Thursday, 23 December 2010

Shoot Out The Chandelier

I find computer games baffling -- I can never find a way in. I stare at the scenery, move things around, but it all just remains a mystery. I'm too easily distracted by the quality of the graphics, and get absolutely nowhere. My son will sigh, grab the mouse or controller, knock over some trivial object or shoot out the chandelier, and hidden depths are revealed. How do you do that?

The world is like that, too. It's full of hidden riches, invisible to the uninitiated. Everywhere there are unanticipated, unexplored depths, any of which might turn out to be someone else's obsession and enthusiasm. I was once treated to a half hour effusion from a builder on the subject of bricks, their kinds, colours, sources and qualities. I had no idea!

Back in March, a friend mentioned a song, "Desperados Waiting for a Train", on his blog. I'd never heard of it or its composer Guy Clark, but then the world is not short on songs, especially country and western songs. I gave it a listen, and didn't give it another thought. Last week, I was tooling around on the Web and -- I can't even remember how -- bumped into it again. Oh, it's that song, I thought.

Somehow, I then managed to accidentally shoot out the chandelier, so to speak, and it was game on. I had stumbled into a whole new vortex of enthusiasm, centred on a single song. It became obvious, very quickly, that to an "alt country" music enthusiast this song I had never heard of is a benchmark, and has been since the 1970s. It also became clear that I had completely missed the emotional impact of the song in my original perfunctory hearing. Now I have begun to hear it, it evokes my last visits to my dying father so strongly that I tear up at that final spoken line, "Come on, Jack, that son-of-a-bitch is comin'".

I found myself watching various YouTube videos of performances of "Desperados", some by names I knew, most by names I didn't (of them all, this one by Irishman Freddie White grabbed me the most -- it's deceptively unpolished, intense, very intimate). By following links and googling, I began to open up a whole field of musical Americana I had only had a marginal interest in before.

As always with such "chandelier" moments, the links scattered in all directions. For example, Steve Earl's presence as recovering addict "Walon" in The Wire became more poignant. I finally disambiguated Townes Van Zandt from Steven Van Zandt. I began to grasp why guitar genius Bill Frisell thought "Americana" a fruitful musical territory worth exploring over a number of albums, starting with Nashville. I ordered a DVD of the film Heartworn Highways, which I've never seen. An alternative, parallel history from the 1970s to the present had revealed itself; musical and cultural, with its own heroes, villains, great deeds and betrayals.

I have always liked the way "country" refreshes its metaphors -- from cowboys to truckers -- and enjoy the way it turns its wit in on itself, reflexively. Indeed, without getting all lit-crit on its ass, the whole point of "Desperados Waiting For A Train" is that a young boy has heightened his relationship with an ageing, then dying, oil-well drilling drunk by re-imagining it in "western" terms -- it's a song about myths and reality, the passing of time and outliving one's moment, and the gritty glue of sentiment that holds it all together.
I'd play "The Red River Valley",
He'd sit in the kitchen and cry,
Run his fingers through seventy years of living,
And wonder, "Lord, has every well I drilled run dry?"
We were friends, me and this old man,

Like desperados waiting for a train,
Desperados waiting for a train
Now, although "country" harmonies and chord sequences can give me the chills*, I shall never be a real fan. Like American whiskey, it hits certain familiar notes a little too frequently and emphatically for my taste, and I can only take so much wittily-engineered sentiment delivered in verse and chorus form. And, let's face it, professional Texans are about as inherently funny as professional Yorkshiremen.**

But that's not the point: what matters is that what had previously looked like a blankly familiar wall turns out to have a secret door, and what lies behind it is worth exploring. This is what the Web is for and if, like me, you are endlessly discovering that you have been ignorant about something that matters a great deal to other people, you can so easily have the pleasure of putting that right, these days.

Though I think I will never get the hang of the Nintendo DS, the Wii, or the Xbox... It seems my thumbs have been put on the wrong way round. Oh Lord... Does this mean I am, in my turn, becoming an old man, "drinkin' beer and playin' Moon and Forty-two"? Inevitable, I suppose. Fetch me those dominoes...

* And "Desperados" has those two descending bass notes -- C B -- between the D major chord of the first line and the A major and B minor of the second. Such a simple but effective hook.

** Apologies to my loyal readers in Webster, TX and Seabrook, TX (not to mention Sheffield, Yorks and Leeds, Yorks). You know it's true...


Elisabeth said...

I almost fell out of my chair when I read the footnote with the double asterisk, LOL, as I'm (presumably) one of your loyal readers from Seabrook, TX. The Idiotic Hat is one of my favorite blogs, one of only two that I read daily (the other being The Online Photographer.) I enjoy it as much for your photographs as for the writing, and I always feel guilty when I see a few or no comments in response to your very engaging posts. So I'm glad to come out as a lurker and offer some long overdue praise for the content here.

In fact, the second photograph in this entry made me hold my breath when I saw it. You have a painter's eye and sensibility in your images, and this one is absolutely breathtaking. Any way one could buy a print?

I'm sorry I don't have anything to contribute on the topic of country music, as I avoid that genre at all costs. Perhaps I'll check out the links you provided, though, and find an open door worth going through myself! Keep up the great work, and please know that your blog is immensely enjoyed by at least one person who merely lurks and doesn't (at least until now) post comments.


Mike C. said...

I'm pleased and flattered by your comments, Elisabeth -- thanks!

The writing is, to an extent, the packing around the photos, though it's true some visitors do regard it more highly, perhaps a bit like the prints that were packed around pots imported from Japan in the 19th century ...

Unlike TOP (with its 30K visits per day!)I get enough visitors worldwide to make my stats worth reviewing, but not so many it becomes an exercise in weighing (hmm, only 5 kilos from France this week...). Google Analytics can resolve stats geographically down to "city" level, which is how I spotted your regular visits.

Feel free not to comment -- if everyone did I don't think I could manage!

Yes, a print is entirely possible, now I have a new printer (one day I'll put a PayPal "shop" gadget onto the blog). Contact me via email with an address -- my email address is in my webpage, linked from my profile ("Since You Ask"). I'd charge $40 for A4 or $80 for A3.

Best seasonal wishes,


Martin H. said...

Saw Guy Clark at the 2000 Cambridge Folk Festival. Great set, as I recall, although this song is new to me. Thanks for the introduction.

Mike C. said...

Just passing it on, Martin -- as I say, I'm never going to be a big country fan, but I know a good thing when I hear it. The alarming thing is some of the other stuff you encounter if you step a little further off the path... Merle Haggard, eek!


Dave Leeke said...

Glad you explored the song further, Mike. It is based on Clark's experience of growing up at his nan's hotel - evidently this is a (probably embroidered) true story of his young life.

Funnily enough, a version of this song came on the old iPod yesterday whilst driving back from doing the Christmas food shopping. It was the Nanci Griffith version that features Clark, Earl and others. The last line has always resonated with me - and like you, my father's ghost stands at my shoulder when I hear it.

The album it comes from "Old No.1" is well worth a listen. It's not that C&W really.

I like world weary voices - songs written and sung by people that have maybe lived life a little too hard at times . . . I wonder why?

And for the record, I'm not a huge Country fan either - Americana covers a lot of country, so to speak.

Mind you a subtle bit of Dobro - or slide - adds so much to this particular song.