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ACTs of the Apostles

For the past month, I’ve worked as a part-time tutor in south Alabama, helping high-schoolers prepare for the verbal portion of the ACT, the standardized college admissions exam generally preferred by the universities down in Dixie.

As part of the interview process, I was required to take the English section of the test and notch a certain score.

I felt a pang of terror upon hearing the news. It had been 24 years since I walked into Murphy High School one fine spring morning and filled in those tiny ovals with a pair of sharpened No. 2s. I had worked as a writer and editor since 2004, but, under the gun, was I really the prince of punctuation I fancied myself to be?

It was too late to take a practice test, so I decided to “get in the zone.” I sought to achieve this through a form of method-acting, by which I’d recreate a day in the life of my 17-year-old self. That afternoon I ran wind-sprints in cleats and washed my hair afterward with a green, toxic slime known as Pert Plus. I ate ham-steak for dinner with baked potato and washed it down with a Carnation Instant Breakfast while watching an episode of “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper.”

The next morning, I was ready to go.

I finished the English section of the test with a minute to spare, and completed Reading Comp at the buzzer. I think the ACT gods were smiling on me. The Prose Fiction section of Reading Comp was written by a not-so-well-known Vermont novelist named David Huddle, whose daughter taught me poetry writing at UVa. The Natural Sciences section sported a passage by Oliver Sacks, whom I’d been reading that very week.

After finishing the test, I sat nervously in a small cubicle awaiting the results. I soon found out I’d aced the Reading and missed a few on English. I was ecstatic. I imagined at that moment I had the world by the balls. I had made it. I could go to any college of my choosing. Then I could land any job in the world and marry any girl I wanted.  I walked out of the tutoring center like a man on fire. I got in my car and blasted “Rain King” by Counting Crows, fishtailing out of the parking lot as my car shape-shifted into a burgundy-and-cream ’89 Ford Bronco.

New Skin for the Old Ceremony

The night before the release of The Unraveling, the new album from Drive-By Truckers that dropped January 31, Patterson Hood posted a picture to Instagram of the New York City skyline at night. He captioned the photo: “Thirty-one years ago, Lou Reed’s New York album was one of my two favorite albums of the year. Neil Young’s Freedom was the other one. Both of those album politically pointed to this current moment in time … Within a week there will be Brexit, the Iowa 2020 caucus and most likely Trump’s acquittal. The soul of America has been sold out (to paraphrase Marianne Faithful) ‘for such a low bid.’”

Lou Reed’s New York, generally regarded as one of his stronger solo efforts, documents the dark underbelly of Gotham in the late ’80s, turning its lens on the city’s street denizens and working-class hustlers, the folks struggling to pay rent to a landlord “who’s laughing till he wets his pants.” The album could’ve been written yesterday. As Reed sings on “Dirty Boulevard”: “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ‘em/ that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says/ Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ‘em to death/ and get it over with and just dump ‘em on the boulevard.”

Young’s Freedom, the more well-known of the two, opens and closes with acoustic and electric versions of “Rockin’ In The Free World,” respectively. It’s a song the Truckers uncork regularly in concert these days and it works as a sort of thematic centerpiece to the live show.

The Unraveling — the title of which recalls liberal economist Paul Krugram’s 2003 book The Great Unraveling — is very much in the spirit of the Young and Reed efforts. It’s also a suitemate of sorts to the band’s 2016 release American Band, the group’s most pointedly political album up to that point and one that attempted to grapple with hot-button issues of the republic like gun control and Black Lives Matter.

The Unraveling was recorded in a mere six days at Sun Studios in Memphis, and the immediacy shines through. The album is mostly a Hood affair, with co-principal songwriter Mike Cooley contributing just two songs. The opening track “Rosemary With A Bible And A Gun,” a Southern Gothic travelogue that recalls Springsteen’s Nebraska and namechecks Memphis photographer William Eggleston, is a bit of an outlier on the record. Cinematic in its scope, it’s a cryptic story that sets the tone for what’s to follow. The next song, “Armageddon’s Back In Town,” is a dirty rocker about the return of Reagan-era, Cold War paranoia, with Hood lamenting that “you can’t tell the rabbit from the hat” in his trademark Southern rasp. “Thoughts and Prayers,” the album’s first single, deals with the failure of the political establishment to take action on societal horrors like mass gun violence, while “21st Century USA” chronicles the dry rot of small-town life, painting Anytown, America as a place of Wells Fargos, KFCs, payday loan centers, and shitty bars, populated by folks working for shrinking pay while awaiting the return of the Savior. “Heroin Again” laments an acquaintance’s relapse on a drug that is finding its ways into new corners of American society as painkiller addictions rage and scripts get harder to come by.  “Babies In Cages,” a title that could be the authoritarian state writ large, is a plaintive cry of the heart, with Hood singing, “This ain’t the country our grandads fought for us to be.”

