Editor’s note for January/February 2014 issue.
Brian Eno famously said that only 30,000 people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but every one of them started a band. The death of Lou Reed – the Velvets co-founder and solo artist who graced the cover of our Legends issue back in 2008 – has inspired countless tributes in recent weeks. Clearly, his influence extends well beyond what his sales figures might suggest.
In this issue, Reed tells Paul Zollo that his songs were beamed in from what he called his “permanent radio,” a non-stop barrage of music playing in his head. These sounds, both chaotic and tuneful, were set to Reed’s bare-bones street poetry, which told stories of characters living on the dirty boulevards of New York. Reed’s music crumbled walls, literally. Vaclav Havel, the dissident Czech playwright who later became president, once told Reed that his music helped pave the way for his presidency and the dismantling of communism in Czechoslovakia. How?
In the late ’60s, Havel smuggled one of the early Velvet albums back into his country. It began making the rounds through Prague’s underground arts scene, eventually landing in the hands of the psych-folk band Plastic People of the Universe, which fell hard for the Velvets and began taking its musical and ethical cues from them. The government eventually banned the Plastics from performing in public, and several of its members ended up jailed for subversion, an act that led to the publication of Charter 77 – a declaration of human rights published in the mid-’70s that was authored mostly by Havel. When the Communist government resigned from power, in ’89, the event was dubbed the Velvet Revolution. Not a bad legacy for a man who said he wrote songs simply for fun, because “he got a major-league kick out of it.”
Reed once interviewed Havel during his presidency and asked him if art had the ability to change things. Havell said ‘No,’ but countered that it could change people. And it was up to people to take it from there.
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Uncle Tupelo is another band whose true legacy can only be measured by the depth of its influence. The songwriting team of Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy would release four albums over its career and split in 1994, never really graduating beyond the world of small clubs and college radio. But the group’s potent blend of vintage country and folk – married with the energy of hardcore punk – launched an entire movement and spawned a host of flannel-clad imitators. So much of what is now called Americana – middle-class indie music with strong folk roots – seems like it can traced back to Uncle Tupelo.
In our article, Stephen Deusner talks to Jay Farrar – one of the most inspired and idiosyncratic lyricists of the last quarter century – about the band’s newly reissued debut record, No Depression. Deusner paints a grim picture of Belleville, Illinois, the Rust Belt town that birthed this pre-Internet band of young twentysomethings, who were desperate to leave a place decimated by closed-up shops and factories. This urgency to fleeinforms every track on No Depression. Farrar and Tweedy would eventually get out. After the band’s split, Farrar went on to form Son Volt and Tweedy would start Wilco. You know the rest.
We also check in with Jimmy Webb, now the chairman of the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, who authored such classics as “Wichita Lineman” and “The Highwayman.” And for our cover story, Elvis Costello talks with Alan Light about his new album, Wake Up Ghost, a stellar collaboration with famed hip-hop band The Roots that finds the Englishman pushing his songs into new frontiers.
Editor’s note for Sept/Oct 2013 issue of American Songwriter.
Three years ago I saw Jason Isbell perform aboard the deck of a Carnival cruise ship. He played one muggy evening just as our ship made the turn around the northwest tip of Cuba, on its way to Grand Cayman island. The turnout for that night’s show was weak. Maybe five or six people on deck. I watched with two American Songwriter colleagues and a central Florida version of Snooki from Jersey Shore.
Isbell did not seem to be enjoying himself. At one point during his set, he clamored for a drink, so we brought him a double Jack Daniel’s on the rocks. He then launched into “Goddamn Lonely Love” from his Drive-By Trucker days and said the song was about his ex-wife. He followed that with the amped-up “Go It Alone” from Here We Rest. If you said “lonesome” was a theme that night, you would not be wrong.
Isbell and his band the 400 Unit were one of a dozen or so acts playing the “Sailing Southern Ground cruise,” a four-day floating music festival put together by the Zac Brown Band. This quixotic, maritime voyage took us from Tampa to Grand Cayman and back over Labor Day weekend in 2010. American Songwriter pulled duty as the media sponsor.
By day three AS had come to know the pangs of sea life. Snookies multiplied like Gremlins in the oversized hot tubs. Midnight buffet raids lost their magic. Guitar solos began to sound like caterwauls. One night we lost all grip on reality and conducted a series of on-camera interviews with hapless cruise-goers that we called “Experiments In Journalism.” Those videos have since been deleted from all recording devices.
