So Long, Chuck Berry

Chuck BerryThe rock and roll legend Chuck Berry died yesterday at the age of 90. When I a kid, I thought of him as just a great guitarist — certainly the most recognizable and most copied lead guitar player ever. And he was certainly that. But I tend to downplay it now. Sad as it is to say, he is the only lead guitar player who I can play like — basically, I’ve never gotten past the surfer bands of the 1960s, and they didn’t know a thing they didn’t learn from listening to Chuck Berry.

It was only later that I realized that he is one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century. And I’m not just talking about rock and roll. He is as good as Rodgers and Hart, for example. And I can’t really give a songwriter any greater compliment. There is lots to say about Berry’s life, but I prefer to let the music speak for itself. So let’s listen to a few of his hits.

First there is the classic, and possibly the greatest rock and roll song ever (but not my favorite), “Johnny B Goode”:

Second is one of my favorites, “You Never Can Tell”:

Beyond Teen Music

One thing I especially like about Berry’s work is that by and large it isn’t adolescent. That doesn’t take away from it’s fun. But I love the multiple generations of “You Never Can Tell” — rather a more adult take on marriage than The Beach Boys’ anemic “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

In “Memphis, Tennessee” he wrote about trying to get in touch with his daughter following a break-up. It’s poignant:

New National Anthem?

As many of you know, I’m not fond of our national anthem. Not only does it have a questionable history, it isn’t a pleasant tune and it brings out the worst in our modern day screechers. But Chuck Berry wrote a song that would make a great national anthem, “Back in the USA.” It is the most patriotic song I know of, and without a hint of jingoism. Maybe it’s time to finally change:

What can I say? Chuck Berry gave more than he took. I guess I’ll just take a hint from Douglas Adams…

So long, and thanks for all the songs, Chuck Berry!

Transubstantiation of Elvis

Elvis PresleyIn 1992, I went to Hong Kong for the first time. I was sitting in the back of a little Irish pub. And I was pretty drunk. And in walks a Chinese Elvis impersonator in a white jumpsuit studded to the ridiculous extreme that we are all accustom to. Holding an acoustic guitar, he performs “Hound Dog,” collects tips and leaves. You got all that, right? Hong Kong, Irish pub, Elvis. The next day I wasn’t sure myself. I had to ask my colleagues, and they confirmed it: I did in fact see a Chinese Elvis do “Hound Dog” in an Irish pub in Hong Kong. Many people go their entire lives without ever experiencing something as magical.

I love Elvis and even more, I love Elvis Culture. In a sense, Elvis is America: a drug addict who wanted Nixon to make him an undercover DEA agent; a white guy who made millions off the work of poor blacks; and a country rube who somehow connects to a universal audience. In addition to all of this, the music is just fantastic. But it’s the Vegas act silliness that drives the culture. Although I do not particularly like watching Elvis at that stage of his career, I do like what it has spawned. I never would have gone to see one of those shows, but I’d thrill to see Elvis impersonators.

So when I noticed that the film Almost Elvis was available on Netflix, I had to watch it. It isn’t a great film, but it is fascinating. It follows a group of Elvis Impersonators as they compete for the “Images of Elvis” prize for the best Elvis impersonator in the world. It focuses on Irv Cass, a professional from Michigan. Little did I know it, but there is a network of Elvis impersonators throughout the world. If you want one, you call up EEN (Elvis Entertainment Network) and they will send one out. Cass is one them, and seems to make a decent living doing it:

Cass is very free with his opinions of the competition. Since he was one of the most established people in the field at that time, he knows them all. He’s rather good at talking about their strengths and weaknesses. In this way, he nicely systematizes what it is to be an Elvis impersonator. And this brings up probably the most interesting part of the film: race. One of the top people in the field is Robert Washington, who is a black man. Mostly everyone is very respectful of him. But they also admit that he doesn’t look like Elvis because of his race.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think that any of the impersonators looks like Elvis the man. If you take away the hair and the sideburns and the outfits, they just look like random white guys. So really, when we are talking about Elvis, we aren’t really talking about his face. Elvis isn’t a person anymore; he’s an archetype. So to me, it is all about getting up on stage with “the look” (hair, burns, suit) and moving and sounding like Elvis. What’s more, in Washington’s case, he isn’t all that black. Until people started talking about it, I just thought he was really tanned.

