Cookie at Tin Pan Alley, NYC
[Nan Goldin (American, 1953 - ) 1983
Cibachrome, 76x102 cm; Matthew Marks Gallery, NYC]
Mike Mellor: Before we get into it I think it's important to remember our friend Shirley Lewis, who passed away this week. You spent more time with her than I did, but that seems almost irrelevant because it didn't take Shirley very long to get close to anybody. She had an endless supply of warmth that she gave to anybody willing to accept it, not only on stage but in just about everything she did for anybody she came across. We're going to miss her around here.
Brendan Hogan: That's the kind of person Shirley was. To me, she's an angel. There are some people who are channels for something beyond the concrete, some kind of energy that we're all tapped into, but only few notice. Some people are more keyed into it than others; they're better tuned to carry its resonance and ring like a bell. That's Shirley.
You could hear it in her music. It was all about energy and feeling: spontaneity and celebration. She vibrated. Shirley was whatever she was feeling, and onstage it might never come out the same way twice. That was pretty thrilling to watch and be a part of, and is the mark of a great artist. It's the most honest way of creating.
But above all, Shirley was just a good human being; kind, intuitive, selfless, and resilient. An angel, really, who touched the lives of many people.
Mike: No doubt. It's been heartwarming for me to see the grieving process for Shirley across social media. People who I thought couldn't agree on anything have been sharing their love for Shirley and their grief at her loss.
One of the best ways to grieve is to reminiscence on the joyful times you spent with that person. Several generations of the Boston blues community have been doing that this week and I doubt any of them have a shortage of memories to work with, as she was usually the person who brought the joy to the room, or else amplified it with her energy. I hear you're dedicating the first half of the 9:00 hour tonight to Shirley's music. I'll be sure to tune in to that.
Another way to grieve, of course, is by drinking, which is part of our theme this week. With a name like Hogan I'm sure you're familiar with the Irish wake tradition, but are you familiar with the song "Finnegan's Wake?"
When Tim Finnegan the boozer " fell off a ladder and broke his skull...they carried him off a corpse to wake...with a gallon of porter by his feet and a noggin' of whiskey by his head." The next day they held the wake, which of course included music, dancing, drinking and eventually fighting. In the fight somebody threw a bottle of whiskey, which broke and spilled all over Finnegan's body. Naturally, the uisce beatha revived him and brought him back from the dead.
Only the Irish, man.
Brendan: I was wondering how you were going to segue into this week's theme. Yes, the Irish definitely know how to hold a wake. But this week we'll look at the flip side of drink and drug and focus on the downside; the non-celebratory side. Why? Just for the hell of it.
So often it's a subject glorified in song and in pop culture, and that's all well and fine, but I want to take a look at reality. Booze and drugs are consuming. I'm all for a good song about good times (so long as it's good), but when getting loaded crosses the line, as it so easily does, into something that you'll do anything to service, then it's a problem. Problems make for interesting stories, though, and that's why we're so compelled to hear them.
Is there anything more desperate than a person who needs their fix, but they just can't get it? Jonathan Byrd tells the story of a man late to meet his dealer because he's stuck behind a jack-knife on the highway. This guy's relationship with dope is a bad love affair; like going insane.
Mike: "I don’t know how I got so low. No, I don’t know how I got so mean.
Diggin’ for change in the backseat clothes. And it’s been a long time since I been clean."
I don't mean to glorify the wake, or other oft-glorified enabling moments like sporting events, weddings, cookouts, bachelor(ette) parties, or whatever. I mean, so many of us are inculcated by these booze-soaked "rites of passage" that get us acclimated to the juice in the first place. Byrd's song is a reminder that, as memorable as the drunken nights of meaning may be, there are far fewer of them for the addict than there are mornings trying to piece last night together, or those endless mid-days where all you think about is the who/what/when/where of getting what you crave...while never examining why. It's a desolate space far removed from the social reverie of group consumption.
