The Immortal Jukebox A9 : Tom T Hall – It Sure Gets Cold In Des Moines

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‘ I was much too far out all my life – And not waving but drowning’
(Stevie Smith)

‘Looking at the moon all col and wite and oansome. Lorna said to me, ‘You know Riddley there’s something in us it don’t have no name …. It’s looking out thru our eye hoals .. It’s all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and loan and oansome, Tremmering it is and feart.’ (Russell Hoban – ‘Riddley Walker’).

‘Life is just like that sometimes’. (Tom T Hall)

Armoured and fast in our self-absorption it is remarkably easy to walk through our lives in this world not seeing, not hearing, not feeling almost everything that’s happening all around us. We all have our own particular set of philosophical, cultural and emotional blinkers that help keep out or shield us from those elements of life we would rather not have to confront.

I would contend that none of us is immune from the struggle to recognise, accept and face our primal aloneness as we pass through our fears, our pains and our sorrows. Each life is like an iceberg with only a fraction of its totality visible to ourselves and any outsider. And the iceberg floats above the waterline of a consciousness which descends to fathomless deeps.

One of the reasons we tell and read stories, why we write, listen to and sing songs is to experience a sense of fellow feeling – as you read, as you listen you think to yourself: ‘That’s happened to me’, ‘That rings so true’, ‘I believe that one’.

The subject of this post the great songwriter Tom T Hall has brought those expressions to my lips more that any other artist I can think of. Tom T may just be the best observer of life and shaper of the stories it reveals that American songwriting has ever produced.

Throughout his life – in his small town youth, in his army service, in college and as a working musician he seems always to have sat quietly in a corner somewhere with a sharp pencil and a notebook ever alert for the next glimpse of life he can translate into a song. I think glimpse is the key word here – Tom T is an observer with wonderfully acute peripheral vision noticing the small details that give colour, vitality and veracity to the expression of a tale.

Tom T does not place himself at the centre of the stories he records even when he is their subject. One of his greatest gifts and the mark of a rare artist is to present these vignettes of life without intrusive commentary or direction. Instead, using artfully chosen spare colloquial language he opens a door to his life and other lives. He has the courage and talent as a songwriter and performer to let the stories stand alone – in his best songs like the magnificently bleak, ‘It Sure Gets Cold In Des Moines’ above there are no easy resolutions to the situations it describes – no chorus that ties everything together and tells you what to think about the subject of the song.

The great virtue of this open ended approach is that as you listen to a song like this you become a kind of co-composer with Tom T – fleshing out the many stories spinning off from this single story; continuing and adding to the tale from your own unique experience and imagination.

In, ‘It Sure Gets Cold In Des Moines’ Tom T paints a word picture that brings before us a chilling snapshot of life and loneliness in the air conditioned bubble of a hotel. Sheltering from the bone deep cold of the city Tom T reveals in six short verses that the emotional temperature inside the hotel may be even colder than that the radio recounts for the streets outside (14 below).

Tom T descends the old elevator with the notion to get something to eat though his head and his eyes said, ‘You should have slept more’. As so often for the weary traveller the restaurant was closed when most needed so Tom T takes refuge in the lounge with the balm of, ‘Two double gins’ and looks round the room, ‘As a tourist would do’. And, there in the signature, ‘Smoky half-dark’ of a late night lounge he sees the girl in the booth. We never learn what she looks like or how old she is or where she comes from (like all of us she’s a traveller) but all of us would recognise, ‘the silent type crying that tears out your heart’ and most of us have had a suitcase that has seen better days.

In a room full of islanded strangers, ‘Nobody asked her what caused her such pain yet no-one complained’. The anonymous woman is left to her tears as each of the patrons of the lounge is presumably left to contemplate their own times of tears before they drain their drinks and ascend the old elevator to their rooms heated to keep out the cold outside.

