DJWriter
The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Monday, March 22, 2010
 
Inspiration
It ain't about the money or even being #1
You gotta know when it's all over you did the best you could've done
Knowing that it's in you and you never let it out
Is worse than blowing any engine or any wreck you'll ever have

--Mike Cooley, "Daddy's Cup"

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Sunday, July 06, 2008
 
Lyrics of the Day
On a bike ride this morning, I had this Steve Earle song going through my head. "More Than I Can Do" belongs on a Stalker's Greatest Hits compilation (which would also include "Every Breath You Take"):
You told me that I got to stop
But it's more than I can do
And that ain't nothing new
'Cause we both know that I'm crazy about you

You said you're gonna call the cops
But I ain't gonna run
Because you're the only one
There ain't no way I could live without you
Earle has had half a dozen wives (he married one twice), so I can't help wondering who this song is about.

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Friday, May 23, 2008
 
Lyrics of the Day
Jennifer's comment about the "very bad idea" of arguing with police made me think of this verse from "Guitar Man Upstairs" by Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers:

When I was sixteen I had a little trouble with the law
He said "Boy come here" I said "Boy yourself
I ain't done nothing wrong"
He grabbed me by the arm and he went upside my head
Nobody saw nothing
But I got a little spot where my hair ain't grown back yet
That's from Southern Rock Opera. If you don't own it yet, you should.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008
 
Lyrics of the Day
Here's a special Mother's Day edition of LotD featuring "Mama Tried" by the legendary Merle Haggard:

And I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
No one could steer me right, but Mama tried, Mama tried
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied,
That leaves only me to blame, 'cause Mama tried

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008
 
Lyrics of the Day
A special treat for those who saw the Drive-By Truckers at Metro on Saturday was "The Tough Sell," a song from their second album, Gangstabilly, that has been played only one other time this year (and only seven times since 2004). The protagonist describes making a purchase from stereotypical used-car salesman EZ DAN:
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other;
It certainly wasn't the car of my dreams, but the price was right.
And EZ DAN assured me that the mid 70's were a particularly nice period for Chrysler products in general,
"and this one is a Volare."
EZ DAN doesn't fare well in the next verse, but let's say he probably deserved what he got. My first car was a 1977 Plymouth Volare, and I assert that the mid 70s were not "a particularly nice period for Chrysler products," except perhaps for desert dwellers. That car never ran worth a damn in the rain, no matter what I fixed or replaced. At least I was fortunate to have the V-8 (318 c.i.) instead of the standard straight six.

I had some good times with that car, no matter how many times it broke my heart.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008
 
Lyrics of the Day
In "Women Without Whiskey", Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers ponders love and liquor:
If morning's a bitch with open arms, then night's a girl who's gone too far.
Whiskey is harder to keep than a woman and it's half as sweet,
but women without whiskey?
Women without whiskey?
Whiskey is hard to beat.
Whiskey is hard to beat.
Much to the dismay of 12-steppers everywhere, the booze wins.

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Friday, February 29, 2008
 
Lyrics of the Day
Chicago-born Curtis Mayfield is a tragic figure in the world of R&B and funk. As a member of the Impressions, he practically created a soundtrack for the civil rights movement. After going solo, he continued to stand for equality and peace. He was a funk pioneer, and his brilliant songwriting made social consciousness an integral part of his music. On 1972's Superfly soundtrack, Mayfield sang in his trademark falsetto about the drug scene in the top-ten hits "Freddie's Dead" and "Superfly." Unlike many hip-hop artists today, he did not glamorize dealing or using. In 1990, a stage lighting rig fell on Mayfield, paralyzing him. He managed to record one more album with great difficulty, but by the end of the decade, he was dead at age 57.

For the past few days, "We Got To Have Peace" has been going through my head

And the people in our neighborhood
They would if they only could
Meet and shake the other's hand
Work together for the good of the land

Give us all an equal chance
It could be such a sweet romance
And the soldiers who are dead and gone
If only we could bring back one

He'd say, "We got to have peace
To keep the world alive
And war to cease"

We got to have joy
True in our hearts
With strength we can't destroy
No record collection is complete without at least a best-of collection from Mayfield. Other songs you may have heard include "Move On Up," "Future Shock," "Pusherman," "Kung Fu," and from the Impressions, "People Get Ready" and "Amen." The Very Best of Curtis Mayfield is a great place to start with his solo material, while the 2-disc The Anthology 1961-1977 has mostly Impressions songs (surprisingly omiting "We Got To Have Peace"). "We Got To Have Peace" originally appeared on Roots (no connection with the novel and TV miniseries), and Superfly was Mayfield's most popular album, hitting number one on the Billboard charts.

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Friday, January 25, 2008
 
Lyrics of the Day
I've had an odd song going through my head today, "Jesus Mentioned" by Warren Zevon. It's from The Envoy, an underrated album that finally became available on CD in the United States last year. I always thought of "Jesus Mentioned" as a throwaway song, so I was surprised that I even remembered the words:

I'm going down to Memphis
Memphis, Tennessee
I'm going down to Graceland
Thinking about the King
Remembering him sing
About those heavenly mansions
Jesus mentioned

Can't you just imagine
Digging up the King
Begging him to sing
About those heavenly mansions
Jesus mentioned
Then, with typical Zevon irreverence, he sings, "He went walking on the water... With his pills." Like I said, it isn't a great song -- Zevon's "Porcelain Monkey" is a far better song about Elvis -- but it's been stuck in my head. I wonder how many people today, people who didn't grow up with Elvis, even know about his gospel side. His roots were in gospel, and he returned to the genre throughout his career. In fact, all three of the Grammy awards he won in his lifetime were in the gospel category. I have linked to a selection of Elvis' gospel material below.

Oddly enough, nearly two decades after he wrote this song, Zevon said in an interview, "I've never been to Graceland. I wouldn't dream of going to Graceland."

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
I've been in an Old 97's mood lately so here's another one, "Murder (Or A Heart Attack)" from Fight Songs (1999). See if you can guess what it's about:

And the hole
In the screen is barely big enough for you
And not near enough for me to go
And the whole damn complicated
Situation could've been
Avoided if I'd only shut the window

CHORUS:
And I may be leavin' myself open
To a murder or a heart attack
But I'm leavin' the back door open
'Til you come back, 'til you come back
And I may be movin' myself closer
To a real untimely end
But I'm leavin' the back door open
'Til you come home again, 'til you come home again
It's about lead singer Rhett Miller losing his roommate's cat! It seems obvious from the lyrics now that I know, but for years I had no clue. I thought maybe his girlfriend got mad and left him because he forgot to close the window. Relationships have fallen apart for dumber reasons.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
In anticipation of this weekend, here's "Barrier Reef" by the Old 97's:
The Empty Bottle was half empty, tide was low, and I was thirsty.
Saw her sitting at the bar, you know how some girls are,
Always making eyes, well she wasn't making eyes.