Isbell’s performances that week on the ship – I think we caught three or four – proved to be our only relief, and they would have been enough had we only heard “Decoration Day” and “Outfit.”
The former Drive-By Trucker’s career has come far since that week on the Inspiration. His new album, Southeastern, has been met with near-universal acclaim. As a friend put it, “it just makes all other records look bad.” And as this issue goes to press, Isbell is about to play a sold-out show at the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of country music.
By Isbell’s account, his personal life seems to be at an all-time high, thanks in large part to a recent marriage and newfound sobriety. Southeastern documents – with a poet’s eye and without a trace of maudlin sap – his comeback story. It is not a confessional album per se. Themes of loss and redemption are woven into a larger tale, featuring a mosaic of characters that include killers on the run and cancer victims. There is a multi-dimensional quality to the writing that other songwriting “legends” would stumble in vain to capture.
I met the album’s producer, Dave Cobb, at a party recently and said closing track “Relatively Easy” was my personal favorite. He was surprised. “Really? That was the first song we cut. And those usually don’t make the album.”
The speaker in “Relatively Easy” recounts the suicide of a close friend, his own personal breakdown, and then curiously ponders the life of a stranger he passes in the street, wondering whether this man is alone or in love. He punctuates all this by telling his girl that “… compared to people on a global scale / Our kind has had it relatively easy / Here with you, there’s always something to look forward to / My angry heart beats relatively easy.”
It’s a sentiment worth remembering.
I learned to lose early in life.
I have the Atlanta Braves to thank for that.
I grew up in the 1980s in the wilds of south Alabama. The Braves were the only professional team anywhere near there. They were my team, and my devotion to them was unconditional. Their games were broadcast on TBS everyday during the baseball season, usually at 6:05 p.m. CST, right after the combo-punch of the Brady Bunch and the Andy Griffith show. You could say I pledged allegiance to Chief Knockahoma, the Braves mascot who lived in a teepee out in the right field bleachers.
I watched most of the games on TV from 1985 through 1990. During those years they either finished in last or second-to-last place in the National League West. They stunk like Bourbon Street on a Sunday morning in August. All these years later I wonder about the psychic toll of those beatings, which came day after day, year after year, from April ‘til September.
My hero was Dale Murphy, the Mormon golden boy from Portland. He played left-field when I first became a fan and they switched him to right-field a few years later. He’d won the MVP in 1982 and 1983. The numbers started falling a little bit after that but he still managed to hit 30 or more home runs on average for the next couple years.
I wore his jersey around the house – he was No. 3 – with my own last name stitched across the top. I had all his baseball cards, including his rookie card from 1978, when he was drafted in the first round as a catcher.
I tried to emulate Murphy’s style of play on the diamonds of the YMCA during the formidable coach-pitch years. Murph had a habit of slinging the bat frequently after a strike out. I used to let the bat fly myself in this fashion and one day walloped my brother in the head while I was making him retrieve balls in the backyard. My mom was watching through the window that afternoon as she did the dishes and saw the incident unfold. I recall that she came running out of the house, screaming, “What have you done?” as my poor brother just lay there, half-conscious and sprawled on the St. Augustine grass.
If Murphy was the Braves captain during those years, then Bob Horner was the first mate. He was a slightly chubby first baseman with blonde jerry curl locks who eventually ended his career in Japan. As my middle brother had blond hair he adopted the character of Horner during our battles on the sandlot. I still remember the time Horner hit four home runs in one game against the Expos, becoming the fourth player in MLB history to accomplish such a feat. I got to meet Bob at an autograph session at JC Penney’s one summer day in Panama City Beach, Florida, and he signed my Bob Horner special edition Sports Illustrated poster. It was rad.
My littlest brother was too small to wear a regular jersey so we dressed him in Braves pajamas for a few years. We assigned him the persona of Chris Chambliss, a used-up overweight bench warmer with a somewhat creepy mustache. Sorry about that. You deserved better.
Every summer, usually in August, our family made its pilgrimage to mecca, or should I say Atlanta Fulton County stadium, an uninspiring edifice built in the ‘60s that sat right off the interstate. We always sat in the left field bleachers. Attendance was dismal during those years so we basically had the entire section to ourselves. We wore our Braves jerseys, made signs in hopes of getting on TV, and took our gloves with the dream of catching a home run ball.