We never know what happens next or the story behind the girl’s silent sobs. Tom T doesn’t pretend to know but he does sit down in his room and write down the song so that we can share the scenario and become in our own ways part of the ongoing story. Whether we have been to Des Moines or not by the time the record has finished I’m certain that we would all agree that, ‘It Sure Gets Cold In Des Moines’.

Tom T writes and sings this song like so many of his finest works in the matter of fact tone of a well read and well travelled man who has seen many marvels and wonders and learned not to be too surprised at how well and how badly men and women can behave towards each other and themselves.

He doesn’t imply that his stories will initiate you into the meaning of life. No, Tom T is much more ambitious than that. He gives you songs, kaleidoscope reflections, from his observations and imagination which illuminate the essential mystery of life.

In many situations seeing only a fragment of the whole picture, all you can say, all you should say is: Life is just like that sometimes.

Notes:

Tom T Hall has written scores of superb songs. I would like to point out 5 favourites of mine you might care to seek out if you are not already familiar with them.

‘The Homecoming’ – maybe the best song ever written about the life of travelling musicians and how success in the business can warp the relationships they have with their families and former neighbours. It’s a song about nearness and distance, about loss and longing and about finding and forgetting. The title, ‘Homecoming’ is never used in the body of the song and the last word of the song as the narrator leaves again is, ‘Hello’.

‘Salute To A Switchblade’ – an everyday story of army life overseas including the perils of; striking up conversations with married women not wearing their wedding rings and drinking ten quarts of beer. Good advice is given about the need to always avoid the Military Police and to reflect that death is always closer to you than you think. Also that a near death experience at the hands of a jealous husband shouldn’t blind you to the fact that the country you were based in was full of good soldiers and good people. Oh, and of course not to tell your mother about such an incident.

‘Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On!’ – A wholly credible story of the killing of seven souls on the homefront by a man tormented at being accused of cowardice in the final years of World War Two. Told with grim humour and no condemnation of any of the parties involved. Tom T carefully recounts the relish with which the killer eats his last meal, ‘Fried Chicken, cold beans and baby squash’ and his gleeful last words as the electric chair is about to be started up, ‘Turn it on, Turn it on , Turn it on ‘.

‘Trip To Hayden’ – A virtuoso description of a run down mining town in the aftermath of a disaster:

‘Temporary looking’ houses with bashful kids … Another country hillside with some mud holes and some junk … The mines were deadly silent like a rat hole in the wall.’

Thirty nine out of forty miners perished in an explosion that was like, ‘Being right inside of a shotgun’.

The narrator meets an undertaker who, despite his line of work, ‘seemed refreshed’ and finds his new heavy jacket can’t keep out the cold in the dead town.

An old woman opines that, ‘They worth more now than when they’s living’

Tom T, being Tom T, decides that, ”I’ll leave it there ’cause I suppose she told it pretty well’

Finally, ‘Mama Bake A Pie (Daddy Kill A Chicken) – A war veteran returns home no longer needing to spend money on shoes with a bottle underneath his blanket to make his time and his loss of the love of his girl more easy to bear.

He observes that a GI gets a lot of laughs and that some people now say the war was just a waste of time. Still he’s coming home at 11.35 on Wednesday night so Mama better bake a pie and Daddy should kill a chicken.

Stevie Smith – the author of, ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ quoted in the introduction above is always referred to as a ‘Minor Poet’ in the august encyclopaedias of literature. That’s as maybe but all I know is that she was a distinctive writer who wrote some very powerful true poems which is always a rare feat. Her Selected Poems will give you a lifetime’s pleasure.

‘The novel, ‘Riddley Walker’ written by Russell Hoban is a work of genius. It relates the story of Riddley’s life in a post nuclear holocaust world where language like the material world has been degraded and mutated. It is also about the legend of St Eustace, Punch and Judy shows and the rediscovery of gunpowder. It is a work of tremendous philosophical and spiritual power as well as being a rollicking good thriller.