So I sidled up beside her, settled down and shouted, "Hi there."
"My name's Stewart Ransom Miller, I'm a serial lady-killer."
She said, "I'm already dead," that's exactly what she said.
I love this song, which first appeared on 1997's Too Far To Care. That pick-up line is so cheesy, and the comeback is perfect. The Empty Bottle above is indeed Chicago's Empty Bottle, and I'll be going there for the first time this weekend to see Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers play a solo acoustic show. Someday I want to see the Old 97's live, too. Their double CD Alive & Wired is one of my favorite commercial live releases.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
Bruce Cockburn week concludes...

If you've heard one Bruce Cockburn song on the radio, it was probably "Wondering Where The Lions Are" from 1979. Even his "big hit single" has an underlying sense of impending doom despite the pleasant, upbeat music. He wrote it after someone (a relative in the intelligence field) warned him that the USSR and China were on the verge of nuclear war. It describes his joyful realization the next morning that the war hadn't started. Also, he'd had a nightmare about lions, but then he had another dream where they were harmless.

Sun's up, uh huh, looks okay
The world survives into another day
And I'm thinking about eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me

I had another dream about lions at the door
They weren't half as frightening as they were before
But I'm thinking about eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me
...
And I'm wondering where the lions are...
I'm wondering where the lions are...
If you haven't heard "Wondering Where The Lions Are," well, even Cockburn's "hit" only reached number 21 on the Billboard charts. I'd say Cockburn is the best Canadian songwriter to be ignored in the U.S., but maybe Leonard Cohen deserves that title -- he hasn't had any U.S. hits. Incidentally, the same friend introduced me to the music of both artists, and no, my friend isn't Canadian.

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Friday, November 23, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
Bruce Cockburn weekend continues...

I've never been a big fan of free verse. When I read it, I can't help wondering why the writer couldn't either rhyme or form sentences. Most Cockburn lyrics stick to a meter, even if it's sometimes endearingly clumsy (he'll squeeze in odd words or phrases at times). But "If A Tree Falls" is sort of Cockburn's 1988 experiment with rapping. Inspired by the clear-cutting of rain forests, he sings the chorus but speaks the rhymeless, rhythmless verses:
Rain forest
Mist and mystery
Teeming green
Green brain facing labotomy
Climate control centre for the world
Ancient cord of coexistence
Hacked by parasitic greedhead scam -
From Sarawak to Amazonas
Costa Rica to mangy B.C. hills -
Cortege rhythm of falling timber.

What kind of currency grows in these new deserts,
These brand new flood plains?

(chorus)
If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
Anybody hear the forest fall?

Cut and move on
Cut and move on
Take out trees
Take out wildlife at a rate of a species every single day
Take out people who've lived with this for 100,000 years -
Inject a billion burgers worth of beef -
Grain eaters - methane dispensers.
Although I am an unrepentant carnivore, that's one of my all-time favorite lines: "Grain eaters - methane dispensers." That really describes cattle in their most basic form, don't you think? An interviewer presumed this song was inspired by a trip to Brazil, but there is a clue in the lyrics: "mangy B.C. hills." That's a reference to British Columbia; Cockburn was thinking of the Pacific Northwest rain forests that he had visited.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
Bruce Cockburn week continues...

"Dust And Diesel" is a Stealing Fire song inspired by Cockburn's experiences in Nicaragua. He tells a vivid tale about traveling the Interamerican Highway:

Headlights pick out fallen sack of corn
One lone tarantula standing guard
We pull up and stop and she ambles off
Discretion much the better part of cars
Rodrigo the government driver jumps out
He's got chickens who can use the feed
We sweep the asphalt on our hands and knees
Fill up his trunk with dusty yellow seeds

Dust and diesel
Rise like incense from the road
Smoke of offering
For the revolution morning
I love the imagery in this song -- the corn and the spider. Another verse describes a "Smiling girl directing traffic flow/.45 strapped over cotton print dress."

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
Bruce Cockburn week continues...

"Call It Democracy" is Cockburn at his angriest and most overtly political. It's probably the only song ever written about the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which promotes "development" in the Third World while serving the monied interests of the First World. I'm sure Bono likes this song.
Padded with power here they come
International loan sharks backed by the guns
Of market hungry military profiteers
Whose word is a swamp and whose brow is smeared
With the blood of the poor
...
North South East West
Kill the best and buy the rest
It's just spend a buck to make a buck
You don't really give a flying fuck
About the people in misery

IMF dirty MF
Takes away everything it can get
Always making certain that there's one thing left
Keep them on the hook with insupportable debt

See the paid-off local bottom feeders
Passing themselves off as leaders
Kiss the ladies shake hands with the fellows
Open for business like a cheap bordello
And they call it democracy
This song inspired me to learn about the IMF and what they do. If you're one of the naive masses who wondered after 9/11 why people in other countries would hate us, the IMF is one answer (in particular, see the Wikipedia subheadings IMF/World Bank support of Military Dictatorships and Criticism). Cockburn was singing about Central America in the 1980s, but it could just as well have been Africa, South America, or Asia.

A funny story about this song... The album came out in 1986 when Tipper Gore's PMRC was pushing for record labeling. When the sleeve for the vinyl LP was printed, not only were the lyrics printed on the back, but also the "offensive" words were highlighted in yellow! I think it was intended as a big middle finger to Tipper, something I wholeheartedly support (I had a hard time voting for Al knowing that Tipper would be First Lady, and I guess the Supreme Court agreed).

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
Bruce Cockburn week continues...

"A Dream Like Mine" was inspired by a Canadian novel by M.T. Kelly. The book is about a Native American tribe trying to protect their land against corporate interests. Cockburn says

They're losing, so an old man of the tribe, kind of a shamanistic character, conjures up out of dreams a sort of eternal warrior figure to come to life to try and right the wrongs that are being done. The implication is that he is always in the background waiting to be called up when the need arises. It was that sense of community, that sense of an unbroken link to the past that caught my attention.
Cockburn was also moved by the Oka Crisis at the time. Never heard of it? It was big news in Canada but virtually ignored in the U.S., probably because the corporate media didn't want to give Native Americans any ideas. Basically, in 1990 the town of Oka wanted to expand its golf course onto land claimed by local Mohawks without their consent. The Mohawks formed a barricade and resisted against police and the army for several months.

After all that background, here are some lyrics:

When you know even for a moment
That it's your time
Then you can walk with the power
Of a thousand generations

When you've got a dream like mine
Nobody can take you down
When you've got a dream like mine
Nobody can push you around
I love the line about walking with the power of a thousand generations. This song is from Nothing But A Burning Light, the most recent Cockburn album I have purchased. Since it's from 1991, I have some catching up to do!

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Monday, November 19, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
Bruce Cockburn week continues...

Stealing Fire is one of the best albums I ever found in the cut-out bins. The first Cockburn song I ever heard on the radio (I've heard a total of three, all on WXRT) was "If I Had A Rocket Launcher." I only caught some of the words, and my teenage mind decided it was a cool song about how this guy wants to blow up a bunch of people with a rocket launcher. I even started a mental list of people I'd like to shoot with a rocket launcher.

