Mike Mellor: We got some really positive feedback on how we tied together such a diverse group of songwriters last week. The oldest and the youngest artists were born 94 years apart and only two of the six were born in the same decade (Lewis 1893, Johnson 1911, Van Zandt '44, Zevon '47, Earle '55, Lamar '87). Two are from Mississippi, two are from Texas and two are from California. Two are alive and four are dead.
I'm going to keep this thread going by throwing in a guy born in 1968. Most people have never heard of Jeremy Wallace, but he is on my shortlist of favorite songwriters. I love his songs so much I wrote an unsolicited pro bono essay about them when I was editor for the Boston Blues Society and the Jeremy Wallace Trio was in the International Blues Competition. To sum it up in a quote: "This is deadbeat music, and you can't fake that shit. It's evocative, honest, earnest, seedy, sad, clever and passionate. Above all, it's real." And Dave Van Ronk agreed with me (or, actually, I agree with DVR).
"Cold October" is my favorite song of his. It's the lyrics like this that are aching, downcast and funny as hell all at the same time.
So you know down at Jack's Marylou's unattached and she's working
And something inside of you dies each time that she smiles
She laughs at your jokes and she drinks and she smokes; she's just lovely
But you know all too well that you're just not her style
And though you hardly know her
You'd give all you got if only you could hold her
When it's cold, cold October
Brendan Hogan: Yes, I guess that picks up on the point made at the end of last week's blog that this is music that has reached across generations and up and down the social spectrum.
These days, most songwriters working at their craft aren't household names and never will be. That's not something to fret about, and I don't understand why people base their perception of the value of a piece of art based on how it has been consumed. Ultimately they are talking about commerce, a byproduct of a hyper-capitalistic society, and I'm afraid that may have permeated our culture as much as our great art.
I bring this up because Jeremy Wallace is going to exist many years into the future in the same way he has existed in the past, and exists today. What he does is real, and it can't be made up. It's like an economy: the numbers can be fudged for a while, but eventually what was faked will be lost. The precious stone from the Earth, though, will always have its value. And there will always be deadbeats.
To tell a story you need no more qualification than to be a person with a story, and Peter Case has lived the stories of a hundred lives, it seems. Not only that, but he's able to take them into account and reflect on them in songs that present them almost as a series of vignettes. "Ain't Gonna Worry No More" is a song that captures this perfectly. With each verse he criss-crosses through near and distant memories, tying them together with a chorus that is very much in the present, or at least part of a new presence in his life at the time he is recalling it. It's concrete imagery inserted between verses to bind them together.
Bare feet poppin' on a pinewood floor
A tumble-rush of desert flowers 'side the door
Her music box is pretty with the piebald stripes
Dust mote diamonds in a shaft of light
Everybody's laughing now it won't be long
We've seen a lot of troubles now the ghost is gone
C'mon down; I ain't gonna worry no more
I was waiting at the depot for a London train
Trying to paint a picture in the pouring rain
Hanging out the window running out of blue
Tomcat in the alley dodged a worn out shoe
It's another kind of deadbeat music.
Mike: Case is a genius, plain and simple one of the very best in the deadbeat vein of Americana. He is a songwriter's songwriter if there ever was one.
If the name sounds familiar to anyone reading this and they were listening to the radio in 1992 they might remember "Dream About You," or they might recognize some artists on this 47-track tribute album. Neither of these capture the magic of Peter in his element, but they might prove to be accessible doorways into his imposing catalog.
We have a bit of deadbeat overload in this conversation, stretching back to last week with Warren and Townes, who certainly had their moments, too. I want to cleanse the palate a bit with a little Cole Porter, the writer who first got me obsessed with internal rhyming and primed me for the Wallace style:
Brendan: That song contains one of the most important things you need to know about internal rhyme: Keep it simple and keep it flowing.
When you're near there's such an air of spring about it.
There's not a wasted word in that line and, phonetically, it is so pleasing to hear. It's a short sentence, but each part hooks into the next. "Near" rhymes with "air" as does "about" with "it", which is pretty impressive, but to me the capper comes later. How many internal rhymes can Cole Porter fit in one line?:
There's no love song finer, but how strange the change from major to minor ev'ry time we say goodbye
That line has the same kind of rhythmic rhyme and propulsion we were talking about last week with Kendrick Lamar and hip hop, or the stream of consciousness found in some Townes and mid-60's Dylan songs. It's a rare writer that can construct a line that sounds as good as that one while conveying emotion without being cute about it.
Another person who is really good with that kind of lyrical propulsion is Chuck Berry. He was capable of bringing a level of sophistication to early rock 'n' roll that is worthy of its own songbook, and oftentimes he achieved it through inventive and creative use of language. Chuck liked to make up words—like "motorvating", used to describe moving at a high rate of speed in a car, or "hurry home drops" to describe tears of lonliness—that was rivaled only by the lyrical mysticism of Bo Diddley in "Who Do You Love" or pretty much anything by Percy Mayfield.
My favorite song of Chuck's is "Downbound Train". He spends the entire song comparing a train ride from hell with a terrible bender, but there's nothing trite about it. The best verse of the song calls on the theme of "This Train (Bound for Glory)", but with a hellish bent painted with flourishes of ghoulish imagery.
The engine with blood was sweaty and damp
And brilliantly lit with a brimstone lamp
And imps for fuel was shoveling bones
While the furnace rang with a thousand moans
Where else do you hear that kind of phrasing in rock 'n' roll?
Mike: You've really outdone yourself here, connecting Cole Porter and Kendrick Lamar through Chuck Berry. Now that I think of it, all three of them seem to have known something nobody else around them did. Porter put actual Parisian sophistication into a genre of music that had only Parisian airs (his only peer is actually two people: the Gershwin Brothers) and Lamar is almost singlehandedly bridging the gap between "gangsta" rap and "conscious" rap in the way he shows the streets instead of telling the streets.
And of course, Berry, well, if American music were an hourglass Chuck might very well be the neck; the whole history of this country's musical sound seemed to come out of him and Lord knows everything after has his fingerprint on it somewhere. He's not the only important rock 'n' roller, but he's the only one who had every talent an ideal rock 'n' roller had. For the sake of this conversation, he is undoubtedly the greatest lyricist of that time and everybody knew it. Especially himself.
Brendan: Ha. Yes, but the best line of poetry in rock 'n' roll belongs to Big Joe Turner in "Shake, Rattle & Roll": "I'm a one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store, I could look at you 'til you ain't a child no more." That whole song, including the term rock 'n' roll itself, is a poetic euphemism for sex.
Mike: I think David Lynch might agree with you.
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