The Truckers, now 12 albums deep in a career full of twists and turns, have never been shrinking violets when it comes to politics, which is something of a rarity for rock bands from the American south. The group’s breakthrough double-album Southern Rock Opera was a deeply political affair, one could argue, exploring what Hood called “the duality of the Southern thing.” Hood was born in the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama in 1964, the year of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a watershed piece of legislation that tilted much of the white, working-class south in the direction of the Republican party. Southern Rock Opera explored the nuances of race and politics throughout Alabama history, referencing everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd to George Wallace, a politician now regarded as a forerunner to Trump. As The Unraveling drops, three Alabama politicians are vying for the Republican nomination for Senate, all of them desperately trying to out-Trump one another, with former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville suggesting Trump was chosen by God to be president, House Rep. Bradley Byrne running a series of blatantly racist ads that go well beyond dog-whistling, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions championing the record of a president who kicked him to the curb like a mangy dog. Clearly, not much has changed in the neighborhood.

“This is no time for circumlocution, this is no time for learned speech,” Lou Reed sings on New York. The Truckers would seem to agree. The Unraveling is as hard-boiled and direct as anything they’ve written, and there are no words minced. Politics and art have always been tricky bedfellows, and some artists come up short in their efforts, with the music amounting to nothing more than cheap dogma and rhetoric. And while this isn’t the best Truckers’ album by a long shot, it is a pretty good one, and one that achieves its objective of holding the mirror up to a country that’s bargained so much of its soul.

In a recent interview with Forbes magazine, Hood said he wanted his kids to know which side of history he stood on when the smoke eventually clears. This album makes it abundantly clear.

A Late Day For Regrets

No other work in American literature has haunted me like this one. 

It is our Great American Play, I think. It’s truths are eternal, and the shock of recognition is terrifying.

It is a family play, set in 1912 in a house in New London, Connecticut. The story is deeply autobiographical. The characters are facsimiles of O’Neill’s family: the father, James, a once-promising Shakespearean actor who squandered his talent in exchange for an easy buck; the mother, Mary, a morphine junkie wrecked by addiction after the death of a young son; Jamie, the alcoholic and cynical older brother; and Edmund, the wayward, seafaring youngest son with a deep poetic streak, who is the playwright himself, but who takes the name of O’Neill’s real-life dead brother in the play.

O’Neill wrote “Long Day’s Journey” in the early 1940s, in the last decade of his life while in the throes of a severe neurologiocal disorder, after he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize. He never wanted it to be performed. His widow, determined to enshrine his legacy as one of the great American artists after his death, insisted that it be produced on the stage. It was, and it was a smash, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1956, O’Neill’s fourth.

The play, like much of O’Neill’s work, is about what you’re left with after all illusion has been stripped away. It’s about saying everything you’ve ever wanted to say to your loved ones, but couldn’t. It isn’t always pretty.

As Tony Kushner said in a PBS documentary: “[O’Neill’s idea is that] there are great complexes and abysses of meaning under the surface of life, and our job as artists and people is to dig, and go deep, and to dive, as Melville kept saying, deeper and deeper and deeper, and the more deeply you dive the more you’re at risk of being dismantled and crushed. But that’s what your job is and you don’t flinch from it … O’Neill is our Shakespeare, he sets the standard.”

It’s been said that O’Neill invented American theatre, that he was our first serious playwright. It’s interesting to note that most of the major American writers of his vintage saw their talent flame out as they aged (Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald); O’Neill’s only improved, despite a worsening battle with a Parkinson’s-like disease. That is heroic. 

O’Neill died in a Boston hotel along the Charles River in 1953, with his wife Carlotta at his side. “Born in a hotel room,” he told her before passing, “and goddamnit, died in a hotel room.”

#eugeneoneill #longdaysjourneyintonight #tonykushner #americandrama #broadway #jasonrobards #katherinehepburn #sidneylumet @americanexperiencepbs

When You Wake

This book taught me about the musical possibilities of the English language: that the sound and rhythm of words on a page could take on an almost symphonic-like power in the hands of a master.

I first read “All The Pretty Horses” as a senior in high school. It was a Christmas gift from a close family-friend — thank you, Mrs. Stacie — who strongly felt that I should read it before going off to college. I’ve returned to it many times since.

The soaring nature of the language ignited something in me that had only been lit by music up to that point, on songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Thunder Road” and the video for “November Rain,” when Slash is in the desert alone with his Les Paul, ampless in front of a white chapel.