Of course, Cockburn, being a generally peaceful dude, didn't mean for the song to be taken that way. When I bought the album, the song's true meaning became obvious. Cockburn spent time in Central America in the 1980s and saw the ravages of civil war firsthand. "If I Had A Rocket Launcher" speaks of the frustration and powerlessness he felt in the face of the armies.
Here comes the helicopter -- second time today
Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away
How many kids they've murdered only God can say
If I had a rocket launcher...I'd make somebody pay
...
On the Rio Lacantun, one hundred thousand wait
To fall down from starvation -- or some less humane fate
Cry for Guatemala, with a corpse in every gate
If I had a rocket launcher...I would not hesitate
Since Stealing Fire is my favorite Cockburn album, we'll come back to it later this week.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
I've been listening to some Bruce Cockburn concerts this weekend. Cockburn (long "o", silent "ck") is a brilliant Canadian songwriter whose work is under-appreciated in the U.S. Not coincidentally, his songs are often politically at odds with U.S. policies. Since he has over 35 years of material to draw from, let's do "Bruce Cockburn week" for LotD...

Our first selection is one of my all-time favorites, "The Trouble With Normal." It was written in the scary days of Ronnie and Maggie, but it's eerily topical in the post-9/11 world:
Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it's repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs -- "Security comes first"
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse
Those words capture the essence of the USA PATRIOT Act, wiretapping, Guantanamo, etc. so well. And the person in the street is the average American, naively accepting it all in the name of safety. All three verses of "The Trouble With Normal" are packed with meaning like this one, but I don't want to over-quote.

Note: The second album below is a compilation of many of Cockburn's most popular songs. Although I don't have that particular CD, most of the songs I'll feature this week can be found there. One song on that disc that I haven't heard is "My Beat," which is about riding his bicycle around Montreal.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
Bicycle tourists are treated differently from the rest of the traveling public in the United States. Jennifer's tale of a lousy weekend in Carbondale brought back some not-so-fond memories from my cross-country bike tour. While some people were intrigued and asked lots of questions, others simply shunned me. Many assumed I was poor because I wasn't driving, treating me with the same disdain afforded to bums and homeless people. For every person curious about my journey, another acted like I didn't exist. Even off the bike, my lycra cycling shorts and brightly colored jersey marked me as an outsider.

A touring rock musician, at least one who isn't famous yet, has similar experiences. Rather than one of the obscure genres I usually draw from, today's lyrics are from classic rock -- Bob Seger's "Turn The Page:"

Well you walk into a restaurant,
strung out from the road
And you feel the eyes upon you
as you're shakin' off the cold
You pretend it doesn't bother you
but you just want to explode.

Most times you can't hear 'em talk,
other times you can
oh, the same old cliches,
"Is that a woman or a man?"
And you always seem outnumbered,
you don't dare make a stand

Oddly enough, I only felt lonely in the presence of others. I never felt that way while I was riding my bike all day, and at night in my motel room, I was happily occupied with route planning, writing my journal, or watching TV. But in a restaurant, a store, a museum, or a train, I never felt like I belonged. Even people whose job was to be friendly were not always so. Convenience store clerks would eye me suspiciously. Motel clerks would get upset when I didn't write down a license plate number on the registration form (though I had already told them I was on a bicycle). Waitresses could hardly be bothered to come over to my table (and they knew I was there because everyone had stared at me as I walked in).

Sometimes I could go to my motel room and forget about it, but other times it really bothered me. I was used to traveling alone, but I was not accustomed to being a pariah. When it's just a weekend, as in Jennifer's case, it is frustrating and annoying. But dealing with 11 weeks of alienation and passive hostility became almost as challenging as pedaling the bike 3,000 miles.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
I've been listening to my two Fred Eaglesmith CDs this week (I keep meaning to get more, but my CD wish list is pretty long these days). One of my favorite Eaglesmith songs, "Alcohol and Pills," was recently covered by Todd Snider (no slouch himself as a songwriter). The song is a retelling of a common theme: performers who overdose (see also Robbie Fulks' bluntly titled "She Took a Lot of Pills (& Died)"). Eaglesmith begins with Hank Williams, moves on to Elvis Presley, and then name-drops Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons, and Jimi Hendrix just for good measure. The third line of the chorus is my favorite:
Alcohol and pills, it's a crying shame,
You'd think they might've been happy with the glory and the fame
But fame doesn't take away the pain, it just pays the bills,
And you wind up on alcohol and pills
People are driven to create for all sorts of reasons. Some are chasing fame or fortune. For others, strange as it may seem to those who crave stardom, it really is just a way to pay the bills.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
I like almost every Drive-By Truckers song, so I went into Monday's concert with no particular "must-hears." But if push came to shove and I had to name one song I really wanted to hear them play, it would have been "The Living Bubba." The song is about Gregory Dean Smalley, an Atlanta guitarist who got AIDS in the mid-1990s. As Hood describes it in this excellent article he wrote about Smalley, "He responded to his death sentence by joining several more bands and playing constantly, sometimes several nights a week." Playing was his reason to keep living.

Although the two were not very close, Smalley was clearly an inspiration to Hood. I could imagine Hood at age 60 still singing "The Living Bubba" with all the conviction he had when he first wrote it. That's a story in itself: "While out in the field behind my house, a song hit me and I ran back inside to write it down before it slipped away. I wrote it in about the same length of time it takes to play it live." But playing it live was a problem:

I was, at first, hesitant to play “The Living Bubba” live, as I really didn’t know Greg all that well and felt I had no right to write anything so personal (from his point of view, no less). But I did confide it to a few close mutual friends who were always very complimentary and all said I should play it for Greg’s Mama. In May of 1997, we played Bubbapalooza in front of a packed house that included “Mama” (as everyone affectionately called her). As we began “The Living Bubba” she walked up to the front of the stage and stared me square in the eyes as I sang Greg’s song. When it was over, she walked up on stage, threw her arms around me and said “You done my boy right.” No review or compliment that my band or me ever get will ever equal that.
Here's a sample of the lyrics:

I wake up tired and I wake up pissed
wonder how I ended up like this
I wonder why things happen like they do
but I don't wonder long cuz I got a show to do

(snip)

I ain't got no political agenda
Ain't got no message for the youth of America
'cept "Wear a rubber and be careful who you screw"
and come see me next Friday cuz I got another show...

Some people stop living long before they die
Work a dead end job just to scrape on by
but I keep living just to bend that note in two
and I can't die now cuz I got another show...

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Friday, October 26, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
Here's another Drive-By Truckers song from Monday night's show. "Zip City" from Southern Rock Opera was written by Mike Cooley from the perspective of a teenage guy.
Your Daddy was mad as hell
He was mad at me and you
As he tied that chain to the front of my car
And pulled me out of that ditch that we slid into
Don't know what his problem is
Why he keeps dragging you away
Don't know why I put up with this shit
When you don't put out and Zip City's so far away
Zip City really exists. The Alabama Ass Whuppin' blog, which is written by an Alabaman transplanted to San Francisco, includes this photo tribute to "Zip City."

