Saturday, April 1, 2017


(purchase Tender Prey)

First, a free-association when I think of Nick Cave.

Blood. Carcuses. Riverbanks. Trials. Bones. Hard rain. Dirty. Grins. Yellow Teeth. Whistling trains. Hammers. Whale dick. Run. Breath. The Road. Devil. Imps. Bodies floating. The circus. Lard. Murder. Church. Black birds.

Since his days with the Birthday Party and throughout his career with the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave has had a flare for haunting, gruesome storytelling. Actually, it feels better to say he spins yarns, often bloody ones. His characters pulse and ooze color: preachers on soapboxes, icky carnies, criminals on the run, slime balls in seersucker suits wielding knives and chewing toothpicks, worming along riverbanks and lingering in their own smoke. Cave’s subjects suffer and dish out suffering. A good many kill and die.

It’s no secret that Cave is one of the best narrative songwriters of our time: his imagery and metaphor is wild and his handle of sound device is bold and deft. He is Australian but his settings and characters feel American Gothic with possible influences like Sam Shepard, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, delta blues and Elvis mythology.

“The Mercy Seat” (the opening number from 1988’s Tender Prey) is a confounding, harrowing take on an execution after a prison sentence of unknown length. 

Strap yourself in. It shocks, scares, and twists.

The players warm up like a team of executioners: a guitar rumble, a violin scrape, a sledgehammering drum and a finalizing, decisive chord on the piano which repeats throughout the song as if to say to the subject: “Wipe away that shit-eating grin because this is final you sad son of a bitch.” Cave’s criminal/victim's first words are wry mumble in a low baritone, “It began when they took me from my home and put me on dead row/Of which I am nearly wholly innocent, you know.”

nearly wholly innocent, you know”? You can see the sad and doomed s.o.b winking at his guilt through sooty crow’s feet. Then the drums whip into a march, and he reflects on his final meal.

The face of Jesus in my soup
Those sinister dinner deals
The meal trolley’s wicked wheels
A hooked bone rising from my food
All things either good or ungood.

Over seven minutes long, “The Mercy Seat” is minimalist in structure and more spoken-word poetry--assaulted with instrumentation--than song. Cave’s collaboration with Einsturzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld peaks on “The Mercy Seat”, with frightening industrial impact at the start and guitar hovering and shrieking like wraiths throughout.

Cave foresees a dizzying, seering finish to death. In a chorus that repeats itself over ten times.

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of proof.
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die.

The violin abandoned earlier comes back raising the stakes and the wattage. Our subject’s pitch rises, and he is choked into some semblance of sincerity as he discards his earlier wry tone for steely resolve.

And the Mercy Seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning.

And the guilt that seemed a sure bet earlier through his cockiness is now somehow up for doubt with a cynical, exhausted comment on the justice system and its link to the Old Testament.

And in a way I’m hoping to be done
with all this weighing of the truth
an eye for an eye a truth for a truth
and any way I told the truth

The line “and anyway I told the truth” is replaced with “and anyway there was no proof”, “and “I’ve got nothing left to lose.”  In the end, however, the replacement is a stunner: “and I’m afraid I told a lie”. And then our subject is finally bereft of words, his body succumbs, the choked keyboard rises and we have a dead man in a chair. Guilty

Is this final line the subject’s way of reaching out for a last-ditch attempt at Christ’s forgiveness--of whom he is so cynical earlier--or is out of respect for whoever has been listening this whole time and their right to know the truth? It’s a hell of an exit and I imagine this doubt is what is left at the end of any execution. I wish I had seen Cave when he decided on this finish. Having played in bands and knowing how little band mates listen to the vocalist’s lyrics, I wonder how long it took the Bad Seeds (Mick Harvey, Bargeld, Kid Congo Powers, Rowland Howard) to realize what Cave had done in that final line.

Nick Cave had a huge impact on my own writing when I was in college. Through his own audacious character sketches, he taught me to shoot for the most extreme imagery possible, no apologies necessary. In one of my favorite college poems I wrote, the reverence of Cave is unquestionable and a little embarrassing: “His skin pealing/not appealing/his lungs wheezing like Billy Ray’s Hammond organ/singing notes that are squealing like a neglected red balloon preaching the lord’s good word: ‘Have another drink’”. There was a guy I worshiped in college who worshiped Cave. Kevin was long and wiry like Cave and walked around in black suit jackets, always with a book tucked under his arm. He wore shiny black boots and a constant sneer because he knew he was smarter than most everybody around him.

I saw Cave once or twice. The first time was in 1991 when I took a train back from Prague to see him in Berlin. One ticket was the same price as three days in Prague (room and board and beer). I struck up a conversation with a German kid my age on the train.