I probably went to eight or ten games during those five years and I doubt if the Braves won two of those. Shortstop Raphael Ramiriez would invariably make two or three errors, catcher Bruce Benedict would strike out four or five times, and bearded hurler Gene Garber would usually cough up three or four home runs. But I always believed the Bravos would come out on top, and that Murph would homer, if only because I was there.
Bucky Bangs was a professional songwriter on Music Row. Though usually destitute, he once enjoyed a steady gig playing Spanish guitar at a low-rent bar on Nolensville Pike. He made enough to cover room and board, but not much else. Then he met Walter “Cig” Stowman, songwriter extraordinaire. Together they entered a Nashville studio in ‘75 to cut the record they thought would melt every needle that touched it. Except they hit the rotgut and never cut a track.
The years passed and Reaganomics proved detrimental to our hero. Bucky, in fact, was a living monument to the failure of the trickle-down theory, spending most of those years in rural Alabama, quaffing bathtub gin with Silas Bankhead somewhere on top of Lookout Mountain. Darkness washed over Bucky body and soul. Had he been asked to play a “G” chord then he could not have.
Last week, a group country music historians unearthed the epistolary correspondence between Bucky and Stowman, conducted during the summer of 2006. Here are two of the letters:
August 7, 2007
It’s been about thirty years since we last talked. If my name doesn’t ring any bells, maybe you’ll remember me as the former roadie for Johnny Paycheck, back in what musicologists now refer to as his “lost years.”
At any rate, I was in Nashville this past weekend visiting an old friend. On Saturday night, we hitched a ride to the Springwater Supper Club, where I ran into our old friend, Mr. Stevens. I saw him standing in the corner when I first entered. He was wearing biker shorts and a blue fedora, pumping a fistful of quarters into an old nickelodeon. It seems our friend Stevens has acquired a strong taste for the early work of Newton-John in his old age. Fuck it. Nobody goes there for the tunes anyway.
I ordered a beer and a shot and then approached him. He didn’t recognize me and just stared at my mug like a man who had just undergone a lobotomy. Once I mentioned you and Paycheck, well ….
Our boy does not look good. But we ended up talking all night. He mostly rattled on about you and that ill-fated trip ya’ll took in the middle of the Watergate hearings. Although he hasn’t forgiven you for the damage it caused – his lockjaw has gotten progressively worse – he’s managed to come to terms with it. He still knows that he is the same man that Billy Sherrill once called the “best damn thing in the business.”
But enough of that. The reason I’m writing is that Stevens wants you to sing harmony on one of his new tracks, “Osama ‘Yo Mama.” It’s the revised version. The record company refuses to put the original on the album as it did not accurately predict the hunt for bin Laden.
That’s all the new I have about Stevens. Though later that night a gaggle of Japanese tourists entered the bar and played “It’s All Beautiful” on the box. Upon hearing the song, Stevens broke down and wept, saying: “It ain’t so, it just ain’t so.”
So, Cig, I ask you to come to Music City and cut that song. The time has come to bring the boys back home.
First off I’ll tell you what I remember. I remember you owing me fifty bucks. Second off there ain’t no way in hell I’m crossing the Red River for Stevens’ sorry ass. Crying all the way to Bakersfield Jesus Christ I had to dope him just to get a little shut eye. Said the rocks were gittin him. Hell I don’t know. And as far as that lockjaw goes well I guess I might have been a little too juiced up and not thinking right but it damn sure was a good idea at the time. Hey, he made a go of it didn’t he and made some pretty good scratch too off that crazy talk he picked up on the trip so what the hell’s his problem.
Hell I’ve got problems. Just got out. Did eleven months and twenty-nine days on a three-year stretch. Had to work the chow line for my old man up in Abilene. Probation and all. I swear to god that’s the last time. I’ll never swing a hammer or scrape another house or dig another hole and they can come get me if they want but I’m a man of the stage by god. He wanted me to show up at 8 every day. So I said screw it and told him to shove it and that was that. Just made it into San Marcos. Hitched a ride with some Mexicans headin down to San Antone. Rode in the bed drinkin beer with the littlest one the whole way. Damn near got myself thrown back in the cooler in Pontotoc for tossing the bottles at signs and that old trooper rolled up on us and I pulled some name out of my ass and told him I was Brian Hunter and was sure sorry and was just passing through and by god he was giving me the evil eye the whole time cause I think he recognized me but I didn’t’ have no license on me or nothing so there was nothing he could do.
