We move into Merle Haggard’s third album, I’m a Lonesome Fugitive. It’s interesting to listen to this early music, because you really hear the influence of Hank Williams. And he really is the best that country music has to offer. It’s too bad that he died so young. There’s something very precise about the music that Haggard was doing at this point. And it is something that we don’t much get in the later music — great though some of it was.
Today’s song is “House of Memories.” It’s a beautiful song — not at all what people normally think of when they think of Haggard. It’s about that point after a break-up when you can only remember the good things that are gone. I think that is how we get over relationships. At first, we can only think of the good times. But eventually we see the relationship for the mixed bag that it was. But “House of Memories” is a good way of rendering that first period.
I don’t much think about “love,” but I am indeed haunted by memories. These are memories of every embarrassing thing I’ve ever done. A lot of them have to do with love. Sadly, most do not. It would be great to be able to pass off everything to hormones. Instead, I have to depend upon what I think is a very true excuse: I’m a slow learner. But ultimately, it is all about brain chemistry. I know people who fret about their past and others who don’t care at all. I’d like to be in the latter category, but I’d be such a terrible person if I were that it is best that I’m not.
I’m a Lonesome Fugitive cover licensed under Fair use, via Wikipedia
One of the writers I work with is from Bosnia. And I wanted to complement him on something he had written by quoting Patton, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” This particular writer is actually quite well known and only works for us as a kind of favor. Since I know his other work, I know what kind of things he would do a very good job on, and I was very impressed with something he had written and I wanted to use the line. If I knew him really well, I could have just written, “You magnificent bastard, I read your book!”
The whole thing ended up in an exchange about Rommel. He seems to know a great deal about the wars of the last century, which isn’t exactly surprising, given that he lived through the Bosnian War himself. Anyway, he mentioned that Rommel became famous on the Isonzo front — I believe in the Battle of Caporetto in particular. He wrote, “Due to the extremely harsh terrain, the Central Powers had to deploy elite mountain infantry… As a tribute to their gallantry, Die Bosniaken Kommen march is still played at Austrian military events.”
I don’t like to pass up any opportunity to do something different for a morning music. So I grabbed onto it. We’ll get back to Merle Haggard tomorrow. But today, we’ll listen to this march. I find it curious that marches aren’t used more in the teaching of music theory. You can see in them so clearly two-part counterpoint. And from there you can add the harmonic structure. But I suppose the use of Baroque music is more pure.
Die Bosniaken Kommen was written by Eduard Wagnes in 1895. According to Wikipedia, it is “played on all military events in Austria.”
Merle Haggard’s second album, Swinging Doors, is a perfect country music album. My biggest complaint about popular music generally and country music specifically is how fake it is. And I suppose that’s true of Haggard too. I mean, the man was born in Bakersfield, California. Yet listen to that accent he affects in his songs. And yet, it seems entirely authentic coming from him.
(To be fair, Elvis Costello sang with a distinctly American accent on his first few albums. I don’t think it was affected. I think it was just the result of listening to American singers. I assume the same thing was going on with Haggard.)
My favorite song on Swinging Doors has always been “The Bottle Let Me Down,” because its funny and I love country drinking songs more than anything. But arguably, the strongest song is the title song, which is about the exact same thing. And it includes a very clever refrain, “I’m always here at home till closing time.”
It’s kind of funny that I love these kinds of songs, because I’m not like that at all. Unless a drug puts me to sleep, it only makes me more introspective. This is why I hate cannabis. I don’t need a drug that encourages me to consider everything I’ve ever done in the most negative way possible. If I had to live in the state of mind that cannabis brings out in me, I would have killed myself decades ago.
Admittedly, alcohol does not make me self-critical. Instead, it makes me more accepting. But that wouldn’t be a good thing in dealing with a break-up. Just the same, the way that Merle Haggard tells the story in “Swinging Doors” strikes me as exactly what I would be like. And that does make it hilarious. But only in a fictional setting. In real life, it’s just pathetic.
