Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Fred Eaglesmith

Dec 2009: I was on the Bell’s Line Of Road (if there is a more beautifully-named road, I’d like to know it) with my mother today, driving back from a blessedly* rainy Christmas in the Cowra district (*blessed by the clouds). As we drove through mist and apple farms, hearing the occasional bell-bird, I put on Fred Eaglesmith’s new-ish album, ‘Tinderbox’. I didn’t like it much when I first heard it – his voice was too much of a tuneless, Tom Waits growl, and the production was rackety and messy. But out of respect for Fred, I persevered, and the ideas behind the album – to me, it’s a ‘concept album’ – made themselves apparent. Only a very experienced songwriter could, coming the full circle, write such simple songs. At first I thought he’d done an album of traditional, gospel-leaning covers; I was very surprised, on checking the liner notes, that he’d pretty much written all of them. There was only one that had the Eaglesmith hallmarks: ‘Quietly’ sets up a vivid scene of a woman rising from her lover’s bed, quietly getting dressed, quietly shedding a couple of tears, quietly kissing him, quietly walking out the door; and then comes the Eaglesmith volta, where we realise that the man has been awake the whole time, and is worn out by her rather self-absorbed tragicality (just as we, the listener, is, too), and has decided to let her go. I love the whole album, but the final song, ‘WHEN’, is the one I learnt on the piano. The refrain, “If not now, when?”, is repeated several times to make up the chorus. There are two very spare verses, the first being, in entirety: “Not yesterday, no-oo, not tomorrow, wo-oe, not a minute ahead, not a minute behind.” Its simplicity provokes a songwriter like me to slap herself on the head and say, “Damn! Why didn’t I think of that before Fred did?” Every time a longing gets too much for me, I sit at the piano, play ‘WHEN’ a few times, and have nothing more to add. It’s a prayer, offered up – in my case – to the clouds.

Just to add a slightly relevant (if the concept behind ‘Tinderbox’ could be summed up as ‘faith’) footnote: this sceptic-atheist had an experience a few days before Christmas that has completely re-converted me to Santa Claus. The Toxteth Road Miracle occurred while I was walking home and saw on the footpath a plastic bag that looked as though it had been ripped open, snuffled through, then pissed on by a dog. In among the old T-shirts spilling out, I chanced to spot a floral print. “It looks like beautiful, 1950s silk, but it must be some phony, polyester reproduction,” I thought. Nevertheless, I bent down to investigate. Pinching a corner between finger and thumb, I dragged out the garment. It WAS beautiful, 1950s silk! - a little blouse, handmade, that (once washed) turned out to fit me perfectly. If that’s not proof, then you’re hard to satisfy!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Linda Ronstadt

Nov 2009: There’s a wonderful live recording of Linda Ronstadt singing ‘RESCUE ME’, a song written by W.C. Smith and R. Miner (whoever they are) and made famous by Aretha Franklin. When Linda sings it, she sounds so desperate, and so insatiable. You get the impression that she’s singling out a few men from the audience and singing it pointedly to them; her hard-working manager then rounds up Linda’s selection, and rosters them on, one after the other, to wait their turn outside Linda’s hotel-room door. I’ve always loved singing along to it, and recently thought, “Well, why don’t I try to learn it?” It seemed hard! It IS hard! If you don’t completely let go, then you may as well not bother singing it at all – it’s one of those songs. I saw the Maladies play at their record launch last week, and Daniel, their singer, is a shining example of allowing himself to be completely possessed by the act of singing – it’s great to watch. But you can’t do it by halves!

So I sing at top volume, “Rescue me! Love me, baby, squeeze me, baby! ‘Cause I’m lonely, and I’m blue. I need you, and your love, too – rescue me!” I want to tell my flatmates, “That song’s not one of mine. It’s an old classic. It’s just a song. It’s an exercise. I don’t really mean what I’m singing.” But I do, I do!

Correction: Chris informs me that it was Fontella Bass, not Aretha, who made this song famous. “But didn’t Aretha do it, too?” I lamely protested, stopping short of saying, “I read it on the internet!” Chris said, “I’d know.”

