow and cumbersome songwriting. The songs that Warren wrote would touch on thoughts I imagine many people would have about dying, and while Zevon’s trademark wit is present throughout the text of the songs where they would fit, the songs took on a much deeper meaning. My theory is that Warren Zevon, being the genius he was, had always written songs intelligently, taking the rules and principals of songwriting and twisting them into something both magnificent and not at all serious, often within the same lines of music. The songs on The Wind are not all that lyrically innovative or musically fussy, and therein lies the secret of the album’s unmatched quality: Zevon was writing from the heart.

Three months passed, and pretty good time was being made on the album, but he was nowhere near finished. Still, Warren was still alive, so work continued. He celebrated his extra time on Earth the way most people do, by going on David Letterman as the one and only guest for the evening. Dave and Warren were great friends, and indeed Letterman is where you’d see Warren rocking out his latest songs more often than not. The interview with Warren and the musical performances (which include a brilliant performance of “Genius” and “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner”) was a thing of beauty, and one of the most profound things that I’ve ever heard a dying man say came from Warren when David asked him if he had gained any insight into life, given his condition, to which Warren said “Enjoy every sandwich”.

Such a simple philosophy,  one that dates back to times before sandwiches I’m sure, but to hear it from someone like Warren Zevon (who, by the way, had the same positive attitude even before being diagnosed) in his condition just affirms it all the more. Indeed, whereas anyone else might clench their fists at whoever decided they should be taken out of life early, or even if given the opportunity to make an artistic contribution on the level that Warren was planning, someone may make a terrible, distraught, sorrowful artistic statement, Warren chose to take the philosophy behind “Enjoy every sandwich” and run with it. The album follows along a vague but discernible pattern, and with the cloud of mortality hanging over everything, acknowledged but never allowed to take over, the feel of the album is unlike any other album I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing.

The first move that the album makes is to exorcise, once and for all, the mischievous Zevon character, the “arch-narrator”, indeed the very Excitable Boy that had been wreaking havoc since day one. Like the infamous “Mr. Bad Example”, Warren is retiring from all his dirty deals, and he does it in the form of “Dirty Life And Times”. The song reminds me probably most of “Frank And Jesse James”, in that it evokes a very “Western” feel, singing praises upon the sacred 1, 4, and 5 progression that makes up 9 out of 10 Country songs (good ones, anyway) with the dirty distorted lap steel, provided by none other than Ry Cooder. As Warren sings the first notes, one may be taken aback by how rough his voice sounds, unless one had been listening to albums like Life’ll Kill Ya, which is somehow even rougher. Indeed, Warren made a solid effort to sing the notes as straight as possible, but when you’ve got lung cancer, it kind of knocks The Wind out of you (no pun intended, ok yes pun intended). Still, Warren’s got some help on some of the lines from Dwight Yoakam and actor Billy Bob Thornton, of all people:

Sometimes I feel like my shadow’s casting me
Some days the sun don’t shine
Sometimes I wonder what tomorrow’s gonna bring
When I think about my dirty life and times

One day I came to a fork in the road
Folks, I just couldn’t go where I was told
Now they’ll hunt me down and hang me for my crimes
If I tell about my dirty life and times

While the lyrics may look pretty severe initially, the tone of the song is upbeat, as if Warren has evoked all the powers of Hank Williams to bring a light tune to the darkest of songs. Of course, in the typical Zevon fashion, the song soon lightens up entirely:

I had someone ’til she went out for a stroll
Shoulda run after her
It’s hard to find a girl with a heart of gold
When you’re living in a four-letter world

But if she won’t love me, then her sister will
She’s from Say-One-Thing-And-Mean-Another’s-Ville
And she can’t seem to make up her mind
When she hears about my dirty life and times

After which, Zevon lets out a barely-managed “Woo”, which may be one syllable that doesn’t really mean anything, but to me it brings back the spirit of Warren’s first two albums, wherein he loved to end lines with some kind of “woo” or “hey” or “yeah”, and thankfully, that spirit lasts through the entire album.

Gets a little lonely, folks, you know what I mean
I’m looking for a woman with low self-esteem
To lay me out and ease my worried mind
While I’m winding down my dirty life and times

That is possibly the best line in the whole song. Indeed, if I were dying that’s exactly what I’d be thinking.

“Dirty Life And Times” sets the mood for the album so well by letting the individuals who are hearing the album for the first time, who know what it’s about but don’t know the songs, completely at ease about what they’re listening to. The song is not a song of regret or quibbling, but an unapologetic look back at a notorious life lived to its fullest. Who needs to know what happened in the past? We’re moving on to the future and winding down for that last trip, wine and women in tow.

The second song is the Grammy-winning “Disorder In The House”, which is possibly an allegory for Zevon’s illness or the presence of an illness, but could also be easily twisted to be about politics, authority, even the economy. It’s just a general “shit has hit the fan” type song, and it’s one of the best rock songs I’ve ever heard. While the lyrics are among Zevon’s absolute best, what really makes the song is a special trip to the studio made by Bruce Springsteen, who canceled his plans to be home for Christmas to come and record on a couple of songs for his friend Warren Zevon.

Bruce Springsteen has gotten next to no mention on this blog, and I do apologize for that. Despite his most famous works being fist-pumping heavy 80’s Americana Rock, which I am not typically a fan of, I consider the man to be among the greatest of the “honest” rockers of today. The guy is all grit, stubble, flannel, and an irrepressible sense of fun when it comes down to it (of course, he can do stark music as well, Nebraska being a great example). Anyway, though I’m a bit new to Springsteen’s various sounds, you could call me a fan the moment I heard his contribution to “Disorder In The House“. On top of lending some very energetic backing vocals that, despite Springsteen having a voice that’s 3 stories tall and made of fists, still takes a backseat to Warren’s modest leading vocals, he applies not one, nor two, but three incredible guitar solos. Though they aren’t solos that are going to make a technically gifted guitarist green with envy, they are absolutely appropriate for the song, rough and sort of ramshackle, but full of soul.

Now that some fun has been had, things slow down and get serious for a moment. Warren Zevon does precious few cover songs, though he had been averaging at least 1 per album for a while. Given the subject matter of The Wind, there are few more appropriate cover songs to choose than Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. Nevermind that it’s an insanely popular song to cover (sometimes insanely inappropriately so), I can’t think of a time that it has been covered by someone for whom the words were as close to literally true as can be achieved without dying first. Zevon’s cover is totally classy, working with the same instruments that gave such life to “Dirty Life And Times” only with someone else playing lap steel (instrument-aficionado David Lindley is my guess). The song isn’t quite on the tear-jerker level that some of the other songs that occur later on this album are, but it does a really good job of sort of “preparing” the listener for the emotional brick that’s about to come hurdling across the speakers right toward their fragile psychic defenses.

“Let’s do another bad one then, ’cause I love when the blood drains from Daaave’s faaace.”

This little bit of studio banter from Warren introduces the next song, “Numb As A Statue”, which is another upbeat zinger, this time featuring Warren on his number one axe: the piano. This song, more than the others, showcases Zevon’s ability to make a perfectly good song based on one really clever line:

I’m numb as a statue
I may have to beg, borrow, or steal
Some feelings from you
So I can have some feelings too

Which, even without the adverse conditions under which this album finds itself, is still an awesome line. The song unfolds, however, into more of a thinly-veiled admission of needing that special woman (with low self-esteem?), and lines like “get here before I fall asleep” bring the song back to the topic at hand. Still, it’s a very fun song, and it’s not the last one.

As is the grand Zevon tradition, The Wind features a love-lost serenade in the middle of the album. This particular one is called “She’s Too Good For Me”, and seems to be about a guy who suffers from guilt or poor self esteem or something, and leaves a relationship, citing that the girl is just too good for him. Interestingly, the song doesn’t seem to have an air of finality about it like the other songs have so far. In fact, a line of the song goes “I’d wait here for a thousand years, if she’d come back to me”, which is not typically the words that would come from someone who was supposed to be dead yesterday. Either way, the song has a nice mellow feel to it that keeps it sounding sweet but not too melancholy. It’s just a sad song, and what makes it even sadder is the addition of two of the Eagles: Don Henley, who you may remember me mentioning in the Johnny Cash American IV album as being the musical grim reaper, and Timothy B. Schmidt, who is actually a woman, don’t let the name and soul patch fool you. They provide some quite Eagles-esque backing vocal harmonies to the song, which is fine by me, honestly I think it’s cool that they came to hang out more than anything. Again, I just kind of hate the Eagles’ music is all.