All the people said the same thing: I question whether Washington will ever win the title, not because I don’t like him, but because of the judges being, well, racist. This is typical: people generally think their neighbors are more racist than they actually are. At the end of the film, Washington came in second. The good news is he later won the event. Check him out; he’s great:

An academic interviewed for the film referred to the “transubstantiation of Elvis” to explain why people want more than just the music. The music is enough for me. But he’s right: these guys do become The King. And that’s pretty great.

Morning Music: Françoise Hardy

Françoise HardySince I watched Moonrise Kingdom recently, I thought it might be interesting to listen to a little Françoise Hardy. She doesn’t especially have a style. She sings a lot of different styles. It might be best to consider her a chanteuse. She is able to make me long for being in love. And sad. (More or less the same thing.)

But her early work is that classic French pop sound that I never seem to tire of. (Or that I just still like because it hasn’t been playing on the radio my whole life like the British Invasion.) A lot of Françoise Hardy’s albums are named, Françoise Hardy. She released albums of that name in 1962, 1963, 1963 (that’s right), 1965, and 1968. Today, we are interested in the 1968, Françoise Hardy. As is typical of these Morning Music posts, I’m limited to the videos I can find. But it really is a great one. It is “Comment Te Dire Adieu?” (“How to Say Goodbye?”) It is Serge Gainsbourg‘s lyrics for Goland and Gold’s It Hurts to Say Goodbye.

Morning Music: Hurt

The Downward Spiral - Nine Inch NailsI’ve known the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” for a very time. But I seldom pay attention to lyrics of a song that I hear casually. Today, I looked them up. It’s pretty good. I like the connection of self-mutilation (“I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel”) and heroin use (“The needle tears a hole… Try to kill it all away”). I’m not so fond of the externalization of the self (“What have I become, my sweetest friend”). But that’s a choice, and very typical of the genre.

The wonderful thing about a song like this is that everyone can related. You don’t have to be self-mutilator or a junkie. Even 14 year old kids feel like they’ve experienced it. When Trent Reznor wrote the song, he was only 29. And his greatest period of depression and despair came years after writing the song.

Depression Is Not Absolute

In the 12 Step mythology, one must reach “rock bottom” before one can “recover.” But the truth is that there is no rock bottom. As bad as you feel, it almost certainly will get worse. All that happens is that you get better at dealing with it. Depression and despair become decoupled.

I remember one of Vincent van Gogh’s last letters to Theo where he noted that he could get some canvases and paint and do some work, but comments what would be the point. I’ve misinterpreted that comment however, thinking that it came right before van Gogh’s suicide. But it didn’t. After writing that, he did get some canvases and paints and did continue on. In fact, he appears to have shot himself while painting.

Anyway, we continue on. Artists whine for us because it is certainly true that no one is interested in hearing us whine. Everybody’s got their troubles. And everybody thinks theirs are as bad as they get. Don’t make that mistake.

Afterword

I couldn’t find a good copy of the album version. The change of “I wear this crown of shit” to “I wear this crown of thorns” is pretty much unforgivable. It trivializes everything else in the song. Sorry about that.

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

Slaves - Nobody Knows the Trouble I've SeenYesterday I was feeling kind of sorry for myself and started singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Now, I feel kind of bad about that. After all, I’ve lived a pretty charmed life. Sure, I’ve seen a lot of trouble, but it’s almost entirely my own damned fault. Just the same, relative suffering is worse than absolute suffering. Think of Richard Wilkinson’s work on inequality and how relative inequality is the killer. So I think I can be allowed my meta-grumbles.

I hardly have a good voice for “Nobody Know the Trouble I’ve Seen.” So I went on YouTube to find some performances of it. The song itself dates back to at least the middle of the 19th century — and could be much older than that. It does seem a natural song to come out of slavery.