I don't normally like when the audience sings at concerts (I paid to hear the guy onstage sing), but I loved belting out the last three lines of "Zip City" at Cooley's request:
I got 350 heads on a 305 engine
I get ten miles to the gallon
I ain't got no good intentions
I had a 318 engine myself at that age and got slightly better mileage, but the last line was pretty accurate.

UPDATE 11/17/2007 - Someone shot video of "Zip City!" And it's pretty good -- decent sound and a steady hand.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
The Drive-By Truckers concert Monday night at the Park West was so awesome, I can't even write about it without gushing like a lovestruck schoolgirl. Let's just say they would have blown the doors off a certain band from New Jersey that was playing across town that night (and DBT played acoustic (mostly)).

Instead of carrying on about the show, I will feature some favorite lyrics over the next few days from songs they performed. Anybody who wants to hear the concert can get it free at the Live Music Archive (the band is "taper friendly"). You can even play the streaming version at the top of the page if you don't want to download any files.

The second song in the encore was "Angels and Fuselage." As a special treat, Kelly Hogan, who sang on the studio recording, joined the band onstage for this and one other song*. In addition to being probably the only rock song ever to use fuselage in the title, this song is the climax of DBT's breakthrough double-CD Southern Rock Opera. The album follows a band named Betamax Guillotine** whose career parallels that of Lynyrd Skynyrd. In case you don't know your rock history, three members of Skynyrd were killed when their plane ran out of fuel on the way to Baton Rouge, LA on October 20, 1977. Now the members of Betamax Guillotine are about to meet the same fate...

The engines have stopped now.
We all know we are going down. Last call for alcohol.
Sure wish I could have another round.

And I'm scared shitless of what's coming next.
Scared shitless, these angels I see in the trees are waiting for me.
Waiting for me.
The imagery puts tears in my eyes almost every time I hear it. Angels waiting in the trees below. Powerful stuff.

* Legendary keyboardist Spooner Oldham has been touring with the Truckers this year, and earlier in the show Hogan came on and sang "I'm Your Puppet," which Oldham cowrote with Dan Penn some 40 years ago.

** The name is from a story that Lynyrd Skynyrd bandleader Ronnie Van Zant was decapitated by a video recorder when the plane crashed. From Wikipedia:
[Skynyrd drummer Artimus] Pyle did confirm (from Pyle's interview on the The
Howard Stern Show on Sirius Satellite Radio, February 12, 2007
) that Van
Zant's cause of death was trauma to the head caused by equipment, such as
Betamax tapes and Trinitrons, flying forward in the plane's cabin.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
This is one of my all-time favorites. It's from "Strike While The Iron Is Hot" by the Vigilantes of Love:

These days I feel so impotent
These days I'm so depressed
I got hate mail coming to my door
via Federal Express
Imagine people hating you so much they are willing to cough up $15-20 for FedEx because they can't wait a few days for regular USPS mail. I suppose it's a bit dated (from 1992) because nowadays people would send hate e-mail instantly instead. But just like writing a letter to your congressperson carries more weight than sending an e-mail (so I'm told), hate mail is more effective in hard copy, don't you think?

"Strike While The Iron Is Hot" is from the third Vigilantes of Love album, Killing Floor. The album has been released twice, the second version adding three live tracks (the second and third Amazon items below include the extra tracks).

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Friday, October 05, 2007
 
Paul Simon & Sammy Hagar, Please Reply
On my bike ride today, I pondered this question: Why are there 50 ways to leave your lover, but there's only one way to rock?

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Saturday, September 29, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
Here it is, the long-awaited conclusion of "Ex Week"...

Far be it from me to over-analyze -- actually, that was my specialty in those days -- but another song also seemed to sum up my relationship with the Metra babe (as my co-workers called her). Appropriately, the song is about a train wreck: "I Can't Remember"* by the Vigilantes of Love:

We were thrown into the snowbank,
Into this screamin' night;
I heard the splintering of bones,
cries of pain and fright.
We had laughed and shared a kiss,
mingled there our lives
doing 90 miles an hour, when our train hit the ice

But I can't remember --
what was I so excited about?
I can't remember --
why all the fuss & shout?
I can't remember --
Ah, the ember's goin' out.
I guess that's a logical step after recognizing I had taken everything too seriously. What was I so excited about?

"I Can't Remember" is from the third Vigilantes of Love album, Killing Floor. The album has been released twice, the second version adding three live tracks (the second and third Amazon items below include the extra tracks).


* A note for the purists: I transcribed the lyrics from the CD lyric sheet, which differ from the online lyrics at Parting-Shot.com in punctuation and capitalization.

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Friday, September 28, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
"Ex Week" continues with the aftermath of the Metra babe...

Not long after we met, she told me about a Halloween party she attended dressed as a prostitute. She said everyone was surprised because it was so out of character for her. After our relationship was over (at least the "dating" part), I realized that the opening lines of Soul Asylum's "Without A Trace" provided a concise summary:

I fell in love with a hooker
She laughed in my face
So seriously I took her
I was a disgrace
I didn't quite fall in love with her, but I definitely took the relationship much more seriously than I should have. And in the end, I was pretty much a disgrace. It didn't help that she wanted to "still be friends." Nine times out of ten, guys don't really want to be friends -- we just figure if we stay in a woman's life long enough, she'll eventually come to her senses and want to sleep with us (and 99 times out of 100, it never happens). That faint glimmer of hope kept me in her life long enough to help her move downtown (I even drove the freaking U-Haul truck) as well as hear her complain about the string of insensitive jerks she did sleep with. My chance never came. Finally, more than two years after the day we met on the train, I told her, "I think our friendship has run its course." It was long overdue, and it was one of the most empowering days of my life.

"Without A Trace" was the fourth single from Soul Asylum's enormously successful Grave Dancer's Union, which includes their most famous song, "Runaway Train." Both of those songs also appear on Black Gold: The Best of Soul Asylum.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
"Ex Week" continues...

When I started working in downtown Chicago in September 1993, I commuted from Aurora via Metra train. One day in October, I started a conversation with a woman on the train and got her number. It was a major achievement because I was never good at flirting. I was so excited that I couldn't help blabbing to my co-workers (a young, fun gang of people, the best). They immediately branded her "the Metra babe"... and started calling me "the Metra stalker."

I was starting a new job in a new environment, and I was making more money than ever before. A previous relationship was just far enough in the past that I was finally ready to move on -- a huge step for me. A girlfriend seemed to be the only thing missing from my happy little life, so I thought my chance encounter with this woman was nothing less than a sign from above.

I was listening to Aerosmith's Pump and Get A Grip a lot on my Walkman as I traveled 50 minutes each way on the train. I seized upon "Amazing" as a sort of theme song for my relationship with this woman, though it was just as much about letting go of the past:

It's amazing
With the blink of an eye you finally see the light
It's amazing
When the moment arrives that you know you'll be alright
It's amazing
And I'm sayin' a prayer for the desperate hearts tonight
It's pretty clear now that I had way too much invested right from the start. I was so sure it was "going somewhere" that I was completely blind to the reality of the situation.