Do not be put off by the seeming difficulty of the language – you will soon fall into its cadences and be seduced by the linguistic brilliance displayed by Russell Hoban. If you buy one book for yourself this Christmas make it, ‘Riddley Walker’ – it will leave its imaginative fingerprint on your mind for ever.

Wreckless Eric : Rugged, Rowdy and Right!

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‘Be a clown, be a clown, All the world loves a clown,
Act the fool, play the calf, And you’ll always have the last laugh.’ (Cole Porter)

The subject of this post, Wreckless Eric (or as his mother knows him, Eric Goulden) has held a prominent place in my musical affections since I first heard his glorious, signature debut single (I’d Go The) Whole Wide World on the John Peel radio show in early 1977. The song exploded from my transistor radio speakers announcing the arrival of a plain speaking blue collar visionary – the antithesis of the ‘woe is me in forty verses’ singer-songwriter school of the early 1970s.

Whole Wide World benefiting from the instrumental and production chops of the ubiquitous Nick Lowe and drummer Steve Goulding is an irresistible anthem of adolescent male romantic fantasy and lust (which are inevitably yoked together in all males up to the age of 90 or so). Some of my favourite lines in all songwriting are in this song:

‘ There’s only one girl in the world for you and she probably lives in Tahiti(!)’

‘And then in a year or or maybe not quite We’ll be sharing the same next of kin’

The song though devastating simple in construction builds and builds through thrilling crescendo choruses until all but the dead must be up and dancing while singing along at the top of their voices. Eric’s vocal manages to be both deadpan and crazed – a trick he pulls off regularly in his career.

Eric got his break in the music business curtesy of Stiff Records which functioned from the late 70s through to the early 80s as a kind of guerilla operation mocking the bloated moribund goliaths of the existing recording industry. Formed by the hyperactive, loquacious Irishman Dave Robinson and the manically ambitious Jake Rivera it was launched through a £500 loan from Dr Feelgood lead singer Lee Brilleaux.

Based in Londons scruffy Bayswater Stiff Records became a big tent filled with a picaresque gallery of rogues, vagabonds and chancers who also happened in some cases to be electric and eccentric talents. Stiff was a mad party always dancing on the cliff of chaos and collapse yet for a few wonderful years somehow always staggering on through pulling another unexpected talent out of the hat.

The roster of artists on Stiff included Ian Dury with his patented Chaucerian wit and vulgarity, Elvis Costello exuding beligerant songwriting brilliance, Nick Lowe – the prince of impure pop for savvy listeners and Madness the custodians of cultural memories for their generation, who between them issued a magical series of instantly memorable hit singles.

Amongst the milling crowd Wreckless Eric stood out as the house clown. Yet as many an observer has noted the clown is the real heart of every circus. They are the ones, falling down and getting back up again and again, who form the deepest relationships with the audience. We may ooh and aah at the daring of trapeze artists and admire the skill of the jugglers but often it is the jack of all trades clown who we remember with most affection when the big top is rolled up at the end of the night.

So while I unreservedly admire the ‘big names’ from Stiff’s glory days it was always Wreckless Eric for me!

Listen to him here on another song no-one else could have written, ‘Reconnez Cherie’ – a deliriously enjoyable plebeian beat ballad which also functions as an an acute sociological survey of working class romantic encounters ‘neath the sodium glare of the city street lights. Also, of course, including some properly woozy saxophone and accordion in honour of the bohemian subject matter!

Though Eric was held in great affection at Stiff no-one saw him as a future star and moneyspinner. He was, ‘encouraged’ to play up his hapless drinking and to collaborate with other more conventional writers. Naturally, this did not go down well with the Wreckless one! His second record for Stiff contains two classics for my money – the beautifully crafted black humoured , ‘Final Taxi’ and the one I present to you below, ‘Take The Cash’ a song beloved by the late Lou Reed (something of a connoisseur of demotic songwriting).