Marian Anderson

By the early 20th century, the song had been co-opted by classical musicians of the time. And this resulted in Marian Anderson having the first really successful version of it. That was in 1924 when she was 27 years old. And she would live almost 70 years afterward.

It’s a very restrained performance, focused on the music. What’s probably most interesting is that I always think of it as a song sung by a man. But that isn’t at all the case, as this version, and many others attest.

Paul Robeson

Two years later, Paul Robeson recorded the song. His deep bass voice is irresistible. Still, his performance is very similar to Anderson’s. It’s hardly surprising, however. Slavery was still a living memory. And it isn’t like life was that great for blacks then either.

Here is a later recording where his performance is more emotional and free:

Harry James

In 1941, trumpeter and bandleader Harry James recorded an instrumental version of the song. It’s good, but it is performed just as a tune. It’s very much in the style of Glenn Miller. One can almost imagine it accompanying a Looney Tunes cartoon.

Louis Armstrong

By the 1950s, the song seemed to be something different for everyone. Louis Armstrong recorded it in 1958. It’s kind of hard to know what to make of it. Armstrong was so idiosyncratic and so talented that he transcends everything. I’m not keen on the arrangement. And his spoken word segments would embarrass me if they were done by anyone else. But it’s just wonderful — joyous without losing the weariness of the song.

Sam Cooke

A couple of years later, Sam Cooke recorded the song in his own inimitable way. It is both rocking and sad. I don’t know. Cooke was such an amazing talent that it really is pointless to talk about. Just listen:

Mahalia Jackson

Let’s finish off with a real gospel version of the song by Mahalia Jackson. She recorded the song a few times. I doubt this version was released during her lifetime. But I figure it was recorded in the late 1960s or early 1970s (she died in 1972). It’s the kind of performance that makes me feel like I’m missing out by not being a Christian:

Nobody Knows

So that’s all. This isn’t really a history of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” But it does give you a good idea of how the musicians have changed in their thinking of it. In the 1950s, things get very postmodern in the sense of everyone just doing their own thing. But there are times when those very serious early versions are preferable.

Buffalo Rider, Guy on a Buffalo, and Idiosyncratic Art

Buffalo RiderThis morning, I discovered an amazing film from 1978, Buffalo Rider. In a refreshing bit of honest advertising, it is about a guy who rides a buffalo. It is a classic exploitation film. By that I mean that the producers found this guy (Rick Guinn) who rode a buffalo and thought, “Well there’s a movie in that!” After all, it was only in 1974 that the low budget The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams became a blockbuster. And Adams doesn’t ride around on Ben in the film. So Buffalo Rider certainly must have seemed like independent film gold.

If I had to pick a film that Buffalo Rider is most like, it would be Death Bed: the Bed that Eats. But George Barry’s masterpiece is so much more. It’s the work of a truly warped mind without consideration for what an audience might think. It is also a purely amateur production. Buffalo Rider is a professional production and it is interested in one thing above all: money.

The Real Buffalo Jones

Supposedly, it is based on the life of Charles “Buffalo” Jones. The real Buffalo Jones did not, as far as I can tell, ever ride a buffalo. He is remembered as a conservationist, although what the term meant in the late 19th century is a little different from what it means today. While he did save a lot of buffalo, it was mostly to sell to zoos and such. And before that, he was best known as a killer of buffalo. Like the makers of Buffalo Rider, Buffalo Jones was mostly interested in making money. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We all gotta eat.

Buffalo Rider seems to be based on a film the same group made two years earlier, The Life and Legend of Buffalo Jones. But I can’t find out anything about it except what commenter Nokose Fixico at CasCity wrote, “Only thing I really remember of the plot was this man Jones catching and breaking a buffalo and doing some riding and shooting.” He might be remembering Buffalo Rider.

A Most Bizarre Film

The film is part nature documentary and part revenge comedy. Forty minutes into it, the film sidetracks for ten minutes on the story of a raccoon. It really has nothing to do with the rest of the film. But then, very little in this film has anything to do with anything else. Why would it need to? There’s a guy who rides buffalo! And clearly, they had an animal trainer. “Oh look, a scene with some wolves! Hey, a black bear! Some grizzly bears fighting!” It’s all good.