Speakin of I sure could use a place to cool off for a little while. Since they’re gonna be on me pretty soon around here Old Virginny would be just the place to kick back for a while until it all dies down. If you old lady’s still pissed at me just tell her where she can stick it cause she’s just lucky to get to put up with the Texas legend himself for a little while. Hell I might even get the band back together while I’m up there and let you in on it seeing how my old tub thumper won’t be out for another four years for bustin up his old lady. I can see it all in my mind right now. All the town will be talking about how Cig Stowman and Poco Loco is back again at the Touch Of Class Lounge with Bucky Bangs on bass. Just let me get up enough feed to get to Richmond and I’ll be seeing you sooner than you can sing “Just Give Her The Whiskey.” I’ve gotta stop off and settle a little score with a slicky haired sparkle suit wearing old boy up in Nashville and I think you know who I mean. Until then keep that Lonestar cold and the dance floor hot.
Most of us got our start with chew. It was our archway to the great kingdom of tobacco. In our early pubescence we came to know the wild ecstasies the leaves of North Carolina and Virginia could provide, contained within the perfect circle of a little tin can.
Back then, we all had the same supplier, in the form of Billy Whittaker. Every Monday, Billy walked into the Big B Drug Store on Old Shell Road and stuffed a whole galaxy of chewing tobacco into the front pouch of his red L.L. Bean anorak. He only swiped certain brands. He knew what his customers wanted: Beech Nut Original, Levi-Garrett, Red Man Original, Red Man Golden Blend, and Beech Nut Wintergreen. If you knew the man with the plan he would take care of you. This was back in the early ’90s, mind you, during the glory days of Joe Camel, when stores left tobacco out on the floor so as to encourage stealing among the delinquent. Even so, Whittaker was a very talented thief and never so much as got questioned.
Levi Garrett was the most popular brand for seventh-graders. It was mild, large-leafed, boasted a good, salty flavor, and did not deliver so much nicotine as to make one sick. It also came in a handsome-looking pouch. You felt like a rugged individual when you chewed Levi.
Skoal bandits (either mint or wintergreen flavors) were also popular. They came in little brown pouches and sported the really cool bandit logo on the can. They delivered very little juice so you would really have to work the pouch around in your mouth if you wanted to get the full effect. The more rebellious among us stuffed four or five pouches in at once. It became something of a competition to see how many pouches one could hold. There was also a brand of snuff called Hawken which “tasted like candy” and registered low on the nicotine meter. The logo featured two interlocking pistols and looked pretty cool. But let’s face it, Hawken was for wimps.
As a baseball player, you were around smokeless tobacco constantly. One teammate from Little League (or Dixie Youth League, as it was known in Mobile) used to pack Skoal Wintergreen in a Bubbletape container and bring it to practice. He was the Dixie Youth version of Charlie Sheen’s “Wild Thing” character from the movie Major League. The boy could throw smoke from 46 feet. And everyone knows that a fresh dip on the mound adds roughly five extra mph to an eleven year old’s fastball.
Once you got to JV baseball, the abuse became widespread. Players could get ejected from a game if an ump caught you dipping, though outfielders were usually safe if they wanted to enjoy one in the late innings. And you often needed that dip to get you through a 13-inning game out in the wilds of Bayou La Batre, when it’s 10:30 at night on a Tuesday and the whole town smells like dead fish and you still had that problem set from Algebra 1 to finish.
* * * * *
During high school, a new locker room was built for the varsity teams. The new pad was nice, a shangri-la of a place that was a major upgrade from the old petri dish we used to dress in. Bigger lockers, for one. And if a high-school bully wanted to lock a middle schooler into one of the lockers, well, at least the victim could breathe and had room to move around for the 47-minute class period.
The new locker room was so nice that it became a hang-out lounge for the hard-core dippers (not unlike the Hookah bars of the Middle Eastern sort). This band of hardballers indugled in Kodiak Wintergreen, the strongest stuff on the market and rumored to be cut with fiberglass and god knows what else. These rebels were so brazen that they quit using cups as repositories and began spitting on our bright-shining linoleum floor. Smokeless tobacco had obliterated their sense of judgment, as well as their gum-lines. They were soon discovered, and two of the trespassers got sentenced to fifteen years of detention. No word on whether they still dip.