The start of the 80s saw Eric on a downward spiral that threatened his talent and indeed his life. In the following decades I have followed his erratic progress and wished him well through his saga of alcoholism, bankruptcy, nervous breakdown, European exile, slow recovery, a blessed happy marriage to a fellow musician and many, many, musical incarnations. Eric records came out under a bewildering series of sobriquets: The Len Bright Combo, The Captains Of Industry, Le Beat Group Electrique and The Hitsvile House Band.

Yet, throughout all these vicissitudes he has written and recorded highly distinctive songs demonstrating that behind the shambolic appearance lay a sharply intelligent working man writing truthfully about everyday lives as they are lived on the mean streets and wrong side of the tracks in towns and cities all over the whole wide world.

As a maverick talent himself Eric was drawn to the story of the legendary producer Joe Meek who in the pre Beatles era recorded monster hits like, ‘Telstar’ in a ramshackle studio run out of his tiny second floor London flat. Here’s Eric’s heartfelt tribute, ‘Joe Meek’

It was in the wilds of rural France, during the 1990s that Eric got his life back together and began to connect with the world again. He was later fortunate to meet, fall in love with and marry Amy Rigby who shared his astringent and sinewy songwriting ability as shown in her own catalogue of highly recommended records.

If you are lucky you can see them in concert these days performing a very satisfying banquet of their combined oeuvres and some judiciously chosen covers. The clip below is a backstage snapshot complete with swearing and shaggy dog anecdote featuring Eric and Amy’s take on Johnny Cash’s, ‘I Still Miss Someone’.

There’s no sheen or sophistication here but what I see and hear is a togetherness, a truth and a tenderness that is rarely found. It seems that after all his trials and winding trails Wreckless Eric has found the safe harbour we all need if we are to travel bravely to the world beyond.

Long may he run!

Notes:

Eric’s first two records are unreservedly recommended. After that until the joint records with Amy Rigby (which are wonderful) I would urge you to investigate his catalogue through the streaming sites and the video channels to discover which songs appeal.

Eric has written a typically forthright and unforgettable autobiography, ‘ A Dysfunctional Success – The Wreckless Eric Manual’.

Christmas, A Clarinet And Acker Bilk (RIP)

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Christmas is coming.

I know that for certain because following much deliberation and discussion my son has composed his 2014 letter to Santa Claus. We sealed the envelope with due ceremony and in his best handwriting addressed it to Santa’s North Pole headquarters. We cycled down to the local postbox/mailbox and very carefully sent the vital message on its way.

What he wants, and what we are all sure he will receive curtesy of the elves and Santa’s crack reindeer delivery team (led by Rudolph) is a clarinet.

Why a clarinet? Because over the last year listening to CDs in the car Tom has become a fanatical fan of British ‘Trad Jazz’ from the 1950s and 1960s. This was led by young men aflame with passion who had discovered in the shiny shellac of imported American Jazz records a doorway to a new world of rhythmic joy and wonder. Many of them then started journeys and careers that would sustain them for the rest of their lives through obscure internecine culture wars, improbable transatlantic popular successes and long periods playing to small audiences in draughty halls and smoky pub back rooms.

Prominent among these was a clarinettist from Somerset named Bernard Stanley Bilk who rejoiced in a schoolboy nickname he would ever after be known by, ‘Acker’. Though Tom has time for the pure vision of the incorruptible Ken Colyer, the urbane style of the aristocratic Humphrey Lyttleton and the gusto of the Chris Barber and Kenny Ball bands his unquestioned favourite is Acker who has just died at the age of 85.

Acker came from England’s West Country where the accents, the cheese, the cider and the characters all have a distinctive flavoursome tang. This distinctiveness is reflected in the instantly recognisable sound and tone of Acker’s clarinet playing. There is an immensely charming open hearted generosity and vibrato vigour in his sound. Once Acker announced his beckoning presence you just naturally relax and lean in confident that you will be moved, entertained and uplifted.