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Gene Clark/Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

Oct 2009: Gene Clark has been one of my best friends, ever since that first mixed tape Nic made me in 1997. A flatmate, Cassie, reported at the time, “Lucy listens to that tape over and over, even though it seems to make her sad.” ‘THROUGH THE MORNING, THROUGH THE NIGHT’ is an obvious stand-out…but although it stood out in those first hearings, its magic has never faded, not one bit. When I played the song over and over in ’97, I would have been thinking about Justin, who had left me in the middle of the year to go to Alaska. I started going out with Nic. Nic and I broke up for a month or so. Justin returned to Sydney. Nic and I got back together. “To know that another man’s holding you tight/ Hurts me, little darling, through the morning, through the night.”

Last month, on the day of the dust storm, I went up north to visit Justin. He made me a copy of the recent Alison Krauss and Robert Plant album, plus a bonus track at the end – his song of the moment, by an unknown band he saw at an open-mic night. “It’s a very melancholy song,” I said. “Do you think?” said Just, “I could listen to it all night.”

A week later, I was further north, and all the way over on the other side of Australia. Fred Eaglesmith’s album, ‘Tinderbox’, which I’d bought in Brisbane, was rejected by Clint’s CD-player, so I listened to my other CD, Alison and Robert, over and over. Their version of ‘THROUGH THE MORNING, THROUGH THE NIGHT’ is incredibly beautiful – Alison’s glassy voice, Robert’s yearning harmonies, and the gentle waltz underneath it. Of course, my guitar was travelling with me, and I learnt the song, hoping I wasn’t waking any shift-workers as Alison’s high register took me out of my bedroom voice and into my paddock voice. I was still singing ‘TTM, TTN’ when I finally returned to Sydney. The upside of being home is that now I can also play the song on the piano (having wiped the film of red dust off it).

When our heart is aching, why don’t we cheer ourselves up by listening to happy songs? Most of us don’t work like that – it’s one of the mysteries of human nature. Instead we seek out songs that chime with what’s going on inside us, as though – with like attracting like - the songs draw the poison out of the wound. “I dreamed, just last night, you were there by my side,/ With your sweet love and tenderness easing my pride,/ But then I awoke and I found you’re not there,/ It was just my old memories of how much you cared.”

This song returning to me; one man reminding me of another; and vice versa; magic that won’t fade: all this makes me feel, quite eerily, that I’ve come to the point - the seamline - where the pattern of my life starts to repeat itself. No one is ever supposed to see this seamline! We’re supposed to believe that life’s capacity for invention is infinite. The tape has ended, the player has whirred, clunked, and now automatically starts up again.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Randy Newman

Sept 2009: I put on Randy Newman’s ‘Trouble In Paradise’ this morning. I was busy eating porridge, hanging clothes on the line, watering lettuce and rainbow-chard seedlings, and not really paying attention to Randy. I bought this album several weeks ago from the Record Finder, where I sheltered from buckets of winter rain that were being tossed down onto Fremantle. After an hour or two, I walked out, twixt buckets, with Randy, Tanya Tucker, Charlie Rich (doing an interesting, macho version of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’) and Rusty and Doug Kershaw: no risks, just solid substance to add to my collection.

Because Randy has a lot to say, at first his songs can be obscure and impenetrable. I have to familiarise myself thoroughly with an album of his before I love it; it might take months of desultory, “Oh, that’s right, I could put on that new [sic] Randy Newman album.” Maybe if he wasn’t packing so much – so many ideas – into his songs, they would be more direct and accessible; of course, this aspect that makes him unpalatable at first is exactly what makes him so rewarding, year after year, to the persevering listener.

So this morning, Randy was singing about something or other. One particular line - the chorus - was being repeated often enough to catch my attention, “My life is good! My life is good!” And then, “My life is GOOD, you old bag!” And I thought, “Well, that’s why I love Randy.”

Monday, June 1, 2009

Mike Nesmith

June 2009 – Mike Nesmith’s ‘DIFFERENT DRUM’ is a song I learnt recently. Learning a song, and especially, figuring out a song (viz. from a recording, rather than someone teaching it to you or - something I almost never do – finding it in a book or on the internet) connotes to me a particular obsessive love that can only be sated by minute dismembering of the song, fumbling with its every note, grasping its tricks, cracking its mysteries. Really, it’s an excuse to listen to it over and over. And then to play it over and over. It’s almost like eating the song; it is absorbed, converted into energy, and becomes part of you. Once in a while, a songwriter has told me, “I haven’t written a song for a while,” [subtext: “Help! Will I ever write another?”]. I’ve recommended learning a few favourite covers; learning a song is like following the thought-process that led the songwriter to the song – glimpsing someone else’s paradigm is often what you need to lift you out of your own spent furrows.