It was never my dream to just “stick around,” and perhaps this book also spoke to a maladaptive sense of wanderlust. Part of me always wanted to wander the earth like my partial-namesake Kwai Chang Caine in the ’70s tv show “Kung-Fu.” But it was not to be.

In the book there are the brilliant evocations of the land and wildlife and a long disquisition on the history of Mexico (“They kicked [Francisco Madero’s] dead body and spat upon it. One of them pried out his artificial eye and it was passed among the crowd as a curiosity.), as well as a reckoning with the fragility of our relationship with our sister republic. McCarthy’s vision of the world can be incredibly dark but it is punctuated with flashes of breathtaking beauty.

As he wrote:

“He thought that the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’spain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.”

#alltheprettyhorses #cormacmccarthy #kwaichangcaine #kungfutvshow #franciscomadero

The Ties That Bind

Continuing my theme of firsts (first base, first love, first smoke and beer will come later), this was the first cassette I remember purchasing myself. It was 1986, and I was about seven.

I had become obsessed with a song called “At This Moment” which appeared on this album. I first heard it one night on tv at my grandmother Mama Telle’s house in Panama City, likely during the holidays. The song played near the ending of an episode of “Family Ties,” a show I hadn’t seen till then as it ran past my bedtime. But I caught it that night, and I liked it immediately, mainly, I think, because it starred  Michael J. Fox — a familiar face from “Back to the Future” and the very definition of cool to a seven year old.

Some time after we got back home, I got my mom to drive me to the Record Bar in her blue Ford station wagon. I recall the embarrassment I felt when, asking a clerk where to find it, I referred to Vera’s backing band as the Beatles. He laughed, then pointed me in the right direction.

“At This Moment” is a piece of maudlin, blue-eyed soul, and a really weird song for a kid to dig. But we like what we like, as they say. I don’t think I cared for any other tunes on the album, especially hating one number called “Peanut Butter.”

I forgot about the song for a long time. Then one night, around the time I got married in 2005, my now ex-father-in-law randomly mentioned at dinner that it was his favorite song. It was clearly personal to him, and likely spoke to the regret he felt over some things not voiced that night. I kept mum about my own history with the tune. #atthismoment #billyveraandthebeaters #familyties #michaeljfox

Nights of Ecstasy: Jimmy Buffett, Hush Puppies and the Middle School Dance

Album art for “Feeding Frenzy.”

Jimmy Buffett’s live album Feeding Frenzy inaugurated my relationship with the compact disc. I think I bought it at Peaches Records— R.I.P. — on Airport Boulevard in Mobile around 1990. The album is so named because it includes the fan-favorite “Fins,” one of his lesser offerings. (“Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” is also included.)

While I do not find Jimmy worthy of the Nobel, let the record show that I am not a Buffett hater. He is something of a patron saint in his native Mobile, and to hate this fun-loving and often off-key minstrel would be like betting against the home team.

Buffett, many are surprised to learn, has earned Dylan’s laurels — no small feat/fete. The bard even performed “A Pirate Looks at Forty” with Joan Baez after they reunited in the early’-80s. I thought of “Pirate” as an old man’s song when I was a kid, and now, so many years later, I find myself regarding mother, mother ocean beyond that nautical vantage point Buffett sang so wearily about.

My favorite song to this day on Frenzy is “Come Monday,” if only for the line “I got my hush puppies on.” Hush puppies were de rigeur for middle-school dances and gatherings under the Friday night lights from ’89 to ’92 in Mobile. Jimmy was singing about us, by God.

It is also pretty baller that in 2006 he got busted in France for ecstasy (a charge he denied to Matt Lauer on the Today Show).

Ain’t No Grave

There is a train that’s heading straight
To Heaven’s gate, to Heaven’s gate
And on the way, child and man
And woman wait, watch and wait
For Redemption Day

When Sheryl Crow, the subject of this issue’s cover, penned these lines in 1995 in response to her experiences on a USO trip to war-torn Bosnia, most Americans would not have imagined that, nearly 25 years later, they would resonate here at home as precisely as they do. The words are from “Redemption Day,” off Crow’s eponymous second album, which she has now reworked for her latest effort, Threads. On Threads, the song functions as the spiritual lever of the record, offering its prescience to the present with a power and clarity that is intensified with the vocal accompaniment of an American icon, Johnny Cash.  Fans will remember that Cash recorded it shortly before his death in 2003, seven years before its posthumous release on Ain’t No Grave: American Recordings VI. This new version features vocals from both artists and the video weaves their images with scenes of human bravery and tragedy with such force that John Carter Cash, Johnny’s son, found it overwhelming.

Threads is a long-gestating effort from the Missouri native that boasts mostly new music, with a few well-placed covers and features collaborations with heavyweights such as Mavis Staples, Keith Richards, Chuck D and Stevie Nicks, as well as younger singer-songwriters Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Margo Price, St. Vincent, and Gary Clark Jr. to name a few. It has been well worth the wait.