It reminded me very much of the octopus in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster. Why’s it there? Wood apparently got his hands on some stock footage of an octopus. You know the old saying, “Don’t let a good thing go to waste”? For the exploitation filmmaker, it’s a little different: don’t let anything go to waste. Hence: The Terror. And don’t get me wrong: I think it’s awesome. Did I mention Buffalo Rider has a guy riding around on a buffalo?

Buffalo Rider Plot Summary

Anyway, the story, so much as there is one, is this: there’s this hippy living the life in the old west. He comes upon a young buffalo being attacked by two wolves. Jones saves the poor creature. Eventually, he tames it and breaks it, allowing it to be ridden. Other than the wolves part, this appears to be exactly what Rick Guinn himself did. Then, three bad guy buffalo hunters shoot Jones so they can kill his buffalo. But Jones and his buffalo are saved by Sam Robinson. Robinson and his wife bring Jones back to health.

Now Jones is bent on revenge. He’s going to get those men. It’s all good because Mrs Robinson’s brother and his family are coming for a visit. As the brother is on his way, he is spotted by the three bad guys who really need his horses. So they kill him and his wife, but not before she cleverly hides the baby. Shortly thereafter, Buffalo Jones happens upon the baby. He determines (1) that the dead man is Mrs Robinson’s brother and (2) this terrible act was done by the same bad guys.

He rushes back to the Robinson’s place to say, “Sorry about your brother, but here: have a baby!” Then he goes after the bad guys. They have broken up so that there can been two cool revenge scenes. The first involves him riding his buffalo (Who would have thought?!) into a bar, tearing up the place, and then shooting the two bad guys. Then he kills the final bad guy who was on a mule.

Why the Film Failed to Attract and Audience

It could have all worked rather well. But it has a few problems. One is that it is almost all shot MOS, so the whole thing is narrated excessively. The narrator, C Lindsay Workman, is very good. But the subtext of everything he says is, “The filmmakers weren’t good enough to make this clear, so I’m tellin’ y’all!”

Even that might have been okay and made for a financially successful film. But there is one problem that you cannot get around. As cool as it is that this guy can actually ride a buffalo, he looks ridiculous doing it. It just doesn’t matter what a badass he is. And so Buffalo Rider has a very dorky feel to it. I loved it! But I can well see why people weren’t swarming the movie theaters looking for it.

Guy on a Buffalo

In 2011, Buffalo Rider found a new audience in four short videos, Guy on a Buffalo. They were created by the band Jomo & the Possum Posse, who refer to themselves as, “The Greatest Band in the World. Possibly Ever.”

They describe their music as a “blend of cynicism, dead-eyed soul, and anti-machismo honky-tonk.” I really like all the music of theirs that I’ve heard. (The lead guitar on High Grounds Coffee Shop reminds me a lot of Maury Muehleisen.) But they are a good deal too interesting to be stars. They have an album out this year, Local Motive. It sounds good and I would buy it, but you know I’m old and must have something I can hold. On the other hand, for $8.99, maybe it’s worth finally trying to download some music.

Anyway, Jomo & the Possum Posse do right by Buffalo Rider. But these videos only give you a small taste of the eclectic band. Regardless, what they did is a great act of creative collaboration. These videos are even more funny after you watch the film. Ultimately, they aren’t satirizing the “guy on a buffalo,” but the narration that describes everything that is happening. Doing it musically is brilliant — and one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time.

Of course, now I’ll have that song stuck in my head for days.

Parting Words

For most people, “Guy on a Buffalo” is about as close as you will want to get to Buffalo Rider. I thought the film was wonderful. I like things that are different, even when they are technically “bad.” Skill is a great help to art. But in a society that wants commodity, it is normally used in the service of the banal. The unskilled often provide us with moments of genius we can’t find elsewhere.