We had a nice date or two and met up on the train occasionally, but the relationship never really took off. She never seemed quite as happy about running into me on the train as I was. And while I would go to great lengths to surprise or impress her, she never bothered to go out of her way for me. In her defense, her life was pretty miserable at that moment. She was taking night classes and changing careers, bouncing back from being laid off. She had a really lousy, stressful job that consumed much of her time and energy. It didn't matter to me then that she was about eight years older, but once I reached her age, I realized how cynical she must have been about relationships, work, and life. Simply put, there was nothing "amazing" to her about us, if "us" ever even occurred to her.

That relationship gave me a book's worth of pathetic, self-deprecating stories. I won't share them here, but I will revisit the Metra babe tomorrow...

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
"Ex Week" continues...

Remember the tale from Monday about the Catholic school teacher who called Tom Petty a "total druggie?" Well, the relationship lasted another five or six weeks, which was actually pretty long by my standards.

We were going to get together Friday night on Thanksgiving weekend. She was supposed to call me at my parents' house, and I was going to pick her up at her parents' house (also in the suburbs -- it was set to be our first date where I drove). By 8 PM I hadn't heard from her. I was sure she had lost my parents' phone number or something (we weren't carrying cell phones back in 1994). I checked for messages on my apartment answering machine, just as I had every hour all afternoon. Although I knew she wasn't supposed to be there, I called her apartment. She answered. She said something about deciding to return to the city instead of staying at her parents'. I asked why she hadn't called me, and she brushed it off. Never one to take a hint, I asked about getting together. She danced around it and spoke vaguely without committing to anything. As we made smalltalk to close out the conversation, I recognized the song playing on her stereo in the background:

I wrote her off for the tenth time today
And practiced all the things I would say
But she came over, I lost my nerve
I took her back and made her dessert

Now I know I’m being used
That’s okay man cause I like the abuse
I know she’s playing with me
That’s okay cause I got no self esteem

We make plans to go out at night
I wait till 2 then I turn out the light
All this rejection’s got me so low
If she keeps it up I just might tell her so

Yes, it was "Self Esteem" by the Offspring, the tale of a pathetic, desperate guy who lets his gal walk all over him. Months earlier, a friend at work had joked that it should be my theme song, and, well, there I was.

I left a few phone messages for her the next week (in retrospect, that was really pathetic and desperate), but I never saw or spoke to her again.

By the way, for anyone familiar with the rest of the song, the lines, "When she's saying that she wants only me/Then I wonder why she sleeps with my friends," have no relevance here. In fact, I've never been in that situation, which is one good thing about having very few friends.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
"Ex Week" continues...

This one is about a woman I dated in college. One night I ended up at her apartment, which she shared with her older sister. Their father was a pot-smoking old hippie. He had been arrested recently after police found a large quantity of weed in his barn. The woman I was dating showed me a newspaper clipping, and her sister went to put a record on the stereo.

"Copperhead Road" is one of Steve Earle's most popular songs. And yet hearing Earle sing it never quite hits me the same way it did that night when those two daughters sang along in honor of their dad:

I volunteered for the Army on my birthday
They draft the white trash first,'round here anyway
I done two tours of duty in Vietnam
And I came home with a brand new plan
I take the seed from Colombia and Mexico
I plant it up the holler down Copperhead Road
Well the D.E.A.'s got a chopper in the air
I wake up screaming like I'm back over there
I learned a thing or two from ol' Charlie don't you know
You better stay away from Copperhead Road
I don't know how dad's court case turned out. The sing-a-long was my fondest memory from that relationship, at least until our paths crossed again years later, but that's another story...

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Monday, September 24, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
"Ex Week" continues...

When I first moved to the city, I put a "matches" ad in The Reader. The ad drew eight or nine responses, six of which led to dates. Only one of those lucky ladies could bear the thought of spending another evening with me. She was a Catholic school teacher and a huge supporter of Jack Kemp for president. She also had a car, which was mighty handy considering I had left mine behind at my parents' house (it took me another six months to find a buyer for the darn thing*). So one day we were going somewhere in her car, and a new Tom Petty song came on the radio.

"I like Tom Petty... even though he's, like, a total druggie," she said.

"I don't think he's that much of a druggie," I said.

This conversation lasted just long enough to get to the first chorus of the song:

But let me get to the point, let's roll another joint
And turn the radio loud, I'm too alone to be proud
You don't know how it feels
You don't know how it feels to be me
Crap, I guess I lost that argument. "You Don't Know How It Feels" had just been released as the first single from Petty's upcoming Wildflowers album, and obviously I hadn't heard it before. Oh well, I still think "total druggie" is a bit harsh for an occasional pot smoker like Petty. I mean, Howie Epstein (the Heartbreakers' bass player) was a "total druggie" (heroin use eventually led to his death).

I'll share a better story about that relationship later in "Ex Week." Stay tuned...


* My suburban family was not happy about me selling my car. One family member expressed concern that I'd never get a date without a car. Fortunately for me, it was the 1990s, not the 1950s. None of the women I dated ever complained about me not having a car. They always had other reasons to never want to see me again.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
This will be "Ex Week" for LotD. By "ex," I mean any woman who ever let me buy her dinner. It's a generous definition, and I'm sure virtually none of those women would grant me "ex" status, if they even remember me at all. Anyway, these are songs that remind me of them.

When I was a teenager (literally half my lifetime ago), I used to make tapes for women I liked, usually because their tastes in music sucked and they needed my guidance (it may sound arrogant, but it was true). Anyway, I started out just being friends with this woman, and I made her a few tapes. I included one of my favorite songs by the Rainmakers (one of the best bands you've probably never heard of) called "No Romance:"

If you're looking for some answers
Well you've come to the wrong place
You might find lines, but no valentines
Written all over my face
I bear no grudge, I wear no frown
I just come with calloused hands
And I don't mean to bring you down but
There is no romance.
By some strange twist of fate, we ended up sort of dating, or at least "seeing each other," for a short time. Then I wrote her a letter saying I didn't want to go out with her anymore, probably in a clumsy, tactless way (though I can't remember the words). And wouldn't you know, she wrote back and quoted some lyrics from "No Romance." I guess I deserved that.


(order the version from seller "VILLAGERECORDSCOM" to get the 2006 reissue with bonus tracks)

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Sunday, September 16, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
My music collection doesn't include much punk, but the Los Angeles band X is a notable exception; I have eight of their albums. "See How We Are" is the title track from X's sixth album, released in 1987. The song covers a broad range of subjects from prisons to poverty to self-interest to relationships, but these lines always stick out in my mind:

Now there are seven kinds of Coke
500 kinds of cigarettes
This freedom of choice in the USA drives everybody crazy
Only seven kinds of Coke, imagine that! Back then, we had "new" Coke, Coke Classic, Diet Coke, Caffeine-free Coke, Diet Caffeine-free Coke, Cherry Coke, and Diet Cherry Coke. I remember because the first time I heard the song, I made that list and said, "Damn, they're right!"