As the first half of the album draws to a close, we’ve already covered a few topics that skirt around the issue that the person singing these songs is doomed, but none of them could be directly translated to that dire of a statement. “Prison Grove” can be, it’s about as much of an “I’m going to die” song as you can get without literally saying those words. The song is a minor key affair (the only one on the album, if you can believe it), and features some really haunting slide work, again by Ry Cooder. The words to the song are that of a prisoner on death row in a prison called, appropriately, Prison Grove:

An icy wind burns and scars
Rushes in like a fallen star
Through the narrow space
Between these bars
Looking down on Prison Grove

Dug in, hunkered down
Hours race without a sound
Gonna carry me to where I’m bound
Looking down on Prison Grove

Not only are the words dire and fatalist, but the whole army of backup singers that showed up for this session all hum along this very “Deathy” tune, like a funeral march or something. Still, Warren puts on a very brave face for his performance in this song, sending words of challenge against the crazy guitar lines that come in at the end, as if the guitar represented the coming of Death and Warren was taunting “Come on!” at it. Despite the somber tone of this song, which may be a bit much for some people, it’s the brave tone in Warren’s voice that makes it seem right, as if the man has no fear.

Of course, that tone changes dramatically for the next song. A very melancholy tune indeed, “El Amor De Mi Vida” opens with a piano part that has one of the most powerful tear-jerking chord movements in all of music: the minor 4th. Of course, the minor 5th is even worse, and if you can somehow combine the two, there won’t be a dry eye in the house, or you’re English and that’s just how you roll. Either way, the song is split between verses sung in English and the chorus, which is sung in Spanish by the man who helped write half of this album, Jorge Calderón. Zevon’s lines are that of someone who is both resigned to his fate of being alone and also regretful of words unspoken. It’s both touching and very clever that the words that Zevon regrets never being able to say are in another language, as if the character of the song is regretting not being able to say the perfect Spanish words simply because he doesn’t speak Spanish. Of course, this is an absurd take on the lyrics, but after hearing this album dozens of times, one tends to take more absurd meanings out of words. Speaking of meanings, the Spanish lyrics are translated thusly:

Tu eres el amor de mi vida (“You are the love of my life”)
Si solo te pudiera encontrar (“If only I could find you”)
Con todo el corazon te diria (“With all my heart I would tell you”)
Tu eres mi amor de verdad (“You are my true love”)

Man, what a song. It was kind of cool though, with my rudimentary understanding of Spanish, to have picked up on these lyrics without having to look it up the first time. Still, since it’s Spanish, the words just sound romantic without translation.

It’s about time to bring things back up, at least one more time. That job is left up to “The Rest Of The Night”, which is a song about Zevon partying his hardest. Of course, in keeping with the theme of the album, there is a sense of urgency to the song, though in any other context, it’s just the urgency of getting as much dancing done as possible while we still have the chance. This song represents an attitude that Zevon had nearly since the beginning, that life is a lot of fun:

Why stop now? Let’s party the rest of the night
Seven o’clock, Eight o’clock, Nine o’clock, Ten
You wanna go home? Why, Honey, when
We may never get this chance again?
Let’s party for the rest of the night

Of course, the party keeps on going until six, when Zevon recommends opening the “Bag of tricks”, so clearly he’s doing some serious partying (mind you, his bag of tricks at this stage of the game was doctor-prescribed). The song is light-hearted and fun, and Zevon even says “I’m starting to fall in love with you” which gives the sense that the character of the song is an older sentimental guy who has it all figured out and is trying to pick up the cutest young girl at the party. Mind you, what little I know of Warren Zevon makes this song seem awfully autobiographical (his girlfriend at the time was amazingly beautiful and looked to be in her 20’s). Another thing I like about this song is that it features a guitar hook between chorus and verse that is made up entirely of 2 notes, and of course is entirely catchy.

Now, while Zevon explores his idea of having fun with the time you have left in the world with the previous song, now things are taking a turn for the more sentimental. The song “Please Stay” is Zevon yearning, in all earnest, for his love to stay with him “Until the end, ’til there’s nothing left but you, and me, and the wind”. The song is an admission of a brief moment of honesty from someone who hides his feelings far too much (“Please stay, please stay, two words I never thought I’d learn to say”), and it’s a beautiful tune. To add to the beauty is the harmony work of none other than Emmylou Harris, who does a spectacular job singing the song with Warren. Also present is a stunning saxophone solo by Gil Bernal. By “stunning”, I mean that it’s a sax solo that’s actually really low key, which is perfectly appropriate for the song, and is thus directly against most sax players’ instincts. I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, but the very last note of the saxophone is allowed to die off until all that’s heard is the tuneless breath of the player, which always gave me a chill.

Now we come to the end of the album, where Warren has a few choice words for a few choice people. The penultimate track on this masterpiece is called “Rub Me Raw”, and “raw” is indeed the best word to describe what’s going on here. The song is a slow blues stomp with electric guitars and lots of attitude, especially from the slide guitar of one Joe Walsh of The Eagles (the only member I can consistently stand, purely for his guitar work and his rampant ridiculousness). Zevon throws out an apocryphal yet kickass tale of his plight:

I know these blues are gonna rub me raw
Every single cure seems to be against the law

Went and told my psychic
I said “Keep it to yourself,
I don’t wanna hear it
don’t be telling no one else”

Word’s out on the street
Whispers in the night
They come out of the woodwork
Wanna see what it’s like

Pickle-ickle-ickle
Gonna run that voodoo down
How the crowd gets fickle when your face is to the ground

Oh no, these blues is gonna rub me raw

Only the very best Blues songs mention Voodoo, so Warren was very astute in doing so. The line “How the crowd gets fickle…” is in reference to people’s responses to his announcement of his diagnosis. Apparently, in the months that followed, Warren did the “Thing you’re not supposed to do”, and checked up on various internet places where people were discussing him, and was shocked and disappointed at some of the things they were saying about him (welcome to the internet, Warren, it’s a sad old place). Specifically, people were misunderstanding his refusal to get treatment for his illness, as if dying quicker was some form of rebellion, like avoiding drowning by getting eaten by a shark. “That’s why he’s our hero”, Warren sneered sardonically, channeling his so-called “fans” on the documentary VH1 made of this album’s production. Indeed, “Rub Me Raw” addresses these people a couple of times, the next time is in the following lines:

Now I’m shaking all over
I’m a slatherin’ (?) mess
But I’m gonna sit up straight
I’m going to take it with class

Old man used to tell me “Son, never look back,
Move on to the next case, fold your clothes and pack”
To the green-horned-chicken-hoppers I say
“Get yourself a trade,
Or go back to the chat room and fade in the shade”

Oh no, these blues is gonna rub me raw

Essentially telling people on the internet to screw off might keep this album from being “timeless” (who even uses chatrooms anymore even now, 6 years later?), but I’m glad he decided to deflate those pretentious idiots, whoever they are. As Warren himself put it, “It’s a sin to not want to live”.

Each of these lines, by the way, are punctuated by the snarling slide guitar that, again, is a case of the perfect guitar part for the perfect song, and like in “Prison Grove”, Warren does not take this punishment lying down, in fact he commands “Rub me raw!” before one of the final guitar solos. What an amazing man.

Speaking of amazing, now we have finally arrived at the end of The Wind, and what awaits us, as a final word, is the sweetest, most genuinely gentle song I’ve ever heard: “Keep Me In Your Heart“. Built around a the simplest of chord progressions and in the people’s key of G, the song’s verses and choruses contain only one line of melody, and the rest of the focus is on the lyrics:

Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath
Keep me in your heart for a while
If I leave you, it doesn’t mean I love you any less
Keep me in your heart for a while

When you get up in the morning, and you see that crazy sun
Keep me in your heart for a while
There’s a train leaving nightly called “When all is said and done”
Keep me in your heart for a while

The lines are simple and beautiful, and each one is followed with the repetition of the song’s main line, which reminds me mostly of a liturgy in various Protestant churches, like a blessing almost. In fact, the chorus doesn’t need any further words, it’s merely “Sha la la la la la la la la li lo, keep me in your heart for a while”.