What we're talking about is a complicated social construct that fucks up the lives of individuals. And it's not only the junkie on the corner, or the drunk slumped on the bar at 7:00 in the evening. This affects mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas, brothers, sisters, cousins and children, plus friends and co-workers and the people we get romantically involved with, all at different stages of their dependency and coping with it differently. There's no easy solution because the population of people who suffer, and the methods by which they cope, is so diverse.
"I Drink" is a good reflection on my personal perspective on it. I'm not saying that my experience is bleak the way Mary Gauthier paints the picture, but I'm tight with people like that, and there is something in the resignation of the song that resonates with me.
"Chicken TV dinner / 6 minutes on defrost, 3 on high
A beer to wash it down with / Then another little whiskey on the side
It's not so bad alone here / It don't bother me that every night's the same
I don't need another lover / Hanging 'round, trying to make me change"
It's amazing how quickly the social habit can turn into a socially isolating prison.
Brendan: Yeah, I didn't think you were glorifying anything, I was just speaking to the culture at large, which as we know, is pervasive. All one has to do is turn on the TV, go to a social or sporting event, even just meet new people, to understand the reach of drinking culture in particular. But addiction is addiction, and Byrd's song, to me, spotlights the kind of desperation, and all-consuming drive, to feed one's addiction.
That singular motivation in the addict's life is what ultimately messes them up, because nobody can live that lifestyle forever. It can't stand. And as you point out, and Mary Gauthier so brilliantly depicts in her song, it's problematic not only to the addict, but to everyone in their life.
"Fish swim / Birds fly / Daddies yell / Mamas cry / Old men sit and think / I drink".
That relates a kind of stubbornness in an addict's attitude that is destructive in its own right.
What should be noted about our culture, though, is that we haven't shied away from these things, at least in popular song over the past century, especially among blues singers. It comes up with Victoria Spivey in her 1927 song (that features a killer low-tuned guitar sound from Lonnie Johnson, by the way) in "Dope Head Blues". There's that same denial, the same stubbornness to face reality.
"I feel like a fighting rooster / Feel better than I've ever felt / I got the double pneumonia / And I still think I've got the best health".
Mike: Yet reality always wins against the stubbornness to face it.
That particular song is about a Vietnam vet who got hooked on heroin, which isn't so different from the Iraq/Afghanistan vets who got hooked on oxycontin. Heroin and oxycontin are both opiates and that returning veteran could just as easily be you or me or nearly anybody else in this country. On one of Prine's live albums he introduced the song by saying:
"We went over to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I'd never been there before. I'd seen pictures of it. So I looked, both Al and me looked up guys in the telephone book there. That's what it looks like. They've got these little phone books and you look up the person's name you want to see. It tells you which part of the wall to go to.
So we looked up our friends in there and went and found their names on the wall. And when you stand there looking at their names, it's black marble. You can see your reflection in the wall.
So if you ever get the chance to go there I suggest you go to the place. It's a pretty fitting memorial."
You can see your reflection in the wall. I hope people can also see their reflection in these songs, whether or not they are or ever were addicts. Not only can it happen to the best of us, it has happened to the best of us.
Brendan: John Prine is our Mark Twain. There's an incredible amount of weight to the simplest of lines in his songs. "Jesus Christ died for nothing" is not a throw away sentiment to Sam Stone; it means he's given up, and Prine lets us see that to the end.
Then there's "Dead Flowers", a song that has come to epitomize drug chic. Keith Richards' iconic status owes as much to his intake as his output, but it's important to remember he has lead the life of a millionaire since his 20's, and has benefited from the luxuries that come along with that. Townes Van Zandt, and so many countless others aren't so fortunate.
Mike: Neither are you.
Brendan: Well, I am fortunate. The thing about stubbornness is that it can be used against itself. It's called willpower. Ultimately, though, it comes down to a choice between life or death, and everyone has to choose every day. Except maybe Keith Richards.
Dark Was the Night airs on WUMB Saturdays from 8pm-midnight.
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