Of course, that was 20 years ago. Since then, only "new" Coke has fallen (quietly) by the wayside, and the company has added Coca-Cola BlaK, Coca-Cola Zero, Black Cherry Vanilla Coke, Coke with Lime, Diet Black Cherry Vanilla Coke, Diet Coke with Lime, Diet Coke with Splenda, Diet Vanilla Coke, and Vanilla Coke. Our Coke options have more than doubled!

This reminds me of a book I read a few months ago by Barry Schwartz titled The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. He confirms what X knew decades ago, that freedom of choice is driving us crazy. He shows how excessive options add stress, waste time, and often lead to poorer decisions. The last chapter is full of great advice for dealing with the overwhelming choices in modern America. It might even help you pick out your next can of Coke.

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Friday, September 14, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
I was listening to The Velvet Underground & Nico yesterday*, one of the most influential rock and roll albums of all time. This 1967 debut album and its noisier follow-up, White Light/White Heat, didn't sell well when they were released, but they inspired many punk bands a decade later. In fact, Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground is sometimes called the "Godfather of Punk" (so is Iggy Pop). I bought the record (yes, it was on vinyl) 20 years after it came out. Another twenty years later, it has become what I call "comfort music," stuff I know by heart and happily sing along to, no matter how dark much of the subject matter is.

The song "Venus In Furs" is about sadomasochism, which was a pretty risque topic for a record in 1967. Of course, it never got played on the radio. The title is shared with a book by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Severin is a character from the book who loves a woman so much he asks to be her slave. Here are a couple of verses:
Kiss the boot of shiny shiny leather
Shiny leather in the dark
Tongue the thongs, the belt that does await you
Strike dear mistress and cure his heart

Severin, Severin, speak so slightly
Severin, down on your bended knee
Taste the whip, in love not given lightly
Taste the whip, now bleed for me
The lyrics are accompanied by mournful and unsettling instrumentation including Mo Tucker's ominously thumping drums, John Cale's electric viola (which always sounds creepy to me), and Lou Reed's "ostrich guitar" (all strings tuned to the same note).



* Actually, it was Disc 2 of Peel Slowly And See, the Velvet Underground boxed set which includes all of their studio albums plus a mixed bag of previously unreleased material.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
I told you there would be more Tom Russell lyrics to come. My favorite Russell CD so far -- aside from some awesome concert recordings of him with longtime accompanist Andrew Hardin -- is Borderland, which includes many songs about the Rio Grande region. Yesterday's song, "Tonight We Ride," would have fit in perfectly, but Borderland leads off with another powerful song, "Touch Of Evil." The song is inspired by the 1958 movie of the same name.

Orson Welles directed Touch Of Evil but got booted off the project by Universal during post-production. When he was allowed to see what his replacement, Harry Keller, had done with the movie, Welles wrote a 58-page memo detailing the changes he would make. The memo has become Hollywood legend, and Touch Of Evil was reedited in the 1990s to be truer to his vision. Another notable thing about the movie is that Charlton Heston was cast as a Mexican (originally, Janet Leigh, who played his wife, was supposed to be Mexican, which would have been just as odd). In fact, despite being set in a Mexican border town, the movie used few Hispanic actors, but I suppose that was typical for 1950s Hollywood.

Of course, after hearing the song I had to rent the movie from Netflix. It sounded like the sort of movie I would enjoy. Film noir is one of my favorite genres, and the only other Welles film I've seen is the brilliant Citizen Kane. Alas, I was disappointed by Touch Of Evil. As I expected from Welles, there was some fantastic cinematography with unusual camera angles and such. But I had a hard time figuring out what was going on most of the time; I felt like I was watching the movie in a fog (it didn't help that my sleep habits have been completely screwed up since my wife started working midnights a few weeks ago -- I've been doing everything in a fog). There were some great lines and memorable moments, but I'd probably have to watch it a few more times to "get" it. Even as I write this, I'm feeling a little guilty, like I should have watched it again before mailing it back to Netflix.

Russell interlaces scenes from Touch Of Evil with the tale of a broken long-term relationship, the chorus pleading, "Why don't you touch me anymore?" Although the movie was set in a fictional border town, Russell sets this song, like several on Borderland, in Juarez.
The night my baby left me I crossed the bridge to Juarez Avenue
Like that movie Touch of Evil I got the Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich blues
Where Orson walks into the whorehouse and Marlene says "Man, you look like hell"
And Orson's chewing on a chocolate bar as the lights go on in the old Blue Star Hotel
"Read my future" says old Orson, "down inside the tea leaves of your cup"
And she says "You ain't got no future, Hank, I believe your future's all used up"
As it turned out, that poignant and prescient line was my favorite in the entire movie. It's toward the end, so I had to wait for a long time to hear it (the lyrics aren't exactly the same as in the movie, but close enough).

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
Tom Russell is one of my favorite lyrical storytellers. "Tonight We Ride" leads off his Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs album. Russell tells of riding with John "Black Jack" Pershing in pursuit of Pancho Villa along the Mexican border (after Villa's raid on Columbus, NM in 1916). The narrator steals Pershing's stallion, but he gets caught and thrown in prison.
When I'm too damn old to sit a horse, I'll steal the warden's car
Break my ass out of this prison, leave my teeth there in a jar
You don't need no teeth for kissin' gals or smokin' cheap cigars
I'll sleep with one eye open, 'neath God's celestial stars

Tonight we rock, tonight we roll
We'll rob the Juarez liquor store for the Reposado Gold
And if we drink ourselves to death, ain't that the cowboy way to go?
Tonight we ride, tonight we ride
I'd rather not think of the sort of gals who'd want to kiss an old guy with no teeth, but I love the bravado of these lyrics. I've been listening to a lot of Russell lately, so he'll probably turn up in Lyrics of the Day again soon.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
I've been a fan of Todd Snider for a long time. Although he may be associated more with Nashville or Austin, he was born in Portland, Oregon. He has written a handful of songs reflecting his Oregon roots, and one is about legendary airplane hijacker D.B. Cooper. On November 24, 1971, Cooper hijacked a flight from Portland, landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport to collect a $200,000 ransom and four parachutes, made the plane take off again, and then made his escape by jumping out of the Boeing 727 somewhere northwest of Portland. He was never found, and speculation about his real identity and whether he survived has run rampant over the years.

In "D.B. Cooper," Snider sings about watching coverage of the extensive manhunt on TV as a kid (taking the liberty of making himself eight years old when actually he was only five) and imagines a conversation with Cooper:

But he told me that the hardest part wasn't really jumping out of the plane
It was spending the night watching those lights
Shine through the pouring rain
It was a very thorough search; the F.B.I. found two bodies, but they were people who had been missing for years. Snider ponders Cooper's fate, and in the end he's rooting for the outlaw:

Now some people say that he died up there somewhere in the rain and the wind
Other people say that he got away but his girlfriend did him in
The lawmen say if he is out there someday they're gonna bring him in
As for me, I hope they never see D.B. Cooper again
The D.B. Cooper case is "the only unsolved domestic skyjacking in U.S. history." The Wikipedia entry gives a good overview of the hijacking and potential suspects, but Court TV's Crime Library probably has the most extensive narrative online.