Sometimes, when you’re doing simple things around the house
Keep me in your heart for a while
You know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse
Keep me in your heart for a while

Clearly, though the audience may assume that Zevon is telling them to keep him in their hearts (which any fan will have done), this line makes it clear that he is talking to a specific woman, which gives the song not only a true meaning, but one that doesn’t disguise the fact that Warren is singing entirely about himself, not as a character, not as a half-truth, but he is saying good-bye in a very real way. The bridge changes the melody a bit:

Hold me in your thoughts, take me to your dreams
Touch me as I fall into view
When the winter comes keep the fires lit
And I will be right next to you

I really start to lose it around this part of the song, yet he continues:

Engine driver’s headed North to Pleasant Stream
Keep me in your heart for a while
These wheels keep turning, but they’re running out of steam
Keep me in your heart for a while

With that, a chorus, and a final line of “Keep me in your heart for a while”, the book is closed on The Wind. It’s very fortunate that Zevon was able to finish the album with this particular song, because the rest of the album had taken it completely out of him, so he had to take a couple of months off until he finally had the strength to perform that song, which incidentally is one of the first songs he wrote upon hearing of his condition.

With the songs completed, Warren had nothing left to do but wait around for the birth of his twin grandsons, and to see the newest James Bond film Die Another Day (what an appropriate title). Warren lived until 12 days after his album was released (outliving doctors’ predictions by about 9 months), and then he was gone on September 7th, 2003. Recognize that date? Yeah, that’s 5 days before Johnny Cash also passed on, so that was a very sad week for me, if I had been as aware of both artists as I am now. Sure, I often cite Johnny Cash as my favorite artist, even though many artists have claimed that top spot before, but until I hear otherwise, Warren Zevon will go down in my book as one of the only examples of getting an album perfectly right, and given his time restraints, his miraculous resilience, and just the overall quality of the music, I consider The Wind to be the best album ever made.

Of course, I despite the word “best”, but when one looks at all the albums that have competed for that top spot (see part of yesterday’s entry), one sees albums that are technically innovative, unique to their genre, perhaps even albums that change the way other artists make their albums forever, but does that make any one of them, in and of itself, the best album ever?

Here’s the thing about Warren Zevon: he is not an artist that vies for the top spot of anything, in fact he wouldn’t even consider himself a “rock” artist for the majority of his career. Warren Zevon was a particularly brilliant man, a genius actually, who lived life to its fullest, no matter if he was commercially successful or not, and created great music for us musically-minded people to enjoy for the cleverness and subtlety and various other appealing qualities that I have already gone over in my writeups for each of those albums, but when faced with a very real deadline that happened to be a large enough window to fit an album through, Warren Zevon succeeded in a dramatically unlikely way to create an album that, on top of being a success simply in defeating the improbable odds stacked against it, perfectly encapsulates the meaning behind the very concept of albums.

The reason in my mind for albums versus “singles”, which were the only thing going until long-playing albums started really taking off in the 50’s or some other impossibly long time ago, is that a long-playing album can bring together multiple songs that all work toward the same goal: to serve as a reminder of the period of time that it represents, and all the emotion surrounding it. It’s kind of like a photo album as well, it’s made of many pictures with the goal of showing you an experience made up of places and times rather than just a single picture. When I think of how much an album “works” as an album, that is practically the only criteria I apply. What experience does the album take you through, and does it do it smoothly and cohesively, or does it just drop you from place to place in a scattered and thoughtless way?

Thus, for two reasons, this album is the best. For one, it is put together so smoothly that the whole thing seems like one song, and yet each song is varied enough to be its own entity and not draw from the other songs other than the feel, the “cloud” of mortality that hangs over the whole thing. The second thing about this album is the actual subject matter.

Warren Zevon was not “lucky” to die at the age of 56 as much as any one of us are “lucky” to be alive at this moment. Death happens, and it has to happen, and though the people who are still alive see it as being terrible, the point is that we’re still alive to fear Death. You are alive until you’re dead, and the thing that was fortunate, at least for this album’s sake, is that Warren had his mind locked on the knowledge that his end was coming very soon, and that he could go in a second. Really, the same is true for any of us, but one of the great psychological defenses we collectively have is the ability to kind of forget that we’re all doomed. Warren brought it up early in his career and said it bluntly in Life’ll Kill Ya, but in The Wind, every nuance of the performances had the actual presence of that realization that life was going to kill Warren “soon”. Even the production of the album, with all of Warren’s friends coming and making these relatively simple songs that all sound like friends getting together and having one last laugh with their instruments, is not anything fancy in terms of production values, but each song sounds like the musicians are all saying their good-byes.

So perhaps it’s because neither the album nor Warren Zevon made a splash on all these publications that insist on claiming that they know what the best album ever should sound like, and are thus more able to relate to just ordinary people who love music and are taken in by Warren’s love of life and his ineffable charm and astounding wisdom and humility, that makes this album great. To work so hard and get it all right in the face of death itself, with an illness that goes straight for everything one needs to sing, and still pull off a genuine and worthy performance, all without studio tricks or fancy production or indulgent “farewell” speeches is even more astounding. All of that, coupled with Warren’s very real musical genius in which he could make so much out of such simple arrangements, and do it all with that devilish smirk and raised eyebrow of his, makes me feel like life is indeed worth living, and that we all very much should enjoy every sandwich. That’s what makes the best album of all time for me.

So there you have it, an unlikely hero has helped show me what these albums I love so much are really all about, and with that, I can now close the book on this year-long project. I thank each and every one of you for coming along with me on this ridiculous journey, and don’t go deleting your RSS feeds or anything just yet, because you’ll be hearing from me again soon. Until then, have a wonderful new year, and enjoy every sandwich.

Brian Wilson – Smile

I actually had another idea for this penultimate entry in the Album Du Jour project, but it kind of fell through, so instead I came up with an even better idea.

While we’re on the subject of albums, which if I’m not mistaken, we have been for the past entire year, we might as well talk about the most anticipated album of all time. No, not that terrible Guns N’ Roses album, I’m talking about an album made from a much larger, much better group that took 37 years, a mental breakdown, many solo albums and a total dissolution of one of the greatest bands in American history to make. I’m talking about Brian Wilson’s Smile:

When one looks at most “professional” choices for “The Best Album Ever Made”, you can nearly be guaranteed, especially if the professional is old enough, that the choice will have been made somewhere between 1966 and 1969. Indeed, 7 of the top 10, including the top 5 albums of all time in the reviled “Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Album Of All Time” were released within that 3 year period. It was a strong time for music, to say the least, with each of these artists who were actually alive during the birth of Rock N’ Roll in competition with each other to see who could create the greatest album ever made. Lavish studio productions, bizarre recording experiments to push the boundary of what could be done with the studio rather than the instruments, and of course, Bob Dylan just doing what he does, all (multiplied by very hard drugs) contributed to a golden era of truly epic albums. At the center of all this one-up-manship and acid-dropping was a little group from America called The Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys were a fine group of talented kids who harmonized their way straight to the top of the world in what I would consider the best case of “being in the right place at the right time” I’ve ever seen. As the “British Invasion” took over America in a way that King George III could only dream of, America needed a hero in the form of the greatest Rock N’ Roll band to ever climb out of the primordial ooze (then-known as Southern California) and sing about girls and cars and stuff. The Beach Boys, spear-headed by chubby yet lovable writer and singer Brian Wilson and his two brothers, the group hit it big early and kept hitting it big, so big in fact that the only thing to do at that point was to get totally high and make the best album ever made.

Pet Sounds is quite possibly the first example of the afore-mentioned one-up-manship wherein top bands compete in a wizards’ duel to see who could destroy the other with superior pop music. Brian Wilson, whose unusual studio techniques gave him the right and privilege to wear a hat that says “Genius” on it, conceived the idea of basically throwing crap-all into a studio album in order to one-up The Beatles’ fantastic Rubber Soul album, which The Beatles had created in order to beat the Holiday deadline for an obligatory “new Beatles album”.

Not to be out-done by these relatively loose-trousered Americans, The Beatles took a page from Pet Sounds and nearly destroyed themselves making Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which did quite well, as I recall (it’s considered by the Rolling Stones guys as the Greatest Album Ever Made so I guess that’s something).

While this was going on, Brian Wilson was busy taking acid and locking himself up in a studio day in and day out to make a follow up to Pet Sounds that would trump the album in every way. This album was to be called Smile.

His ultimate plan was to take many bits of extremely grand recorded music and splice them over each other until he had a symphony of Pop music on the level of those crazy Classical guys. Brian worked hard and worked others hard too (making a string section wear toy fireman’s hats during a recording of a song called “Fire”, for instance), all the while taking more drugs and growing ever more paranoid. Eventually, Brian broke down when he “realized” that his song about fires was causing actual fires to happen in town, and things just kind of went downhill from there.