It probably helps that I know just how hard it is to get anything on film. I imagine someone coming to me today and saying, “I got a camera, some old film stock, and a guy who can ride a giraffe. Can you write a screenplay for us by next weekend?” Are you kidding?! I’d have a first draft done tonight. Although rather than “Giraffe Rider,” I’m thinking more along the lines of, “The Man Who Loved Giraffes.”

Jane Siberry’s This Girl I Know and the Bechdel Test

Jane Siberry - This Girl I Know - Bechdel TestLet’s get the hard part out of the way first: the Bechdel Test. It consists of three criteria for a work of fiction: it contains at least two female characters; they talk to each other at least once; and what they talk about is not a man. Now you would think that most fictional works would pass the Bechdel Test. But it is surprisingly rare. My first novel, for example, did not pass it.

I think of the Bechdel Test in a broader sense. I don’t think it should be limited to talking about “a man.” I think a conversation about men — how they suck, how they are seduced, whatever — should count. With this broader interpretation (because one could certainly see this as being implied), the situation is even worse.

The truth is, when I learned of the Bechdel Test, I was embarrassed. It’s not that I’m unaware that I have limitations when creating female characters. As much as I like woman, I’m pretty much a gnostic toward them. Certainly, from the age of 5 onward, I’ve felt that women knew things about the universe that I never will. (I still think it’s true and I think it is evolutionary and has to do with childbirth. Women create universes.) So women in my fiction tend to be dark and mysterious. I’m working on this, however.

“This Girl I Know”

But I was listening to Jane Siberry. I love the album, but I must admit to not paying attention to lyrics very much. That is until I pay a great deal of attention to them. The second song on the album is “This Girl I know.” It’s a conversation between two women. One of them says she is sick of being fat and that eventually she will do something about it. And the other is asking her why she doesn’t just do it now.

(There is also a typically Siberry touch of the other woman having a fight with people at another table. “Mind your own business, no, I don’t mean you; it’s the table over there; I think they think I’m being rude; I’m not being rude, I just want to know.”)

I thought it was interesting as I listened to it because it passed the Bechdel Test! But then we get to the bridge, and it all falls apart, “I’ll get some new clothes, I’ll change my style; I’ll cut my hair, I’ll meet a lot of men; I’ll have a lot of dates, I’ll discriminate.” Oh my, Bechdel Test fail!

It’s Not All Bechdel Test

But not everything is about the Bechdel Test. I do think it is a great tool for looking at how we think about women in our society. Obviously, women are better at transcending these prejudices than men. My friend Kristen McHenry’s first (thus far unpublished) novel, “Day Job Blues,” passes the test with such aggressiveness that one could be forgiven for thinking that was her intent. (It wasn’t.)

Although “This Girl I Know” fails the Bechdel Test in an almost classic way, it is still at core, a feminist song. Because the first woman does answer the question: she says she wouldn’t know what to do if a man thought she was “sexy or something.” And when we hear, “Am I supposed to throw away my career and hop into bed?”

Work and Sex

I think that does sum up a fundamental problem for women. For men, sexual politics work because men are seen as dominant on the issue of sex. So a corporate man who is attractive and “fit” has nothing to fear. But an attractive and “fit” woman seems nubile: someone you marry, not someone you promote. And as much as things have changed, that basic dynamic is still very much alive.

So the Bechdel Test isn’t all. One can critique sexual politics, even while failing it. And Jane Siberry does that in “This Girl I Know.”

Pal Shazar’s People Talk

Pal Shazar - The Morning After - People TalkPal Shazar and Jules Shear have been married for something like three decade. But I’ve never heard a song of hers that struck me as much influenced by Shear. True: they have compatible styles. And they are both great at the craft of songwriting. But this morning, I heard “People Talk” and it struck me how much it sounded like a Jules Shear melody — most especially the chorus.

Of course, the truth is, it might be a Jules Shear song. Or more likely a collaboration, because the verses seem more typical of Pal Shazar’s writing. I can’t say because the information just isn’t available online, and I don’t own the album, The Morning After, where I would hope to find the information.