Him: Why are you going to Berlin?
Me: To see Nick Cave at the Hippodrome.
Him: Ah you got a ticket?
Me: No, I’ll just pick one up there.
Him: (laughing) This isn’t America.

I did see the show. From outside the huge tent for two hours I jumped up and down on old sneakers to catch tiny glimpses of Cave careening and plunging forward. It was worth it, one of the better shows I’d seen. And I recall him singing Johnny Cash’s (who actually covered "Mercy Seat" a few years later) “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer.”, which drew the disbelief and jealousy of Kevin three months later. 

I’m still unsure if I told a lie.

The second time I saw Cave was Lollapalooza in Milwaukee in 1994 on the  Henry’s Dream tour. It was daylight and the crowd was only 30% full. Cave destroyed the Midwestern audience that wasn’t ready for or didn’t really understand him. Later on MTV I remember him being interviewed about his Lollapalooza experience.

VJ: What’s it like to be playing with such a plethora of performers?
Cave: What do you mean ‘plethora’?
VJ: Diverse…
Cave: I know what it means. I just wanted to know if you knew.
VJ: Yeah. Huh.
Cave: I’m glad I didn’t bring my son. He’d be embarrassed by these crowds.

I never was sure what Cave meant by this. Playing in stadiums to huge crowds (assuming Milwaukee attendance was an anomaly); playing in front of empty daylight crowds like Milwaukee; or crowds that simply didn’t get him.

Friday, March 31, 2017

prison:momma tried

purchase [ Momma Tried]

It wasn't until after I had made my choice that I realized that, curiously - as I post this - it's just a few days short of the one year anniversary of Merle Haggard's death (April 6, 2016). I was simply thinking this song was a classic that ought to be included in a prison theme, so I can't claim foresight for choosing it at such a serendipitous time.

You may well know that the man himself spent time in the klink, hence his first hand knowledge of what he sings:

I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole ..

And, considering my previous post, wherein I ruminated about the prevalance of prison in country music, you might think I am trying to prove a point. Not so. It's just coincidence.

Haggard touches on the subject of nature/nurture when he notes that:

Momma tried to raise me better but her pleadings I denied

Again, classic country themes - raised by mom, I had an honest home life, but things happened and here I am ... doin' the best I can.

Prison: Famous Prisoners Set

Songwriters are often concerned with issues related to social justice, so it’s no surprise that they have taken up the causes of those who were wrongly imprisoned. In this set, we can hear some of the great music that can result, and we can see both the power and the limits of the power that music has to bring about change.

Peter Gabriel: Biko


By the time Peter Gabriel recorded Biko, it was already too late for the song’s subject. Stephen Biko was an anti-Apartheid protestor in South Africa, and the government had already silenced him. Gabriel, in writing the song, hoped to highlight the case as a protest against Apartheid. By itself, the song did not end Apartheid, but it helped keep the memory of Stephen Biko alive.

Special AKA: Nelson Mandela


By the same token, this Special AKA song did not achieve its goal by itself, but it served as a rallying call as the protests against Apartheid worldwide became more effective. The story of Nelson Mandela had a happier ending than that of Stephen Biko; Mandela was freed when Apartheid ended, and he became the country’s first president of the post-Apartheid era.

Bob Dylan: Hurricane


All of these songs are about racism in some way. Here in the United States, we like to think that we have conquered this evil, but that certainly was not true when Bob Dylan wrote this one to highlight the case of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. This song was probably the most successful of the three presented here, in that it brought the spotlight to a case that was eventually retried, and Carter was freed. Dylan’s song did not cause that in a vacuum, but it probably had more to do with the outcome than the other songs presented here. Still, cases like this one still happen now, but the victims are generally not as well known.

Prison: Neko Case, Prison Girls

Purchase, Middle Cyclone, by Neko Case

I’ll take any opportunity talk about Neko Case. Ex punk rocker, singer songwriter, the best part of The new Pornographers—Case has an impressive resume, and that is before you even get to her solo work, which comprises her most stunning work. But what is most stunning about Case is this: she has a powerful and unique voice that is its own vital, yet distinctly separate instrument in whatever band she is performing front side. There is almost a lack of femininity to her vocal range, and while I wouldn’t use the word strident for what that word lacks, or rather says, as connotation, there is something moving and arresting in Case’s voice, when she performs in a softer register or really letting it out. Nor can I call her voice strong, though it is just that. Strong doesn’t quite characterize the way she rises above the music. Case sings like no one I’ve ever listened to. She can be as gentle in the soprano harmony of a purred hum fill, as she can be belting out the hey na nas in a shout out chorus.