A lot of things happened at that time that Wikipedia will be happy to tell you about if you’ve got several days, but basically, recording Smile is what broke Brian Wilson’s mind, exploding his “Genius” hat and causing irreparable splits in The Beach Boys, and things were never the same again. Interestingly, one of the factors I will mention is that Wilson heard The Beatles on the radio with their brand new single “Strawberry Fields Forever”, which was a song composed of smaller songs that had been spliced together. The shock of hearing The Beatles essentially ripping off his idea before he even got a chance to do it himself was pretty devastating, though ultimately funny since The Beatles were more inspired by Wilson’s technique than trying to horn in on his crazy territory.

Thus, Smile was canned, and Brian spent many years recovering from his depression and general craziness, and worked on many projects in the interim. Though I’m not quite sure what sparked it, in this very decade that we are now drawing to a close, Wilson decided to finish Smile and show those dirty The Beatles once and for all.

Finally, in 2004, Wilson released Smile. The follow-up to the greatest American album of all time finally arrived… and nobody cared.

Well, ok, somebody cared, the album reached a “pretty good” #13 on the American charts, and it’s the highest-rated album on Metacritic to date (though a usurper in the way of Stankonia by OutKast eyes it hungrily from the #4 spot), for whatever that’s worth.

Indeed, though the years have afforded Mr. Wilson all the time he needed to re-imagine his magnum opus, things might have turned out a lot differently had he actually released it in that sweet spot between ’66 and ’69. It’s really too bad, because the album is amazing. In this era of crap that can be tossed out by a single guitar and drum that wins Grammy’s because the artists are irresponsibly cool, it would have been nice for an album with this amazingly lush orchestration and mouth-to-the-floor astounding vocal harmony work to have gotten the credit it deserves. Mind you, it’s no Chinese Democracy in terms of failure, but it is proof that Rock has come a long way in 37 years. The escalating battles of who can add the most textures and obscure instruments and spend the most time and money in the studio is long over. Indeed, whereas Brian spent $50,000 on just one song (“Good Vibrations”, a song that makes me excited just to type its name out, it’s so good), today it’s considered more of an accomplishment to spend that much on an entire album and still have $20,000 left for pizza. Hell, to pull out a Theremin (the signature instrument on “Good Vibrations”) nowadays elicits eye-rolls and exasperated sighs from crowds nowadays (“ooh he’s got a Theremin that’s sooo original”).

Indeed, we’re an iPod-driven generation that pays little attention to what it takes to create art out of the sacred album format, and are much more interested in eating up the hit dance floor singles with a $2 bass hit and vocoders spewing out robotic hip-hop like it was going out of style (please God Almighty let it go out of style).

I absolutely adore Smile, even if it’s not exactly the original album that was shelved so many years ago, it at least stands as a testament that you can spend all the time and money in the world trying to create the world’s greatest album, but without the time period which you are trying to encapsulate with that album, you could lose it all to irrelevancy that comes hand-in-hand with the changing of the times.

Or… maybe it would have been better if Brian recorded the album in stereo?

Johnny Cash – American V: A Hundred Highways

I’m sure anyone who has read through this blog for any amount of time totally knew I was going to write about this album eventually. I have written about Johnny Cash more times than I care to count at this point, and I’m kicking myself slightly that I didn’t even write about some of his albums that I had wanted to write about. I knew, however, in my heart, that near the end of this project would be a writeup of one of my favorite albums of all time, Cash’s farewell from beyond the grave, American V: A Hundred Highways:

There is a very touching moment in the Johnny Cash’s America biography that came out fairly recently, in which one of his daughters (Cindy, I think) recalled watching Cash’s video for “Hurt” from American IV: The Man Comes Around with her father, and in a very upbeat way that sounds like it suited him greatly, he asked her “Well, what did you think?” Cindy, of course, was apalled at the powerful imagery of the elderly Johnny Cash, her father, and the images of his mother, his past life, and all of that were almost too much. She responded negatively that “It sounds like you’re saying good bye!”, to which Cash simply replied, “Well… I am.”

Indeed, Johnny Cash, with his newest best friend Rick Rubin, put together an album fully intended to be the final chapter in Cash’s musical story, but then something tragic and unexpected happened. June Carter Cash, the woman who stood by Cash’s side through all the hard times and near-death experiences he had gone through up to that point, the person he cared about more than anyone, died during a heart operation in 2003. When death was near, June told Johnny to keep on working, and according to Rick Rubin, as soon as June was gone Johnny told Rick to keep him working every single day, because if he stopped working, he too would die.

Thus began what artists half a century younger than Cash would consider a “grueling” recording schedule. In around four months after June’s passing, Johnny Cash recorded somewhere near 50 songs. Though he was no longer able to play much guitar on the recordings (that mantle being taken up by 8 or more of the musicians he’d been working with), and his voice was barely above a whisper for some of them, he was able to commit those songs to tape, work on compiling the Unearthed box set I dedicated 4 entries to covering, and submitted his selections for his Life compilation. On top of all that, he even played a couple of shows at the Carter Family Fold, which was his final public appearance. Finally, just when I’m sure he was planning on recording at least 3 more albums that year, Johnny Cash finally clocked out for good and went home to his wife on September 12th, 2003 (which is a date you should make note of for a future entry).

With Cash gone and Unearthed finished and out of the way, it was up to Rick Rubin to piece together a final-final-we-mean-it-this-time album of Cash’s music from those 50 or so recordings. Though I have no idea which of the songs Cash recorded didn’t make the cut, I do know that the songs that were selected for this album are stunning. The album, much like the album before it, dealt with the major themes in Johnny Cash’s music: Love, God, and death (“Murder” being the correct phrase but he doesn’t murder anyone in this album).

One thing that is entirely lacking in American V is the presence of contemporary pop songs that Cash would transform into covers that people are usually pretty polarized about. There’s no “Hurt” or “Rusty Cage” or “Desperado” to be found on this album, in fact I confess that I had never heard any of these songs before hearing this album, so you could have told me Cash wrote every one of them, and I would have been disappointed to find otherwise. In fact, Cash wrote two of the songs on this album, one of which was a long time ago, the other of which was the most recent.

The album starts, as some things do, with a prayer. A gentle acoustic guitar introduces the Larry Gatlin song “Help Me”, which is about the most humble piece of Christian music I think I’ve ever heard:

Oh Lord, help me to walk another mile, just one more mile
I’m tired of walking all alone
And Lord, help me to smile another smile, just one more smile
Don’t think I can do things on my own

I never thought I needed help before
Thought that I could get by by myself
But now I know I just can’t take it anymore
And, with a humble heart, on bended knee, begging you please
For help

At that point, a deep, powerful cello swells underneath the song, only to drop out after the chorus as Cash whispers the next verses. I feel the cello is profound in this particular song because it lends that profound depth to the bare guitar that serves as the only other instrument, but it also helps to highlight the fraility and honesty of Cash’s singing in this song. In the hands of any other singer, the words up there would sound pretty standard and possibly insincere if given too much production. When Johnny Cash, knocking on Death’s door, sings those lines and audibly struggles to produce enough air to take on that long line that ends with the word “Please”, it comes out with so much earnest longing that it will bring a logger to tears if he’s not careful. A chilling start to the album, and one that definitely seperates it from the upbeat rockin’ of something like Unchained.

While the album is on the subject of God, now that the album has started things off with the redemption, it’s now time for some good old-fashioned evangalism. Cash plays preacher for a track called “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”, which started off as an eerily peppy Gospel number, but whether it was planned by Cash or entirely the idea of Rick Rubin, the song is now put into a pounding old-time blues stomp, in a minor key and led by the stomping of feet and clapping of hands to provide the beat. Cash’s vocals are suprisingly strong in this particular song, and whether you believe that God will cut you down for your wrongdoing or not, there’s no denying that Cash believes it. His conviction is unwavering, and that makes me very glad that he’s on my side.

It should be a while before I see Dr. Death
So it would sure be nice if I could get my breath
Well I’m not the crying nor the whining kind
Until I hear the whistle of the 309

One of the surprises in this album is “Like The 309”, which is another bluesy number, in a minor key, with a playful air and some unusual lyrics indeed. Of course, this is one of the songs that was written by Cash himself, and was in fact the last song he ever wrote. In the grand Cash tradition, it’s a train song, specifically, a ghost train, or whatever you want to call it. The song is actually pretty fun and intriguing, to be honest, I wish I could write a song this cool.

Next we have a song by Gordon Lightfoot, called “If You Could Read My Thoughts”, which is a tragic little song about lost love that features some brilliant songwriting by an artist about which I know next to nothing. Still, Johnny’s vocals are especially weak on this song, but that takes nothing from the performance, as it’s still a song you can absolutely picture Johnny Cash living.