Acker also developed a signature look – bowler hat, waistcoat and goatee beard that amounted to the kind of winning brand that ‘image consultants’ would now charge you a couple of limbs to devise. There was an element of the Edwardian dandy in this but also a sense that a canny countryman was both celebrating and mocking the whole show business cavalcade – a witty wink to the wise.

At the dawn of the 1960s Acker hit his musical stride and issued a string of records that would become hits and and cement his place forever in the national consciousness. Let’s kick off with a top 10 hit from 1961, ‘That’s My Home’ which nicely demonstrates Acker’s relaxed take on traditional jazz.

Later that same year Acker composed a tune he called, ‘Jenny’ after his daughter. Retitled ‘Stranger On The Shore’ when it was used as the theme tune of a BBC TV show it became Acker’s calling card, his old age pension and a world wide hit selling millions of copies. Billed as by, ‘ Mr Acker Bilk And His Paramount Jazz Band’ Stranger took up residence in the UK charts for more than a year and became almost unbelievably a US number one record in May 1962. There was a ritual at Acker concerts whereby he laid his bowler hat on the piano when taking the stage – donning the hat near the end of the concert was the rapturously received signal that he was about to play Stranger: the tune be would always be known by.

Stranger must be one of the most evocative instrumentals ever recorded. Acker’s clarinet seems to drift into our minds like an enveloping sea mist. For the duration of the record we are cast into a reverie where our everyday cares are dissolved and memories of landscapes, seascapes and times past swirl deliciously in our thoughts. Turn down the lights, lie back and prepare to be transported!

Acker was a major draw in Britain and you might be surprised to see who was below him on the in June 1963 – none other than The Beatles!

In 1964 Acker cut a particularly charming single which showed that he was open to new influences and that he was a more versatile musician than often supposed. ‘Dream Ska’ is one of those records that sets me grinning wildly and assaying a series of lurching dance moves best executed in private.

In Britain the baby boomer generation grew up with Acker as a fixture on our radios and TV screens. He was one of those rare artists that everybody recognised and who was universally regarded with affection. This embrace extended to some of the titans of the music world who turned to Acker when they wanted a clarinet sound that was poignant and nostalgic. If you can find it look out for Acker joining forces with the great Van Morrison to bring before us the shades of Avalon. Acker is reported to have described Van as a nice guy and expressed some surprise that when Van offered him a lift home to the West Country after a recording session it was by private plane rather than by car!

My last musical selection to showcase Acker’s gifts is a wonderfully romantic song by the sadly lost siren of English folk music – the incomparable Sandy Denny. It would be hard to beat this record for an example of distilled English melancholy.

Acker Bilk was a hard working musician who never stopped making records and performing for his loyal audience. He played his heart out every time he lifted his clarinet and he leaves a marvellous legacy of recordings filled with humanity and joy which will always find an audience.

Acker Bilk born on January 28 1929 died on November 2 2014 (Ar dheis De go raibh a anam)

This post dedicated to my son Tom: avid music fan, Acker Bilk devotee and a proper chip off the old block.

Post Christmas update!

For those of you who were concerned about whether Tom would receive his clarinet I am happy to report that Santa’s Sleigh made a pin point landing in the meadow near our house so that when Tom woke up on Christmas morning a clarinet was indeed poking out of his stocking! We are getting used to Tom’s version of Stranger On The Shore – which is somewhat more free form than Acker Bilk’s version!

Dr John, Art Neville & Jerry Byrne create a New Orleans Classic – Lights Out!

The Immortal Jukebox A8:

Music can create, affect and sustain our moods and emotions with a power no other art form can match. I am sure in all our lives there is the song we associate, willingly or not, with the love of our life, the unrequited love and, of course, the lost love.

The songs in our personal libraries (or should I say Jukeboxes!) will evoke memories and direct experience of joy, pain, hope, loss and faith. It’s why we never tire of cueing up those records we just know will teleport us to that time, those people, those emotions.