****

Our greatest artists have always chronicled the times, and the best among them today are documenting the present with their music.  And still, they are doing it with defiant hope. Merely days after the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, Lana Del Rey posted to Instagram an excerpt from a song she’d written not long after the news of the carnage broke. The tune is called “Looking For America,” and it reads in part: “I’m still looking for my own version of America/ One without the gun, where the flag can freely fly/ No bombs in the sky/ Only fireworks when you and I collide/ It’s just a dream I had in mind.” Let’s hope it finds its way on to Del Rey’s soon-to-be released album, Norman Fucking Rockwell!  

Elsewhere in this issue, we profile the Lumineers, whose new album, III, grapples with the plague of addiction. (In 2017,  there were 94.4 opioid prescriptions for every 100 persons in Tennessee alone.) One of the band’s principals, Jeremiah Fraites, lost his brother to heroin addiction when he was 13, long before the opioid crisis hit. The album charts the trials of a fictional family but, for Fraites, the writing process was cathartic. “I’d be lying if I didn’t believe maybe some people are going to feel this album is too heavy,” he says, “but I think it’s a very raw, very honest album.”

We also talk to Brittany Howard, the vocal powerhouse for Alabama Shakes, who is about to release her first solo album called Jaime. The record is a tribute to her late sister, who passed away when Brittany was a young teenager, but it also explores in remarkably nuanced fashion issues of race, identity, and religion. Howard is bi-racial and has had romantic relationships with men and women, thus giving her a multiplicity of perspective. One song chronicles a family episode in her childhood when someone put a bloody goat head in her father’s truck, an event that her family believed to be racially motivated. Another song makes the case for unconditional divine love and acceptance, the kind that exists outside the dictates of organized religion.

Sadly, as this issue heads to the print, we say goodbye to David Berman, whom we featured in the last issue for his new project, Purple Mountains. Berman is best known for his work with Silver Jews, and though he is not a household name, his songwriting, along with his published poetry, commands a deep and abiding respect among fans, fellow artists and critics. Berman, who passed away on August 7 at age 52, was open about his struggles with depression and substance abuse. Throughout his life he suffered profoundly, but in the midst of that suffering he managed to carve out a body of work that is redolent with truth and beauty, humor and sadness. It is a body of work that will stand the test of time. We are left with the memory of his life, along with his sublime words and music.

I believe the stars are the headlights of angels
Driving from heaven to save us
To save us
Look in the sky
They’re driving from heaven into our eyes
And though final words are so hard to devise
I promise that I’ll always remember your pretty eyes
Your pretty eyes

— from the song “Pretty Eyes” (1996)

Take A Walk On The Wild Side

“He’s a dark horse, and the thing that’s revelatory [about his work] to me, is how much of our current media and technology and influence-environment he predicted. If I’m contributing anything to the Beat scholarship side of this, I hope that is valuable on some level. In my research I didn’t see anyone else who’d pulled those threads together — the idea that Burroughs is a mixed-media Nostradamus. His vision is dark and incredibly relevant in the era that we currently occupy.”

I interviewed Casey Rae about his book on William S. Burroughs’ place in rock music. Read it here on americansongwriter.com.

Requiem For The Colonel

 

The last Dick, on Government Boulevard. Photo by Caine O’Rear

Not long after moving back to Mobile, in the early days of this cruel and wanton summer, I made a pilgrimmage to the last-standing Colonel Dixie in my hometown.

Colonel Dixie, or “The Dick” as it was so warmly known, was a local, homegrown approximation of McDonald’s (who once sued the company for trademark infringement) and home of the beloved “Dixie Dog.” This particular location had apparently closed down a few years ago, but the building remained, standing like some crooked monument to the franchise’s faded glory.

Colonel Dixie was a local instition throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.  It carried a history as rich and piquant as its beloved “Dixie Dogs.” The owner, a brash, redneck Mobilian by the name of Paul Leverett, had his wife murdered by a hitman in the early ‘80s so he could marry his mistress (“Phyliss”). Mr. Leverett was convicted and eventually murdered in prison. 

A child of the Springhill neighborhood in West Mobile, my local “Dick” stood on the corner of Old Shell and McGregor. It was the regular meeting place after “ballroom dancing” class on Mondays in the sixth grade. Later, when you reached driving age, you’d meet up at there to find out where the party was that night. Sometimes, when the scene was slow, you would just hang out in the lot, smoking and drinking and maybe listening to Harrison pick an Allman Brothers tune, until a cop showed up and the Broncos and Blazers scattered like spooked horses.

R.I.P, Colonel. We’ll never forget you.