One of the more recently written songs that Cash covers for this album is Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On Up The Road”, which is another tale of death, represented as Cash taking a journey with his lucky graveyard boots, smiling skull death ring, and other fancy metaphors. The song is, once again, in a minor key, but is undeniably a solid tune, and is actually a bit of a favorite in the set for me.

People who don’t like to weep bitterly through music should heed the following warning about the next song: it was written by Hank Williams and is especially sad for a Hank Williams song. Yeah, having heard over 100 of Williams’ songs, there isn’t one I can think of (not even “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”) that can hold a candle to the sadness of “On The Evening Train”. I have heard the song a hundred million times, and even as I listen to it right now, my eyes are getting misty. Especially given the recent loss of Cash’s, this song will floor you, and I don’t even want to tell you why. If you dare to listen to it, go right on ahead, I’ll be over here with box of Kleenex for you.

Putting death behind for a while and bringing God back into the picture (as if He even left), Cash presents his second original, “I Came To Believe”, which I believe was written was written at some point in the 80’s, I actually can’t remember at this point. Either way, the song reflects much of the same attitude of “Help Me”:

I couldn’t manage the problems I laid on myself
And it just made it worse when I laid them on somebody else
So I finally surrendered it all, brought down in despair
I cried out for help, and I felt a warm comforter there

And I came to believe in a power much higher than I
I came to believe that I needed help to get by
In child-like faith, I gave in and gave Him a try
And I came to believe in a power much higher than I

Curses, now I’m getting all misty-eyed again. This album is heavy stuff, man.

Nothing worked out when I handled it all on my own
And each time I failed, it made me feel twice as alone
And I cried “Lord, there must be a sure and easier way
For it just cannot be that a man should lose hope every day”

Jeeze! I can’t handle this, I am writing the rest of this thing with a bowl of ice cream.

Now that I have my ice cream, I am ready to talk about the next song, “Love’s Been Good To Me”. This song, like a pint of Cookies N’ Cream, serves as kind of a break from the bittersweet feel of the rest of the album with a sweet little diversion in the form of a reflective song about a life well-lived. It’s a happy little song, but the next song is miles better.

Yes, “A Legend In My Time”, a title that un-ironically suits Johnny Cash, yet the song, if you remember Roy Orbison singing it, is sung from a different perspective. Everything I said about this song as handled by Mr. Orbison applies here, only the arrangement is a little different, and Cash does a spoken-word version half way through that is pretty great too. I just love this song, heck I might cover it myself someday.

“Rose Of My Heart” is another sweet love song, only this one is also devastating to those brought down to a wimpy emotional constitution by the rest of this album, damn it all.

We then get another song that’s a bit of a favorite of mine, called “Four Strong Winds”. Written by someone I’ve never heard of and covered probably most famously by Neil Young, Cash’s version is excellent, even if it seems unlikely that Cash would be going to Canada for some quick work, but that just goes to show what I know because this is one of a long line of Cash songs that have to do with Canada. Either way, what I love about this song is that there is no presence of death, the song is about moving on with life after heartache and that is so necessary at this point in the album, because one has to have that idea of life continuing on for the album to proceed, elsewise it just becomes a dirge. There’s a life inherent in music, even when the topic is death, so this song kind of represents that to me, a look to the future whereas all the other songs simply deal with the past. In fact, “Four Strong Winds” is a powerful example of this, but the ultimate example makes up the final track of this album.

Johnny Cash had recorded the song “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now” a little over 40 years previous on his aptly-named The Sound Of Johnny Cash, which was the same album of origin for the song “Delia’s Gone”, which serves as the other bookend to Cash’s entire American Recordings career. The fact that this album, and by proxy, the career of Johnny Cash, is ended with this particular song is a stroke of absolute genius. If you think about it, Johnny Cash has never served hard time in prison, but he sings song after song about being a prisoner, and he never murdered anybody, yet his songs all deal with that most horrid of sins. When one looks at the truth behind the fiction of song, “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now” finally reveals, to whomever wishes to look, that Johnny Cash’s prison was his own mortal body, and the crimes against it that he committed had him serving a life of pain and darkness, even in the brightest light. The man who started nearly 10 years previous going to jail for murdering a “low down and triflin'” woman called Delia in his first American Recordings album is now free from the chain gang. Neither of these two songs meant much of anything when Cash boomed them out with all the youthful vitality of a lad of 30, but here in his final days, they have both, in their own way, represented for Cash the ultimate redemption in song.

And, with that, the book on Johnny Cash is closed. With the success of American IV and the attention brought to The Man In Black by his death nearly 3 years previous, American V went straight to number 1 upon its release, the first Johnny Cash album to do so since At San Quentin (which is, incidentally, the first album we covered on this blog). Of course, not to take things too seriously, the album also holds the record for being the poorest selling number 1 record ever, so apparently it was a slow week all around.

I’m not sure I can even recommend this album to anybody that doesn’t already love Johnny Cash. It is by far the most powerful album in his entire catalog as far as maintaining an emotional hold on whoever lets it, and though “Hurt” was a grand undertaking, it does not nearly affect me as much as the songs on American V, which I feel are closer to home for Cash than the more unusual stuff. Still, the great strength of Johnny Cash was never his booming voice, the instrumentation, the songs he sang or even the songs he wrote, but his ability to make you feel the songs, to make them his own, and to put all of his love into each one. To hear Johnny Cash’s music, at its best, even when Cash is not at his performing best, is to make a heart-to-heart connection with someone you’ve never met, but is so familiar you could swear he was there the whole time. It’s a bit like religion, I suppose, except you can dance to it.

Thanks again for reading all of these thoughts of mine on my favorite artist, even if I may have repeated things about him dozens of times, I guess I never get tired of talking about it.

Mike Doughty – Haughty Melodic

Let’s take a break from the writeups about death and stuff and instead talk about ideas like second births. In my little world of music, there are hardly any more striking examples of musical re-invention than that of Mike Doughty, former lead singer of “deep slacker jazz” group Soul Coughing, who went from fronting the most legitimately “cool” band ever to have an entirely unique sound, while himself being fronted by heroin use, to being the cleaned-up, middle-aged solo acoustic troubadour who is buddy-buddy with the stalest, most lifeless musician this side of John Mayer: Dave Matthews.

Believe it or not, in both capacities Mike Doughty is the bomb-diggity, and I’ve waited 362 entries to use that retarded phrase, so let’s talk about one of his recent albums, Haughty Melodic:

It’s kind of hard for me to state at this point that I find Doughty’s drug-feuled Soul Coughing days to be the highest point of his career (eh heh heh, “highest”), but I do find myself more frequently running back to my Soul Coughing albums after hearing one of Doughty’s solo albums. It took me almost this entire year to figure out why, but now the answer seems so simple: heroin is awesome.

Not really, I think the reason that I enjoyed Soul Coughing so much is not because of Mike Doughty, but because Soul Coughing, to me, is the booming yet eloquent drumming of Yuval Gabay combined with the god-like upright bass playing of the godly-named Sebastian Steinberg. The sample-heavy noise and Doughty’s rhythmic stream of spoken/sung non sequitors was more of another instrument, to be enjoyed rather than analyzed.

When Soul Coughing broke up at the beginning of this crappy decade, Doughty finally kicked the horse and started writing straight songs. Of course, Doughty is a better songwriter than most, with an especially keen sense of very specific imagery (one must be up on one’s brand names, for instance). In that sense, he’s a very literary songwriter, and the lack of a band really showcases that. Another thing that changed was his voice; by the time Haughty Melodic rolled around, his voice was still the nasally growl that tended to drop the pitch of a note at the end of every line (the opposite of a lot of indie acts who prefer to raise the pitch, as if asking a question), but now he’s singing notes, protracted ones, even!

The thing that was hinted at but never fully realized except in brief moments with Soul Coughing is that Doughty is a master of carving out a melody that will stick with you forever without having to try so hard. Perhaps it’s his signature singing style, but I can tell you that I know every hook of Haughty Melodic and almost none of the words, so that’s saying something I suppose.

When Doughty went out on his own to continue making music, he was, for the most part, literally on his own. From writing and recording all of the songs by his lonesome to driving himself and a guitar to all his gigs, where he personally sold 20,000 copies of his albums in the form of CD-Rs with paper sleeves, it would seem as if Doughty was a truly “independent” artist… until you realize that he was actually depending on fans he already had with Soul Coughing, but that’s neither here nor there.