Sometimes I wish I could live a life of contemplative seclusion. Maybe in a Carthusian abbey where I would follow the immutable rhythms of the monastic rule in search of true knowledge about myself, God, and perhaps find eventually the peace that passes understanding.

Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline would guide me through the days- calming the whirlwind of my thoughts and emotions. The music would come from the great choral tradition. If I were ever allowed to choose the soundtrack for such a life I would put the needle down on Glenn Gould’s epochal 1955 recording of J S Bach’s Goldberg Variations and The Gothic Voices sublime version of Hildegard of Bingen’s
‘A Feather On The Breath Of God’ from 1985. When listening to such divine performances Heaven does not really seem so very far away.

However, following Polonius’ advice about being true to myself I understand that the monastic life for me can only ever be a matter of a few weeks of retreat at the most. Because, while I am genuinely attracted to the life of stillness another, much bigger, part of me is inexorably drawn to dive headlong into the glorious crashing, clattering whirligig that constitutes everyday life in this crazy old world.

So, the song that is about to take its honoured place on The Immortal Jukebox, ‘Lights Out” by Jerry Byrne is not a song to still the heart and mind. Rather, it is a song to obliterate the mind and get the heart pumping way, way, above the maximum recommended rate for the entire duration of the stupendous 110 seconds or so it lasts.

Sometimes you need to forget about being sensible and about planning for tomorrow. Sometimes, you just need to drink five tequila shots in a row after you have vaulted onto the top of the bar scattering glassware all around you as you launch into a dervish dance that no one who ever witnesses it will ever forget. And, when you do feel like that I know of no song more certain to guarantee the success of your heroic enterprise than Lights Out!

Yes, Yes, Yes: I know that you will be checking into Hangover Hotel the next day and that your knees may never be the same again … But sometimes you just have to pay the price of the ticket if you want to have the experience.

Lights Out is a one off miracle by an artist, Jerry Byrne, who does not much trouble the writers of learned tomes on the history and culture of the rock era. Despite that, with the support of a team of crack New Orleans musicians, on February 8th 1958 he cut a record that will will always endure as the epitome of high octane, white lightning, crazy for the sake of craziness rock ‘n’ roll. And, believe me, crazy for the sake of craziness will never go out of style until the robots finally take over.

The song was written by New Orleans legend Mac Rebennack/Dr John who happened to be Jerry Byrne’s cousin. The ferocious, pyrotechnic piano choruses which will exhaust all but Olympic fitness dancers are provided by a youthful Art Neville later to feature prominently in the hip slinkingly wonderful bands The Neville Brothers and The Meters.


The combination of the surging river boat rhythm laid down by Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams on drums and Frank Fields on bass combined with the driving guitars of Edgar Blanchard and Justin Adams topped off with the saxophone wails of producer Harold Batiste make for an overwhelmingly immersive experience.

I find that if you’re just listening to the record you need to hear it three or four times in a row before your appetite is slaked. As for dancing – anyone who could survive a reprise would need to check in for an ECG virtually immediately.

Jerry Byrne fully earned his place in rock ‘ n’ roll Valhalla through adding an inspired manically wild vocal to the turbo power of the musical backing. I hear a kind of aural strobe effect as the song proceeds which fixes the lyric in the memory and gives the illusion that the song lasts a lot longer than a fraction over two minutes.

On a personal note I should add that a lifetime or two ago in my college days I used to DJ for student parties. The very last record of the evening was always Lights Out which gave me the opportunity to crash onto the dance floor leaving the record decks behind as I attempted my own version of the dervish dance referred to above. There was never any chance that anyone or anything could follow, ‘Lights Out’.

Note: This post dedicated to Ian Renwick (il miglior fabbro) – my friend and confidant of four decades and more. I have lost count of the number of whiskey fuelled nights we have spent discussing the lore and legends of rock ‘n’ roll. I know no one with a deeper or more visceral understanding of the music.