But I like the idea of it being a Pal Shazar original. I like the idea of couples growing closer and closer as they age. It’s probably because I’m such a loner. There’s a clarity in that. But I actually hate it. I feel in my soul that I am a collaborator. Maybe it’s just that I’m weird. No one says to me anymore, “You just can’t do that!” But they let me know in more subtle ways. And it doubtless pushes them away. There is no meeting of minds or souls or whatever it is you want to call it.

Regardless, “People Talk” is beautiful song.

It’s a Great Puzzle — If You Like Games

The Great Puzzle - Jules ShearI don’t have a lot to say. I wrote Jason Iverson Is Dead yesterday and so I’ve had a couple of days to think about it. It will surprise no one that I think his death is not a bad thing for him. But it sucks for the world. And it is heartbreaking for Angela and his mother.

I’ve been to many funerals in my life, and most of the people in attendance believe in heaven. Yet no one takes a death as a temporary separation. Sure, you will here platitudes about how he is with God now. And that soon we will all be together in heaven. But even to the true believers, it must sound like a crock. The loved one is gone. Maybe you will see them again, but you know they are gone now. That is concrete.

The whole thing has me thinking of Jules Shear’s song “The Great Puzzle.” It does have some appropriate lines such as, “Like a candle that’s been recently blown out; I can still smell the smoke.” But mostly, it speaks to my feelings. It is a great puzzle, and I do like games. Just not this one.

The Meaning of Costello’s Moral Collage “Motel Matches”

Get Happy!! - Motel MatchesI got a line from a song stuck in my mind, “I struck it lucky with motel matches.” Elvis Costello’s early work was filled with this kind of word play. But usually, it is more of the straight pun variety, like in “The Only Flame in Town” where he sings, “You’d be less tender and more tinder” — a pun that is almost impossible to get unless you have a lyric sheet or listen to the song a hundred times. But it got me thinking about the meaning of “Motel Matches” that this clever line comes from.

It’s a fascinating line. The set up line is typically evocative, at least for men of my age, “Boys everywhere, fumbling with the catches.” The truth is, I really don’t know: are bras still the same? Can a man’s sexual experience still be gauged by how effortlessly he determines if the clasp is in the front or back? Regardless, that line sums up the awkwardness of youthful sex. And strangely, I find that I can remember early sexual encounters far more than later ones.

“Motel Matches” Is Incoherent

The song itself is typical of Costello in making very little sense. According to Costello, on his first American tour, he was told that he was staying in the motel room where Sam Cooke was murdered. Sam Cooke was shot at a Los Angeles motel, but not in a room. Although there is much that isn’t known, it’s pretty clear to me that he was murdered by the motel manager in her office. Regardless, this little lie or joke told to Costello explains the inexplicable first line, “Somewhere in the distance I can hear ‘Who Shot Sam?'”

At no point does he come back to this. The song seems to be more or less about one-night stands. I’ve always heard that clearly in the lines, “And you know what I’ll do; When the light outside changes from red to blue.” If you have spent much time in motels, you know that outside, it is always kind of red because of car tail-lights and neon signs. And what he will do, which she knows, is leave in the morning.

More than most artists, I don’t think much of what Costello himself thinks of the meaning of his songs. A lyric, sure. And clear songs like “Ship Building” and “Let Him Dangle.” But what is “Motel Matches” if not a kind of indictment of men never getting past their teen years trying to remove bras from their girlfriends. There is a strong moral repugnancy toward sex in the British popular music of that period — a feeling of great shame. And that’s very clear in a lot of Costello’s work like “Watching the Detectives” and “Pump It Up.”

The Meaning of “Motel Matches”

So the meaning of the song, if “meaning” is the right word, is that it is a kind of fever dream of sexual humiliation. Sam Cooke, after all, was murdered while almost completely naked — I assume he was killed because of a sexual act that went wrong for one reason or another. And ultimately, what is art but a great cry for help? Costello combines Cooke’s murder, his own one-night stand, and the memory of awkward youthful sex and creates a kind of collage that seems more like something you would say to a priest in a confessional.