Eventually, Mike ran into another musician who goes by the name of Dave Matthews. Now, don’t ask me why, but Dave Matthes is a rich and famous musician who is a big fan of Doughty’s. Upon finding out about his truly “solo” career, Dave invited Mike to finish the album he was working on at the time at his ATO studio. Doughty did so, and enlisted a full band, and that’s the album you see before you.

I suppose what I like best about the album, besides that Haughty Melodic is an anagram for “Mike Doughty”, is the string of hits that start it off. The first song is something called “Looking At The World From The Bottom Of A Well“, and despite being mainly composed of two chords, is a surprisingly “full” sounding song thanks to the stack of guitars and other band sounds that appear. Besides the chorus, which kind of gives this idea that it’s about drug-kicking, the lyrics don’t make a whole lot of sense, but the melody is so infectious that I dare you not to sing it to yourself after seeing that video.

The same can be said about “Unsingable Name”, which is already a clever idea to build a song around. I am hopelessly curious what name is a “sweet and plain unsingable name”, but the song never lets on. It does say things like “I want to be your absolute ultimate”, which, despite being a straight phrase, is something that’s very Doughty for him to say.

There are some other interesting moments on the album too, there’s a rather sparse song called “White Lexus” about the eschewing of fancy goods and introducing confused Soul Coughing fans to the perplexing sound of a steel guitar backing up Mike Doughty. That is followed immediately by a second car song (no surprise, cars have been a frequently-visited theme in Doughty’s songwriting for ages now) called “American Car” which is more of a celebratory thing. I guess this album is against Japanese cars or something? Who knows.

There is a protest song called “Bustin’ Up A Starbucks” that is kind of great, even if I happen to be fond of that particular coffee place. Unfortunately, I have yet to clearly understand just what is being protested in the song, something about trade I guess. I’m kind of dumb with these movements.

“His Truth Is Marching On” is kind of an odd one, because I never thought Mike Doughty would be the type to do a straight Christian song. In that way that makes Doughty so unique, even in the face of such standard tunes, is that this is also the first Christian song I’ve heard that drops the f-bomb. How my love for this guy grows and grows.

Doughty released another album after this one called Golden Delicious, and between these two albums, I had been wanting to write about Doughty’s solo stuff since January, which explains why this album isn’t anything profound or special, but I am writing about it at the last minute. Haughty Melodic is definitely worth a shot, even if Dave Matthews was involved.

Nick Drake – Time Of No Reply

I didn’t think I would be speaking about Nick Drake again, since I had written about all three of his studio albums, and had intentionally steered away from speaking too much about his demise. Indeed, as I looked at what would be the final set of albums that I would write about in this project, a lot of them have to do with death, and I hate to be morbid, but death fascinates me just enough that I felt compelled to talk about this compilation. Time Of No Reply effectively serves as Drake’s “final” album, as it contains the last songs he ever recorded:

Of course, in a way, there is no “final” album from the infamous quiet poet Nick Drake. For sure, the man recorded one of the most beautiful albums ever, Pink Moon, in the throes of a depression too severe to be romanticized as something one can easily escape unscathed (though many have tried to apply this non-logic to their conjecture about Drake’s mental condition). Given the album’s outlook, which lyrically paints a brighter picture than the darker tones of his guitar, it’s easy to find an artist who is troubled, but the album is not a soundtrack to a suicide. When one takes a look at the text of songs that made up the final session, wherein five songs were recorded, the line had been crossed, and we see less of an artist turning his troubles into art, but more of a haggard soul calling for help. Were he given the opportunity to finish these songs, I’m fully convinced that it would have been the second  coming of Rezso Seress and his “song of death” that caused people to jump out of windows in despair (or, more logically, simply served as the soundtrack to people who were going to jump anyway).

Still, Drake never finished this mysterious fourth album, as he was far too dead soon after the recording session. Found in his bedroom at his parents’ house, into which he had withdrawn after running out of money and interest in seeing any more people, he had ingested 30 pills of Thorazine, which is far more than the doctor’s typical recommended dosage. To this day, nobody knows whether it was an accident or suicide, his family, friends, and various people who knew him all had differing theories as to his intentions. No matter what the cause, the end result was half an album of nearly unusable material, three amazing albums, and nobody to listen to any of it.

Part of this was Drake’s unwillingness to perform, which many have attributed to his disease. Indeed, there are many recollections of him willingly and eagerly performing before his resounding lack of success either coincided with or fed off of his depression, but once he became the withdrawn recluse that history will always paint him as, even an offer to only record a “BBC Session” which would be televised and could effectively replace his need to promote himself with gigs would be met with a quiet lack of enthusiasm. In this way, I can’t blame anybody for not getting Drake out there, because everybody who heard Nick’s music, based on its own merit, would fall in love with it. I will always be the first to deny that people’s love for him was born out of the tragedy of his passing; instead I believe that his music stands by its own merits of quality, and even if Nick had only one album, that album would mean something to people who were able to find it. Instead, the ultimate result of Nick’s passing away was that there is a frustrating lack of more of his music.

For reasons I don’t care to explain, there has never and will never be an artist who can create what Nick has done, and anyone who claims to embody his spirit are the ultimate in egregiousness. Elliott Smith, of whom I have very intentionally neglected to mention in this blog, is usually cited as an artist who is very similar to Drake, which I guess is only about as accurate as your definition of “similar”, I mean they’re both dead, that’s about all I can see.

Anyway, given all that, I don’t think it’s as unlikely as people think that Nick’s story would not end with his death, and in fact would begin over 10 years after. When a number of inferior but nonetheless morose artists rose through the pop ranks and cited Nick as their shining beacon, suddenly people became interested, and what Nick had committed to tape so many years ago was suddenly seeing a bit of demand. Island Records saw this, and in 1986, threw together the compilation you might have forgotten us talking about today. In the original incarnation of the Fruit Tree box set, all three of Drake’s albums were released, and Time Of No Reply served as a catch-all for the unreleased bits that were of enough quality to be put out there for the cult of new fans.

The first part of the album comprises songs that were recorded around the 1968 sessions that would make up Five Leaves Left. The first, “Time Of No Reply”, is a song that I feel would have been a great mid-album piece for Drake’s first album as a replacement for “The Thoughts Of Mary Jane”. Of course, that’s neither here nor there, it’s a peaceful song in a major key that occasionally breaks into a bit of a minor key deviation at the end of the chorus, and the lyrics are fairly typical of Drake: a portrait of Autumn and an element of mystery surrounding the “time of no reply” wherein first the singer tries to reach out to the crowds of people who pass him by, and when left alone, stays perpetually in said time and thus doesn’t talk to anyone. The lyrics don’t hide very much, but the theme is interesting enough to at least to nod your head in silent affirmation. That’s how I picture it anyway.

The second song is rather interesting to me. It’s a very minor-key arrangement called “I Was Made To Love Magic”, which is perhaps a song about Drake’s lofty expectations of people that seem to be at the core of his loneliness:

I was born to love no-one
No-one to love me
Only the wind and the long, green grass
The frost in a broken tree

I was made to love magic
All its wonder to know
But you all lost that magic
Many, many, many years ago

The rhythmic version on this particular album has a strange sort of parlor-esque feel to it, and the sudden major key switch for the first line of the chorus makes for an unusual melody that seems almost goofy at times, but it’s still a charming song. Interestingly, a version came out recently on the compilation album of the same name that features all but a different vocal take stripped away and replaced with a new all-string arrangement that includes the likes of John Cale and some other musicians I vaguely recognized. Thanks to the post-2000 interest in Drake’s work, it actually charted as a single for the first time in Drake’s history, posthumous or not.

“Joey” is a song that, in all honesty, feels a bit like a throwaway. Its tune is like a poor man’s “Day Is Done”, and it’s full of intentional contradictions. Having said that, it’s easily 12 times better than everything I’ve heard from Elliott Smith, so take from that what you will. The same, by the way, can be said for “Clothes Of Sand”, which follows this song, but is a jump in quality at least for the more interesting subject matter. What does he mean by clothes of sand? What a poet.

The middle section of the album is mainly comprised of alternate takes of songs that did appear in albums, “Fly”, “The Thoughts Of Mary Jane”, and “Man In A Shed” are all from either home recordings, or in the case of “Mary Jane”, an alternate studio version featuring the only acoustic folk guitarist I would place up there with Nick as far as playing ability goes, Richard Thompson, on an electric guitar that at least fits better than the flute that wound up on the finished song.