I want to take a quick break from Merle Haggard, just because I feel like it. I remember two major things about being in Paris. We performed at many places but two really stood out. The first was Notre Dame de Paris. The thing about that was that we were only allowed to perform sacred music there. That cut out most everything we did. The only thing I can remember that we did was Bach’s cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, which means something like “Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life.” You probably know it best from last of its ten movements, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” For whatever reason, I just want to listen to it today.
It was very special to perform there. I’m not religious and I never have been. But I love religious art, architecture, music, and even ceremony. It’s all meant to heighten the religious experience. But to me, all that peripheral stuff is the religious experience. And they are probably more important than ideas in the religion anyway — especially for the illiterate masses that followed the religion all those years in a language they didn’t understand.
The other great Paris experience was performing under a gazebo in the Luxembourg Garden. It was probably a weekend afternoon and there were many hundreds of people sitting around listening to us. They hadn’t come to listen to us. They were just there. People played there all the time. It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. But we were perhaps 15 minutes into our performance and it started to rain — hard. I figured everyone would run away. But they didn’t. They just opened up umbrellas and continued to listen. It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.
Since Merle Haggard died last week, I figured we’d spend some time listening to his music. He’s always been a struggle for me because on the one hand, he was one of the most talented songwriters ever. On the other hand, he wrote “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” — two of the most vile and reactionary songs ever. And they weren’t the only ones.
The thing is, I think Haggard was a smart and thoughtful guy. But that kind of working class bigotry toward anyone considered an outsider came all too easy for him. It’s weird and it also explains why he was all over the board when he discussed these songs. Mostly, I don’t think he much knew what he was doing. He just wrote the songs and how ever they turned out was okay. Analysis was not really what he did. But he should have. Anyone with his background and good fortune should have embraced the outsider to the core of his being.
Five years after his release from San Quentin Prison, Merle Haggard released his first album, Strangers. It’s not a great album. Over half of it is other people’s material, and I’ve never been so much taken with him as a performer. And it doesn’t include his best material. But much of it is quite fine indeed. It isn’t very distinctive, however. In particular, today’s song, “If I Had Left It Up To You” sounds like George Jones wrote it. And that’s true of most of the tunes on the album, they sound like someone else wrote them. But that doesn’t make them any less good. And for a first album, well, wow.
The final song that I used in my videos was Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues.” There are two versions of it. This is the slower version and strikes me as more haunting, although the two versions are similar. The song tells the story of the singer going down to the crossroads and trying to catch a ride. But no one stops, “Didn’t nobody seem to know me.” And he’s praying to God that he gets a ride before nightfall.
It seems like a spiritual: when humans let you down, you can always turn to God. But the thing about such songs is that they never have a happy ending. Indeed, they have no ending at all. This is because they are all about faith. God will reward the faithful. I don’t much see it myself. To me, we live in a world of callousness and loneliness with nothing but our own thoughts to keep us company.
When I think seriously about the human condition, I’m very disturbed. We are, in our consciousness, completely cut off from other people. We are, in fact, totally alone. But we are so used to the idea that there are others around to interact with that the clear view of reality it terrifying. We are all down at the crossroads trying to flag a ride. But it isn’t that they don’t know us; they don’t even know we exist because they are all so lost in their own lonely delusions.
As for the music on “Cross Road Blues,” well, it’s amazing. I’m still struck with just how modern it sounds. It probably helps that just about every rock musician has recorded the song. But there’s something more than that. There’s a reason that Robert Johnson stands out compared to other musicians of that period in the Mississippi delta. It’s hard to believe it’s just one man and a guitar performing.
Probably the most bizarre choice for my video music is Black Flag’s song “Six Pack.” They are (I guess they are back together) quite an interesting band. It was really the Greg Ginn show. He’s a genius. Everyone today thinks of it as Henry Rollins’ band. But they went through many singers before Rollins. And certainly Rollins always saw it was Ginn’s band. And in those early heady days before their first album, they released a few EPs, including Six Pack.
I had never heard it, but I was over at The Last Record Store, going through their $5 or 3 for $10 bin and found this micro-CD with a total of three songs and five and half minutes of music — closer to a single, to be honest. But I was glad I bought it; it packs a punch.