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Monday, September 10, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
Some lyrics are like poetry. You have to think to figure out what they are about. Today's lyric is the opposite; it's pretty darn obvious what's going on. "(I Can Tell) Your Love is Waning" is another Slobberbone song about a troubled relationship:*
There's a baby in the bedroom that doesn't know you're there
As you're lying in the bathtub with shampoo in your hair
And the radio is playing some fucked up country song
And sorta like us it's sad and sweet, but it won't last for long

'Cause I can tell your love is waning from the looks and smell of it,
Like getting caught behind a cattle truck and all you smell is shit
Getting caught behind a cattle truck and all you smell is shit
This song is from Crow Pot Pie, the band's first album. Brent Best's lyrics have grown more subtle on later releases, but the bluntness is what I love about this song. Unlike yesterday's "Live On In The Dark," this song does include a killing ("shampoo in your hair" becomes "blood all in your hair"), though whether it is real or imagined is open to interpretation (the song's last couple of lines imply that there's still hope).

* Readers should note that my choice of lyrics does not necessarily reflect anything going on in my personal life (and I will tell you when it does). I just enjoy dark music. My wife says my entire record collection is depressing, but I say, "No, it's not. What about Leonard Cohen?"

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Sunday, September 09, 2007
 
Wisconsin Road Trip Revisited
I forget a few things in my write-up of last month's whirlwind auto tour of Wisconsin and other northerly regions...

When visiting Lake Superior, it is impossible not to think of Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald." That was my favorite song for a while when I was a kid, sometime before fifth grade. My dad had the album (Summertime Dream), and it included lyrics. Of course, I followed along until I knew the whole song. I was a weird kid.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
On that moonlit night when I drove through Duluth toward the North Shore to collect counties, I saw a billboard for Gordon Lightfoot! He is appearing at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on September 23. A Gordon Lightfoot billboard in Duluth -- that made my night.

But there was more to come. Way up in Little Marais, the last town in Lake County before the Cook County line where I turned around (coincidentally, Lake and Cook Counties are adjacent in northern Illinois as well), I saw a place called The Spirit of Gitche Gumee, which is a bed & breakfast, gift shop, and coffee shop. It was almost midnight, so I couldn't check it out, but there are some interesting items on their Web site.

On a completely different note... While driving through Eagle River, Wisconsin, I saw a store called The Flour Sack that sells bulk food and baking supplies. I got the idea to start a similarly named business to compete with "Nuts On Clark", but I suppose the name wouldn't be very appealing.

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"We Don't Want Any Hangings"
I probably shouldn't make light of this story, but I can't help myself.
A Chicago man held on traffic violations by Schiller Park police was found hanged in his jail cell Saturday, police said. Martin Garcia, 42, was arrested late Friday and was being held on traffic violations at the police station at 9526 W. Irving Park Rd., police said in a statement... An autopsy determined the death was a suicide...
This reminds me of Arlo Guthrie's classic "Alice's Restaurant":
After the ordeal, we went back to the jail. Obie said he was going to put us in the cell. Said, "Kid, I'm going to put you in the cell, I want your wallet and your belt." And I said, "Obie, I can understand you wanting my wallet so I don't have any money to spend in the cell, but what do you want my belt for?" And he said, "Kid, we don't want any hangings." I said, "Obie, did you think I was going to hang myself for littering?"
Similarly, why would a guy hang himself for traffic violations?

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Lyrics of the Day
Slobberbone was a band out of Denton, TX that made great music with little commercial success. Lead singer and songwriter Brent Best had a penchant for modern murder ballads -- he killed off dozens of characters in the band's four albums. That said, no one dies in "Live On In The Dark" from Slippage, their final album. It's about a stagnant or decaying relationship. To me personally, it's about lacking ambition, desire, and motivation (backstory deleted to spare you all):

So I just live on in the dark
I could drive but I just park
I just talk when I could sing
And now it doesn't mean a thing
I could bite, but I just bark
I could light but I just spark
I live on in the dark
A few years ago, Best took the core of Slobberbone, added a keyboardist, and named them the Drams. Their sound is a bit more radio-friendly (not that it has resulted in any airplay), and the lyrics are generally more upbeat.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
One of my favorite albums of the 1980s was Love Junk by a Canadian band called The Pursuit Of Happiness (TPOH). The hit single from this debut American album was "I'm An Adult Now":

Well, I don't hate my parents
I don't get drunk just to spite 'em
I've got my own reasons to drink now
Think I'll call my dad up and invite 'im
I picked this song today because a later verse goes along with my earlier post about not wanting to die in an embarrassingly stupid way:

I can't take any more illicit drugs
I can't afford any artificial joy
I'd sure look like a fool dead in a ditch somewhere
With a mind full of chemicals
Like some cheese-eating high school boy
I guess I'd describe TPOH as sort of a raunchier incarnation of the Smithereens with female harmonies. Here's the cheesy video they did for "I'm An Adult Now" back in the day...

I wonder if that song got them branded as a novelty act. Here is another slightly less cheesy video (I'm sorry; it was the 1980s) for a more serious song from Love Junk, "She's So Young"...

They put out two more major-label albums in the U.S., One Sided Story and The Downward Road (perhaps a comment on their career?), but they never really clicked for me like Love Junk did. The band released a couple more CDs in Canada, as well as a best-of, but I don't have any of those. They even have a concert DVD out, which I just added to my Netflix queue. I'd recommend starting with Love Junk., even if you have to buy it as an import.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
These are the opening lines from "Can't Go Back" by Soul Asylum back in their indie/punk days (1986):
The aim of my time is to fill up my mind
And when it gets too full I forget
That's about as good an answer to the philosophical question why am I here? as any.

For anyone interested in the "good old days" of Soul Asylum including a few MP3 samples, check out this.

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Friday, August 24, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
I was listening to an Old 97's* radio appearance from 1996 today. They played "Doreen," which includes this chorus:

Doreen, Doreen, last night I had an awful dream.
You were laying in the arms of a man I'd never seen.
Come clean Doreen. Come clean Doreen.
It's just a superfluous detail included for the sake of rhyme, but the phrase "a man I'd never seen" irks me. Does that mean it would be okay if the singer dreamed of her sleeping with his best friend instead?

* The grammar freak in me says there shouldn't be an apostrophe because the band name is plural, not belonging to Old 97, but that's how they punctuate it on their Web site. If you look at their album covers, however, they seem to alternate between using and omitting the apostrophe (for example, see the two albums "Doreen" appears on below).

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
I've been listening to a bunch of Robert Earl Keen concert recordings lately. A very good songwriter in his own right, Keen chooses exceptional cover material, including James McMurtry's "Levelland," Dave Alvin's "4th of July," and Townes Van Zandt's "Snowin' On Raton." On his 1994 album Gringo Honeymoon, Keen recorded a song Steve Earle wrote almost 20 years earlier, "Tom Ames' Prayer."