Another tune that sits in the middle of the album is “Mayfair”, which is kind of a jazzy march that I really would have liked to see fully realized. It’s as jaunty of a tune as Drake ever wrote, and the lyrics are a little more direct than in most of his songs, making it all the more fascinating in a way.

We’re then given some more home recordings, this time of much lower fidelity, as they were recorded on the Drake Family’s tape recorder. One of the songs, “Been Smoking Too Long”, is an old blues song warning against wasting your life away by being a stoner. It might be slightly ironic that Drake would record such a fine version of this song (unfortunately he never recorded it in a studio so we’re stuck with a very disagreeable-sounding tape source) since he spent a good portion of his brief life smoking pot like one of the protagonists of the hit film Reefer Madness. At least the lyrics in this song are entirely true, since they don’t mention anything about going incurably insane or anything.

The second home recording is an equally skillful minor-key blues song called “Strange Meeting II”. If you’re wondering what happened to “Strange Meeting I”, you should check out Family Tree, an entire album of cobbled-together songs from the same tape recorder, including two done by Nick’s mother, who was clearly his biggest influence.

Finally, we come to the final four songs, recorded on that fateful day in 1974. Despite the desperate nature of a few of these songs, the first one in the set stands out as one of my very favorite Nick Drake songs. It’s called “Rider On The Wheel” and it doesn’t appear to be about much that isn’t hidden deep within the meaning behind whatever it is a “Rider On The Wheel” is:

And now you know my name
But I don’t feel the same
But I ain’t gonna blame
The rider on the wheel

And now my song is new
You know it’s new for you
I’ll tell you how it’s true
For the rider on the wheel

The relatively simple guitar melody (I say simple because, unlike the majority of Drake’s songs, *I* can actually play it) is one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard, and yet it flows so naturally in what is essentially a standard folk song. This song also stands as the least rough of the final four, though an alternate recording on Made To Love Magic has a prominent mistake wherein Drake forgot some of the words and just mumbled through, poor guy.

“Black Eyed Dog” is one of the hardest songs for me to hear by any artist. Much like the vocal performance from one of my other favorite songwriters, Warren Zevon, on his album Life’ll Kill Ya, the vocals in this song are set way too high and Nick can barely reach them without breaking. As I understand, the difference between this final set of recordings and the sessions that produced Drake’s three albums, believe it or not, is that he’s actually depressed while recording in this album. Of course, since Drake is painted as a perpetually depressed loner by all other reports, one would think that the depression would be obvious, but one thing that I have learned and Drake has been known to report: it’s impossible to write or get a good musical performance  in the midst of depression. Given the haggard condition of Drake at the time he committed himself to these recordings, the weakness of his voice in this particular song make it nearly unbearable for those sensitive to that sort of thing. For sure, “Black Eyed Dog”, which incidentally is a metaphor for depression if Drake is indeed taking the Winston Churchill saying to heart, that depression is like a black dog that follows you around, is only an occasional listen for me.

“Hanging On A Star” is another song that borders on indulgent, as it’s Drake directly challenging the powers that be regarding his status as a financially unappreciated genius. There is an alternate version to this song on Made To Love Magic that is built on a deep, dark arpeggio rather than the strumming in this version, but both are really lovely songs. The lyrics are sparse and not at all hard to figure out, given the context:

Why leave me hanging on a star
When you deem me so high?

Why leave me sailing in a sea
When you hear me so clear?

Indeed, Drake’s frustration is well-founded, at least in his state of mind. Here were all of these people who were supposed to be concerned for the well-being of his career, calling him a genius and him not seeing a penny for it. Indeed, such an attitude can happen to the best of us, so I appreciate this song both for its quality and its honesty.

Finally, the parting song is “Voice From The Mountain”, which wraps tightly its true meaning behind veiled imagery and a fairly pleasing folk tune. It’s hard to know exactly what Nick meant by most of the words in this particular song:

Voice from the mountain
And voice from the sea
Voice from in my neighbourhood
And a voice calling me
Tell me my friend, my friend
Tell me with love
Where can it end, it end
Voice from above

The song seems to be Drake once again calling out to whomever will listen, asking for a change, for something to end. Whether it be his depression, the voices he hears, or his own life, something must end, but there is a calmness to this song that adds another layer to the enigma. One verse particularly stands out to me:

Tune from the hillside
And tune full of light
A flute in the morning
And a chime in the night
I know the game again
I know the score
I know my name, my name
But this tune is more

“I know my name, but this tune is more”, words that Nick would ultimately prove with his passing. It’s almost eerie how well Nick predicted his future, almost as if he were a benevolent spirit of music visiting us fleetingly, just long enough to leave behind enough material to lend something of substance to those of us with a love and curiosity for music with which to question the very nature of music. Of course, the true story isn’t nearly as grand and mystical, but the feeling one gets from listening to Nick Drake’s ethereal voice with his mastery over a seldom-heard style of guitar playing is such that the idea is not without plausibility in the imagination. That quality of art is not something one can just listen to and replicate, which is frustrating in two ways. For one, the material we have is all we’ll ever have of Nick Drake’s entirely unique music, and for two, there will likely never be a second person to fill those shoes. The key is, of course, to enjoy what we have for what it is, and stop dwelling of what could have been. Thanks for reading, though.

Leonard Cohen – Dear Heather

First off, I’d like to thank the Bob Dylan website expectingrain.com for plugging yesterday’s entry as the top news item of today. That was pretty swell, and brought me a lot of views, which confirms my suspicion that I should have written about Dylan long ago.

Well, today we’re not talking about Bob Dylan, but if there were ever a folk singer and craftsman of song that was just as worthy of attention, it’s Leonard Cohen, and today, in what will surely seem like a theme by the end of the week, we are talking about his newest album Dear Heather:

Reading what other people have to say about this album, released in 2004 when Cohen was only 70 year old, are upsetting to say the least. This album is widely toted as Cohen’s attempt at a “final” album, but in fact he’s still around, and though this is his most recent studio album, he has been plenty busy since its release what with lawsuits and world-wide tours and all.

Mainly, I’m upset that this album can’t be taken by its own merit, instead being dressed up in this attempt by other people to “totally call it” just in case Leonard Cohen doesn’t live to record another album. Such behavior compels me to paraphrase what Leonard said in a recent interview, in which he said he does not fear death, only the preliminaries.

I guess one of those preliminaries is to have people watching every move you make and wrapping a pretense of mortality around it. Indeed, it’s easy to do so, as I have said before, the afore-mentioned Johnny Cash (in his typically prolific way) had at least 4 or 5 “farewell” albums before passing on, and one of those, along with another very important farewell album, is coming up soon on this very blog. Cohen’s album, I feel, is different. It’s not as much an album that deals with the eventual loss of Leonard Cohen to the world, but a fond farewell from Cohen himself to others in the life he’s so richly lived.

The album starts, interestingly enough, with a Lord Byron poem set to jazzy music (“jazzy” is the theme of the album’s music and is hardly deviated from, so I’ll try to avoid the adjective). Amid very pretty female backing vocals and a wailing saxophone, “Go No More A-Roving” paints a picture of settling down in old age, the line “the night was made for loving, and the day returns too soon, so we’ll go no more a-roving, by the light of the moon” pretty much says it all.

In fact, there are a few songs in this set that were written by other people, which is something of a rarity from Leonard Cohen, given his astounding songwriting talents. Still, he can sure pick ’em, as there is a spoken poem half-way into the album called “Villanelle For Our Time”, which was written by F.R. Scott (a teacher of Cohen’s), which will send chills down your spine, in fact the definitely-cheesy jazz in the background (featuring a Casio keyboard solo) kind of serves as an antidote to the severity of Cohen’s delivery. As kind of an odd surprise, at the end of the album, Cohen threw in a live recording of a song called “The Tennessee Waltz”, a wonderful Country song written in the 40’s, to which Cohen even added a verse or two.

Indeed, the album is a little bit scattered, which reminds me somewhat of Recent Songs or one of Cohen’s other post-folkie albums. Though there’s no mistaking the sound of his voice or the quality of his songwriting, there’s also no clear answer to the question “What the hell is up with the title track?” Indeed, “Dear Heather” ranks up there with “Jazz Police” and the entire Death Of A Ladies Man in terms of being the most unusual thing Leonard Cohen’s ever recorded. Featuring a whirling organ playing a kind of jig that seems to belong in a circus, Cohen states in a monotone voice:

Dear Heather
Please walk by me again
With a drink in your hand
And your legs all white from the winter

With a backing voice singing, also in monotone, two octaves above Cohen’s bass vocals. The result is that Leonard sounds a lot like a robot, and by the constant repetition of the above lines (which are all the words in this song) recited sporadically, one gets the idea that someone typed this into a computer and had the computer read it back. The even weirder thing is that, occasionally and with no warning, some of the words are spelled out instead of said. So strange.