My local cocktail bar is ‘The Different Drummer’; although I have lived in this suburb since I was 8, when my mother, sister, brother and I moved in with my step-father, his ex-wife and her girlfriend, I didn’t step into the dark doorway of ‘The Different Drummer’ until a month or so ago. As I sat with my beer, thus missing out on the 2-for-1 cocktail-offer, and Arabella sat with her two apple-sugary-something-or-others, the song (as sung by Linda Rondstadt) to begin playing in my mind. A few days later, Nic returned a pile of my records, including a Mike Nesmith (former Monkee) best-of I bought in Germany a few years ago. So! It just seemed like the right time to learn the song. While Linda’s version is full of drama, that of finally shaking off an unsatisfied, weepy lover in favour of glorious freedom, Mike’s version is light, loose, almost silly. But equally triumphant. It also has a verse I don’t remember being in Linda’s: “I feel pretty sure that you’ll find a man, who’ll take [I like this ‘take’, when you’d expect ‘give’] a lot more than I ever coulda can, and you’ll settle down with him, and you’ll be happy.” No matter how many times I raised the needle and thumped it (“Oops!”) back to the beginning of the song, I just couldn’t catch Mike’s picking pattern, so made up my own, which is about fifty-percent less charming.

P.S. In the Port Hedland tourist info centre, killing time before my bus to Broome was due to arrive, I struck up a conversation with the two women working there. “And over the road’s the __,” here the tourist-liaison-officer named a pub, but I’ve forgotten it, “which is in the Guinness Book of Records. The most stabbings in one night.” “Fatal,” the other tourist-liaison-officer added. I asked how many. “Three,” she said. The other said, “No, it was way more than that. It was fifteen or something.” They asked me to get out my guitar and play them a song. I played them DIFFERENT DRUM. It’s a good song for women to lay claim to, especially when in the man’s world of Port Hedland.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Dubliners

February ’09 – ‘FOGGY DEW’ (not the 1916 Irish rebel song, but the 17th century ballad) is a song I’ve rhapsodised about before, but over the past few weeks, I’ve finally made the effort to learn it, rewinding, then rewinding again, the cassette with the Dubliners on one side and Gordon Lightfoot on the other. A man sings about a love affair he had in his youth; at the time, he didn’t especially value it, and let it slip away - his lover becomes another man’s wife. One defining feature of youth is the feeling of, “Plenty more where that came from – and better-looking ones, too!” Twenty years later, you look back and think, “Actually, it doesn’t get better than that.” The girl of the song is caught between her superstitious fear of the foggy dew, and her fear of sleeping with the man and becoming pregnant. The man thinks it would do her good to have some children, “It would make you leave off your foolish young tricks.” I suppose it reminds me of a relationship or two I had in my late-teens, early-twenties, which were matters of grave seriousness to me, and “sport and play” to him. Like this young servant maid, I would wring my hands and cry, “Oh, what shall I do?” or else, “I am undone!”, and he would say, “Hold your tongue you silly young girl, for the foggy dew is gone, gone, gone!” The foggy dew is the territory of fairies (potentially bad ones) and other perils; an earlier version of the song substitutes “foggy dew” for “Bogulmaroo” or “Buggaboo”, a bogey man. But to me, the “foggy dew” is something else as well – youth? Falling in love? Romantic notions? The formless mystery of night? Hopes? Something that is felt intensely for a moment, and then evaporates. The song ends with him saying that he has never told her husband (no doubt they all live in the same village) “of her faults, and I’m damned if ever I’ll do, for many’s the time, as she winks and smiles, I think on the foggy dew, dew, dew.” It’s a beautiful, emotionally complex song, which is why it has been piquing people’s interest regularly enough, over the past four hundred or so years, for it to have endured till today. I’ll sing it at my show at the Sando on March 26th.