Tom Ames is a small-time outlaw sent away by his father: "I can tell you're headed for trouble son and your momma wouldn't understand." He takes off and graduates to robbing banks. The song finds Ames in a precarious situation where he contemplates praying, something he never tried before. He begrudgingly asks God for help and then remembers a previous encounter with the clergy:

Judge Parker said guilty and the gavel came down just like a cannon shot
And I went away quietly and I began to file and plot
Well they sent the preacher down to my cell, he said, "The Lord is your only hope
He's the only friend that you gonna have when you hit the end of Parker's rope"
Well I guess he coulda' kept on preachin' 'till Christmas but he turned his back on me
I put a homemade blade to that golden throat and asked the deputy for the key

Earle finally released his own version the next year on Train A Comin', his first album after getting out of prison. He wanted to make an album fast, so he dug up half a dozen old tunes and a couple of covers to complement a handful of newly written songs. Amazon calls the album an "essential recording," and I concur. Then again, I think most of Earle's albums are essential. Hardcore Earle aficionados can find a 1970s "songwriter's demo" of "Tom Ames' Prayer" on a bootleg known as Mexican Demos (17-track version).

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Friday, August 17, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
I finally got around to listening to Jason Isbell's debut solo CD Sirens of the Ditch last night. Isbell was a member of the Drive-By Truckers for six years and three albums but left the band a few months ago. The songs he wrote for the Truckers were exceptional, and his bandmates knew all along that he was destined to strike out on his own. Like Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley (the Truckers' other songwriters), Isbell is an excellent storyteller who injects details of Southern culture into his lyrics.

Anyway, for the last few months that Isbell toured with the Drive-By Truckers, I kept reading praise for a new song he was performing called "Dress Blues." It's about Matthew Conley, a Marine from his hometown who was killed in Iraq. He didn't know Conley well, but such tragedies hit hard regardless (a bicyclist I met only once was run over by a semi, and years later I still think about him).
Your wife said this all would be funny
when you came back home in a week.
You'd turn twenty-two and we'd celebrate you
in a bar or a tent by the creek.
Your baby would just about be here.
Your very last tour would be up
but you won't be back. They're all dressing in black
drinking sweet tea in styrofoam cups.

Mamas and grandmamas love you.
American boys hate to lose.
You never planned on the bombs in the sand
or sleeping in your dress blues.
I can't say the whole CD measures up to that, but how could it?

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Friday, August 03, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
It's time for the thrilling conclusion of DBT Suicide Week!

All week I've been featuring Drive-By Truckers songs about suicide. For the grand finale, here are two Patterson Hood songs from the band's most recent release, A Blessing and a Curse. The title track is the second-to-last song:

When it all comes down
There'll be nothing left to catch you but ground
It's calling your name and filling your head
With delusions of glory

Is that how you're gonna write your story?
Down in your time as a high-flying flame out?
Sucking on what's left of your trust fund?
Sucking on the end of a shot gun?

Finally, that album and DBT Suicide Week finish with "A World of Hurt:"

I was 27 when I figured out that blowing my brains out wasn't the answer
So I decided, maybe I should find a way to make this world work out for me
And my good friend Paul was 83 when he told me that "To love is to feel pain"
And I thought about that then and I've thought about that again and again
From there, Hood continues in a conversational manner leading up to this:

So if what you have is working for you, or you think that it can stand a reasonable chance,
and whatever's broken seems fixable and nothing's beyond repair
If you still think about each other and smile before you remember how screwed up it's gotten
or maybe dream of a time less rotten
Remember, it ain't too late to take a deep breath
and throw yourself into it with everything you got

It's great to be alive.
Surprise! I'll bet you weren't expecting DBT Suicide Week to have a happy ending.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
Today we continue toward the exciting conclusion of DBT Suicide Week!

Since most of the band hails from northern Alabama, the Tennesee Valley Authority (TVA) is a topic of several Drive-By Truckers songs. The TVA brought many changes to that region, not all of them good. In "Uncle Frank" from the DBT's second album Pizza Deliverance, Mike Cooley explores the dark side of the TVA's impact. Uncle Frank lost his land when it was submerged by a new dam, and the promises of economic development were greater than the reality.

The cars never came to town and the roads never got built
and the price of all that power kept on going straight uphill
The banks around the hollow sold for lakefront property
where doctors, lawyers, and musicians teach their kids to waterski.

Uncle Frank couldn’t read or write
so there was no note or letter found when he died.
Just a rope around his neck and the kitchen table turned on its side

This song interests me because I read about the TVA recently in Water Wars by Diane Raines Ward. In its early days, the TVA served as a model for water development. It lessened the flooding along the Tennessee River, which in turn helped combat malaria and other maladies. It provided cheap, clean hydroelectricity for a region where many homes didn't even have power and those that did had been powered by dirty coal plants. It provided jobs during the Great Depression in a region sorely in need of economic development. Its hydropower fueled some of the aluminum plants -- as well as Oak Ridge National Laboratory -- that helped the U.S. win World War II. While some critics complained about too much government control, the TVA showed how important it is to manage a river as a whole system. TVA consultants were sought by developing nations wishing to control their water resources in a similar manner.

But by the time those countries came calling, the TVA was already heading downhill. Instead of staying true to their charter, they decided their business should be power generation rather than river management. Consequently, the TVA started building nuclear power plants and even coal plants (keep in mind part of their original mission was to replace coal plants). The nuclear plants crippled the TVA with debt, so "the price of all that power kept on going straight uphill." Now the TVA is an example of a good idea gone wrong, or at least a good idea that lost its focus. Of course, "Uncle Frank" is looking at the TVA from a "micro" point of view. While overall it did a lot of good, the lives of some people were deeply affected and even ruined in the name of Progress.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007
 
Lyrics of the Day
DBT Suicide Week continues!

Yesterday we saw the song Mike Cooley wrote in response to a friend's suicide. Today it's Patterson Hood's turn with "Do It Yourself," the next song on Decoration Day after "When the Pin Hits the Shell."

My Daddy called me on a Friday morning, so sad to tell me just what you’d done
You tried so hard to make us all hate you but in the end you was the only one
Sick, tired, pissed and wired, you never thought about anyone else.
You tried in vain to find something to kill you
in the end you had to do it yourself.
In contrast to Cooley's slow, brooding meditation, Hood's song is a straight-up rocker that belies the anger in the lyrics:

And it’s a sorry thing to do to your sweet sister
It’s a sorry thing to do to your little boy
It’s a sorry thing to do to the folks who love you
Your Mama and Daddy lost their only boy
Some should say I should cut you slack, but you worked so hard at unhappiness.
Living too hard just couldn’t kill you
In the end you had to do it yourself.
It's interesting to hear the two approaches. In the end, "When the Pin Hits the Shell" comes across as more poignant, but mostly because the music overshadows the words in "Do It Yourself." Sometimes I wonder if Hood paired these lyrics with straight-ahead rock because it was too painful to sing them any other way.

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