Right after that, we get the song “Nightingale”, which features 4 part harmony, two vocals by Cohen’s backup singers, and two by the man himself (featuring his oft-neglected standard baritone range). The song is something like an old hymn set to a quiet shuffle, and is impossibly beautiful, at least until the Jew’s Harp solo, which contains its own ragged beauty that I suppose is Leonard reminding everyone who’s song this is.

Another poem recital occurs just after that, with Leonard reciting a poem he wrote and placed into a book back in the 60’s called “To A Teacher”. It was written for A.M. Klein, who was another mentor for Cohen. In it, and actually in a lot of places on this album, if you have nice enough headphones you can hear the whirring of electronics all around, as Leonard recorded this album entirely in a home studio owned by Sharon Robinson (a collaborator and probably frequent fling of his since the 80’s), so one can detect where the voice had been clicked in and out of the mix, and all of that is rather telling of just how quietly Leonard sings these songs. Indeed, though the man can still project, his preferred tone is an ethereal whisper that sinks impossibly low into the bass vocal range, and honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The most noteworthy song on this collection is most likely the second track, “Because Of”, wherein Cohen repeats often the lines:

Because of a few songs
Wherein I spoke of their mystery
Women have been
Exceptionally kind to my old age
They make a secret place
In their busy lives
And they take me there, they become naked
In their different ways
And they say,
“Look at me, Leonard
Look at me one last time.”
Then they bend over the bed
And cover me up
Like a baby that is shivering.

Which is a little more of an admission than most artists would make, but knowing Leonard Cohen’s long and storied history with women (let’s just say he’s prolific in his own way), this is a song that has got to be 100% true and certainly he has earned it. Just look at the video and tell me that’s not a man that has won the battle against depression, man I would not be surprised if he lived into his 90’s or 190’s.

A few less scandalous and more sentimental notes in the album are in his songs “On That Day”, where he laments the tragedy of 9/11, and his more serious treatment of his past loves in “The Letters”, chronicling an undying flame burning letters from a dead relationship.

Indeed, this album could possibly be the final album from Leonard Cohen, because he hasn’t put out another studio album yet and thus anything is possible, but this album is enjoyable not because of its status as an icon’s late work, but because it puts out its own light as a really good album. Yeah there are recording hiccups here and there, but the soul is still there, and I only hope Cohen continues on and creates more albums until he finds one that is a way to say goodbye.

Bob Dylan – Christmas In The Heart

Bob Dylan, at least in my eyes, is an institution. I have never heard a single album or even full song by the man*, and I could not recall a single line of music he has ever done, unless it’s something that’s been covered by someone else, yet I know exactly what his voice sounded like in all his various eras, I know his history as the reluctant hero of the musical protest era of the 60’s, and I know that he is the most respected songwriter, comma, period. That was an incredible run-on sentence, and I knew I couldn’t let this wondrous Christian holiday without talking about the god-damned Bob Dylan Christmas album, also known as Christmas In The Heart, also also known as holy crap what is this:

I suppose before I undertake what will undoubtedly be a rather sparse writeup of the actual music contained herein, I should make a few admissions. For one, I hate Christmas music. It’s not that I don’t love Christmas, I think it’s a nice holiday despite the expensive gift exchange that brings about a month of retail hell on earth, but there’s something about the music that just bothers me. There are only a few pieces of music I can think of that only have occasional business being heard by anyone; the “Death March” by Handel (or the 3rd Movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35) for funerals, Pachelbel’s “Canon In D” for graduations (or the more popular “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” by Pachelbel protégé Greenday) for graduations, and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” for when you want to commit a drug-fueled suicide in the bathtub. So yes, there’s a song for every occasion, but the thing about Christmas is that it has thousands of songs for just one occasion which amounts to mainly eating oneself into a coma after receiving gifts that somehow always seem to be worth about half of what you gave out, all while burning enough electricity on lighting houses and trees to power all those villages in Africa we keep hearing about, all with a sort of bastardized, commercially sterilized version of vague spiritual back-patting, all the while making sure not to offend people who don’t believe in the same Christmas Tree (sorry, “Holiday” Tree, right?)

So yeah, Christmas is fun but is generally meaningless except to serve as a cultural institution that reminds us that it’s “that time of year again”. In that way, Christmas and Bob Dylan are very similar, except one contains a lot more booze and used to actually be relevant. I will leave it up to you to decide which.

I really can not fault Bob Dylan for wanting to make a Christmas album. After all, his contemporaries have all done Christmas albums (heck, Johnny Cash did at least three), and Bob Dylan tends to bring with him a touch of class, no matter how goofy the idea is, and certainly a prominent Jew singing about the birth of Jesus is already stacking the odds against our aging songster. Still, Dylan is undeterred, after all, he claims to have grown up with the music, and songs speak louder than sense to our man, so onward he presses.

I picked up this album and began listening to it and indeed it is a treasure. Being someone who’s not particularly into Dylan and especially against Christmas music, I still found a lot to love here. For one, the instrumentation is lovely, and I mean that in all seriousness. Aside from the cheesy use of bells of the church and reindeer variety (the oldest Christmas cliche), the music is kind of a blend of old-style Country and the “less is more” sensibility of contemporary folk music. Songs like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is colored by clean, reverby jazz guitar chords and piano, with the drums set to “brushes”, with some angelic background singers. Then we have Bob Dylan singing.

It seems unfair to talk about this album without talking about Bob Dylan’s singing. Again, being totally opposite a fan of Dylan as what I am of Johnny Cash, I know next to nothing about the man or what life has done to him, but I will tell you that it has left him with a voice that sounds something like a chainsaw perpetually trying to start, and he has a lot of the same intonations, too. I will admit, even as someone who appreciates “off” singing, it is next to impossible for me to take this kind of music seriously when Dylan’s got a voice that would make Harvey Fierstein stop and offer him a cough drop. It should thus be no surprise that this is my very favorite Christmas album, not just for its sheer impossibility, but because Dylan’s earnest, straight-forward, and absolutely ridiculous performance is the antidote to everything that currently upsets me about Christmas.

This whole focus on clean-cut consumerism that has ruined the holiday and turned the month of December into a perpetual joke is only getting worse as times go by and the economy gets worse. Maybe it’s my 5 solid years of retail selling that has opened my eyes to this, but it really is a problem. From literally the day after Thanksgiving, when we’re all parked outside of stores waiting for cheap laptops and “early bird” deals, to the day after Christmas when we’re sluggishly cleaning up decorations (or leaving them there until August, why not), the entire month just runs on auto-pilot. We have twice as much traffic, often twice as much work to do, and try as you might, you can not escape the Christmas music. It’s so robotic and soulless, it’s no small wonder that the suicide rate tends to spike just before the big pay-off.

This album serves well as a reminder that this music used to actually be music, and Dylan inserting his classiness into the music and doing his best, with a voice that sounds like it was designed by a joint venture between Pall Mall and Cuisinart, for a genuine love of the music, and without accepting a penny for his troubles (all royalties go to an anti-starvation charity, awwww), strips the gloss away and adds just a glimmer, albeit a fleeting one, of life into a holiday that needs it desperately. Hence, this is still not music I’ll be listening to in March, but next time December rolls around, perhaps I’ll be shut in and will once again avoid the retail rush (my temporary joblessness has allowed me to sit out of this holiday retail season for the first time in half a decade), and will spin this album again and feel the warmth of what Christmas is all about, and that is Bob Dylan, aging folk icon, croaking his way clumsily through “Hark, The Herald Ages Sing”. I fully plan on being very drunk at this point.

If all of that isn’t enough of a testament to this album being not so bad, check out the video to “Must Be Santa“, featuring Bob Dylan looking like a cross between Tom Petty and Tom Waits. I legitimately love this song and video, especially the line “Who laughs this way, Ho Ho Ho”, man that kills me.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

*I have rectified this, by the way, because on the same ticket as this album, I purchased Dylan’s most famous album, Highway 61 Revisited, and will be enjoying that once I get back to Austin.

 

Like Album Du Jour? Why not make it official on Facebook! Also, why not check out my 2011 series of Christmas featuring The Good, The Bad, and The Twisted? It starts here with my favorite Christmas album ever