“Giving you away like motel matches.” That’s the refrain. That’s Elvis Costello at 25 on the subject women. It’s heartbreaking, which may be why the song woks so well despite never being able to get to the truth but rather just dance around it. “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned… original sin.”

A Good Year for the Roses

George Jones with LoveI believe it was The Atlantic magazine that carried a one page short story on its last page. And in its writer’s guidelines, it said it was looking for stories with the impact of a whole novel. The one story I remember was amazing. It was about a man whose wife had just died. And going through her things, he found a collection of illustrations of their son who had been killed in an accident when he was quite young. Apparently, every year, she went to a forensic artist to get an update on what he would look like. She told the artist that he had been kidnapped. It’s a heartbreaking story — not just that she never got over the loss but that she hid it from her husband for years.

There are songs that have a similar power. One of those is Jerry Chesnut’s country classic, “A Good Year for the Roses.” It’s so evocative. What’s especially great is the use of lipstick traces. First, it’s on the cigarettes in the ashtray. And then we get this beautiful mixture of pathos and bitterness:

And the lip-print on a half-filled cup of coffee
That you poured and didn’t drink
But at least you thought you wanted it,
That’s so much more than I can say for me.

The other aspect that maybe is specific to me: the chorus about only being able to talk about trivialities when you want to talk about something deep. I know everyone has had that experience. But it has long been a painful irony that I can write but not really talk. Of course, in “A Good Year for the Roses,” Chesnut makes the obvious truth concrete in the second verse, “I guess the reason we’re not talking — there’s so little left to say we haven’t said.” By the time it reaches that point, talking is worthless.

But “A Good Year for the Roses” really is a novel in a song. You can listen to Chesnut do part of the song, but here is the whole original by George Jones:

Afterword

Yes, I know that Elvis Costello did this song on Almost Blue. And I love his version and that album. But even the biggest Costello fan has to admit that he didn’t do much with any of those covers. The production and performance are often identical — which I believe was the point. Regardless, I think it is far more likely that readers of Frankly Curious are familiar with his version than Jones’ version, much less Chesnut’s.

4th of July: Peace, Love, and Understanding

Nick Lowe - Peace, Love, and UnderstandingIn 1978, Elvis Costello recorded the best known version of “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding.” It’s a great version, there’s no question of that. But a lot of people are surprised to learn that he didn’t write it. This is because his version seems sarcastic. The song was written by Nick Lowe, a man certainly capable of great cynicism. But I think this song is really a self-indictment. It’s an honest question, “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?”

When I was in graduate school, I lived with two Brits. I liked them both very much. I still do. They were fun people. But they had a very cynical view of the world and considered themselves very cool. In some ways, I thrived around them. It was knowing them and their incredible self-assuredness that got me to start my first underground newspaper and eventually led to me being a professional writer. But it also brought out a lot of bad things in me, especially being over-conscious of how people viewed me.

As any teenager can tell you, the easiest way to feel un-judged is to be cynical and to pretend that nothing really matters. And I think Nick Lowe suffered from that same thing as many creatively minded people do. So the song is kind of him slapping himself in the face. I know how that goes. I remember writing a song once told from one perspective and thinking that it was so unfair. So I wrote a song from the other perspective. The second song was better, because it was more thoughtful.

I think that America suffers from the same kind of insecurity. This is why we take up 48% of the world’s military spending. We just aren’t right with us. What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding? Everything! It’s for weak people, suckers, or as Donald Trump would say, losers. But I want all the peace, love, and understanding that I can get.

The 4th of July always strikes me as the opposite of peace, love, and understanding. When I was kid, I liked the fireworks. They were colorful. But now they are all illegal. So people get illegal “fireworks” that are not pretty. They are just bombs — loud. And I hate loud sounds. They are the sounds of conflict, hatred, and intolerance. And that is what America is for me to a large extent. If Donald Trump becomes president, it will be a catastrophe, but it will also be fitting.

But on this 4th of July, I want to offer the hope that we can be better — that we won’t laugh at those who are kind. That being an “easy mark” is a sign of greatness, not stupidity. What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding? Not a damned thing.