The lead vocalist on Six Pack is Dez Cadena — later a wondering singer and guitarist, most notably with Misfits during the Bush years. He is apparently the third singer that Black Flag had. Henry Rollins took over from him, but Cadena didn’t leave the band; he just switched to rhythm guitar on what is almost certainly their greatest album, Damaged. There is, interestingly, another version of “Six Pack” with Rollins doing lead vocals on that album. It’s similar, but I actually prefer this Cadena cut — not because of the vocals but the purity of the performance.
The subject matter is classic. It’s kind of the punk version of the Merle Haggard (RIP) classic, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” It’s just a guy ranting about how he doesn’t need his ex-girlfriend because he has a six-pack and $35 dollars to his name. I can’t help but think that Greg Ginn was writing from experience.
The following video has the entire EP. “Six Pack” is first, followed by “I’ve Heard It Before” and “American Waste.”
Today is a little sad, because the sound quality is so bad. But what are you going to do? The song is “Last Kind Words” — the Geeshie Wiley classic. I’ve featured the song before, performed by Christine Pizzuti. She’s one of these people that always make me impressed with humanity — someone producing great art in a bedroom and sending it out to the world for free.
But today’s version is by Eric & Suzy Thompson. They are kind of legends in the roots music and bluegrass community. They’ve played with everyone but almost no one knows who they are. But I’ve seen them live once, and I own their album Dream Shadows. It has their version of “Last Kind Words.” In fact, I’m pretty certain that it was Suzy Thompson who introduced me to Geeshie Wiley in the first place. But I’ve used about 5 seconds of the introduction to the song to fade out my videos. See, for example, Luigi Galvani’s Experiment Done by Mr. Rzykruski in Frankenweenie.
Despite the poor sound quality, this performance is the same as the studio version. They are just that good. That’s something I think that everyone learns as they gain expertise in something — be it music or woodworking or writing: your greatest work early on is much inferior to your worst work later on. It isn’t a question of inspiration. When you get really good at something, the inspiration is built into your performance from years of hard work. (This is not to say that you can’t also be a total hack.)
Anyway, here is the song. It’s a beautiful version of it.
Image taken from Amazon most likely and licensed under Fair Use.
On at least one of my videos, I used the first three words from the American Music Club song “Ladies and Gentlemen.” It’s off the album Love Songs for Patriots, which is perhaps the least known album in the band’s canon. That’s because the band broke up in 1994, after the commercial failure of San Franisco — an album I’m quite fond of but was generally seen as a disappointment. And they did nothing for almost a decade, and then got back together for this new album. What is so remarkable about it is that nothing had really changed.
I have a theory about success in pop music: it has to come early. If American Music Club was going to hit, it was going to be with “Firefly” off California. The problem is that while the writing only gets better, it also gets more adult. Now Mark Eitzel was never writing bubble gum, but at least “Firefly” had a a youthful yearning that appeals to kids, “You’re so pretty baby; you’re the prettiest thing I know; you’re so pretty baby; where did you go?” Of course, Eitzel was already pushing 30 when he wrote that; he was in his mid-40s by the time of “Ladies and Gentlemen.”
The music is typical of American Music Club: a deeply layered punk that feels like it is only in the assured hands of this band that it doesn’t explode. The lyrics are a call for all of us (ladies and gentlemen) to be ourselves. Given that Eitzel is gay and he lived in San Francisco in the 1980s and 1990s, it is easy enough to see the song in that context. But I don’t think it needs any context, “If you can’t live with the truth, go ahead, try and live with a lie.” To me, that’s the story of life — the story of growing up.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is time…
As we continue on with songs that I’ve used fragments of in my videos, we come to Louis Armstrong’s version of “What a Wonderful World.” When I was younger, I loved the song. Now it kind of makes me sad. I do love his voice and there are times that I quite agree with the lyrics of the song. The world is wonderful in many ways and we need to remember that and be grateful.
Just the same, I don’t like the fact that even for people my age, Louis Armstrong is only “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello, Dolly!” Armstrong was, in fact, one of the most important figures in the development of jazz. I understand: that New Orleans jazz music can sound dated. But try to listen to it fresh. It sounds amazingly modern. And when they go crazy, you hear counterpoint that you won’t hear on Top 40 radio.
Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
I want to highlight Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. The band consisted of Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Johnny St Cyr on guitar/banjo, Lil Hardin Armstrong (Louis Armstong’s wife at the time) on piano. All of them are legends in their own right. One thing that comes across really well in all those Hot Five recordings is that it is a collaboration. Sure, Louis Armstrong is the star, but they are making music together that is incredibly pleasing, and so much more interesting than most popular music that came before.
There’s a curious structure to the arrangements too. The piano and the banjo work as a team, but interestingly, mostly it is the banjo that holds things down. Lil Armstrong gets to play a lot around what St Cyr is doing. Similarly, the horn players act as a unit. It’s lovely to listen to. Here’s Lil Armstrong’s song “Droppin’ Shucks.”
Today, we listen to Joey Ramone’s version of “What A Wonderful World.” The reason is because I’m thinking of trying to make some videos. I had been working on this thing called “Good, Bad, and Uglies.” But it got overly complex. The big issue is that I can write the material, but I can’t really act it — at least not without a lot of work that I don’t have time for. In addition, I have a strong tendency to make little projects turn big. For example, the first screenplay I ever wrote was supposed to be a little 2 minute joke, but within a month it was two hours long. So my video dreams all got set aside.
But last night I was Skyping with my boss and we mentioned the GIF image format and I went on a tear. I noted that everyone pronounced it with a “ga” and not a “ja.” But then GIF inventor Steve Wilhite came out and said that he always pronounced it “jif.” Well, that made absolutely no sense, because GIF is an acronym for Graphics Interchange Format, and unless Wilhite pronounces “graphics” as “jraphics,” he’s a complete loon. (Note: “giraffics” would be a wonderful word for images of giraffes.)
And then I mentioned “Linux,” which was always pronounced with a hard I. But then Linus Torvalds came out with a sound file with his Finnish accent and everyone thought, “Oh! It should be pronounced with a soft I!” But that wasn’t even true because the way he actually said it was “leenux.” Does anyone call it that? No! Should anyone call it that? Yes! People who speak Finnish should say it like that. But everyone in the English speaking world pronounces his first name “Linus” just like the Peanuts character. And that means that “Linux” should be pronounced with a hard I. But we don’t do that because people are just stupid.
I said all that in about 20 seconds. And I thought: I could just set up a camera and rant into it for hours on end about everything that I think is wrong in the universe. And then I could cut out little 20 second clips when I’m particularly “on.” Anyway, I generally started all the “Good, Bad, and Uglies” with Joey Ramone’s version of “What a Wonderful World” and then ended with the Louis Armstrong version. You can see what I mean in my video, These Are Not Very Bright Guys. Anyway, here’s the whole song:
I like to end these weeks with a live performance. But I find that there really isn’t anything for Mason Jennings. There is, however, this astounding performance that he did with storyteller Kevin Kling. Kling really is amazing. I suspect I’ve heard him before. He’s really quite amazing. And the two of them make a great team.
I don’t have much to say. This is the kind of entertainment that I enjoy. I would pay to go and see these guys. Most live entertainment bugs me. I’ve watched as theater has gotten bigger and bigger and more and more like film. But my favorite things when I was a kid were things like Will Rogers’ USA and Mark Twain Tonight — one man shows. I find it far easier to get absorbed in someone telling me a story than I do in having the story rendered to me. And in movies, most of the time so much is going on you can’t catch it all anyway.
This is nice because it presents a great storyteller and a great songwriter. When I’m at a rock concert, I’m almost always overwhelmed with how fake it is. The pretense overwhelms everything else. I guess I’m supposed to think that the performers are cool and so I am too because I can see it. But what I feel is alone — like I’m surrounded by lost and confused people who are pretending to have a good time. I know that says much about me and nothing about them. I have no real idea what they are thinking and feeling. But that’s how the experience feels to me.
On the other hand, this concert with Mason Jennings and Kevin Kling is something that I connect with. It speaks to my life and I find moments of truth in it. I highly recommend watching it all.