Case does country, but in her own unique way, so labels don’t work. But, her music travels far from that particular genre. Her last few releases defy comparison and I strive for a single adjective in which to place her, style-wise. Like the greatest of artists, she is elusive while being almost identifiable. Her sound ranges from big, to folky, to antique, in a wonderful, nostalgic-for-something-you-don’t-know kind of way. I read an interview once with her, where she talked as she wandered her barn which was filled with old pianos and organs and other vintage instruments, all of which were going to be put to use on her next project. That struck me again as I listened: Case’s music is full of sound—sound in that sense that she is making a landscape, building it carefully, with her voice as the central spine, but then adding a plethora of other, beautiful harmonies. Again, the sound is multitudinous, an intense and dramatic choir of resonating aural portraits. Almost indefinable, but so perfect as to exist within its own special genre.

And this says nothing yet of her writing, perhaps her very strongest skill. Neko Case is a poet, with the pure of luck of having a brilliant voice. Her work is imagistic, and profound ideas march in metaphor across a unique lyrical world. She talks often of animals (foxes, killer whales), she talks of weather (sideways snow), she takes ordinary moments and suffuses them with comparisons and images that carry the brilliance of fresh paint on a canvas. Put her imagistic narratives up against sounds that come from strange places and the listener comes across 3-minute-and-something masterpiece after 3-minute-and-something masterpiece.  Case reminds me in many ways of the great imagist poets such as James Wright with her use of not just the image, but the deep image that carries with it the impression of the thing it is picturing and the emotional after-image that the thing means, like what happens when someone snaps your picture with a flash—the impression lasts, and deepens to a profundity that might not be immediately evident. But, again, the image abides, hovering in your thought, coloring your emotional tie to the music. Her song, “Deep Red Bells” comes to mind, with the image of a hand print left on the vinyl seat of a car, made fro ma sweating palm, there but for a moment, then gone.

“Prison Girls” is another perfect example of Case’s writing prowess. The song itself, from 2009’s Middle Cyclone, is smoky, languid and watery in a way. It’s dark and slinky, with a reverbed guitar that carries on as an eerie chime throughout. Like much of Case’s music, there is a rise toward a major chord-driven chorus that rises out of the stark, minor key whisp and sway, before sinking back down again. Case makes music with odd, rhythmic sensations; the sounds always remind me sonically of a breeze through a window. I’ll let you do with that image what you will. As far as the lyrics, “Prison Girls” is gorgeous image poetry with a narrative that is hard to pin down. I thought a lot about what she’s talking about here, aside from the obvious setting of a women’s prison. But like much of Case’s lyrics, the meaning is subservient to the beauty of the imagery and thus the picture she draws and the visual spell she casts. Case creates atmosphere often without filling in the details, and “Prison Girls” is mysterious by flirting around an unnamed central theme. But the mood she creates forgives the lack of through line. Take for instance:
            Awakened by a droning voice
            I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes
            Is it a lady of is it a man
            Humming helicopters through the blades of a fan
There is a haunted ambiance that carries “Prison Girls”, with that line, I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes, sung as a repeated refrain. It hints at menacing guards, looming over helpless prisoners; it brings to mind dark, lonely places; it puts the listener in a place they don’t want to be. But, good writing can carry the reader, or listener, to places they don’t want to go, but go anyway.
             Prison girls are not impressed
            They're the ones that have to clean this mess
            They've traded more for cigarettes
            Than I've managed to express 

You don’t really need to know exactly what she’s talking about. Like any great artist, the image, the impression, is its own entity and exists solely for the watcher, listener, to understand as they will. With Neko Case, however, the music will entrance you and much like waking up from a dream you don’t understand, the impression is sometimes more important than the meaning.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017


Call it a stop gap, call it compromise, hell, no, I call it serendipity. I'm in Paris and the french do good prison, whether Devil's Island or Chateau d'If. And, when in Paris, where better to start than Bastille?

I am uncertain why UK post-rock electro-rockers chose the name they did, but I'm glad they did. (OK, so there wouldn't have been this post, make up your own mind?!) So, why the name and why, and it is as simple as singer and band originator, Dan Smith, having his birthday on quatorze juillet, perhaps a little later than the storming. I think they are great. In existence barely since 2010, they have produced 2 albums of joyous triumphalism; semi-electronic power-pop anthems, hinged with a choral splay that delights my ears. 2 albums in, both are magnificent, and live, they are a joy. Go.

From the point and purpose of giving substance to this piece, I should add that the Squeeze and I duly made our way to Place de la Bastille this week. And? Move on, nothing (much) to see, they destroyed it in 1789..... Hey, ho, much like musical genres.

Imprison yourself

Prison: Alan Lomax, Prison recordings, circa 1947-1948

For people that know the work of Alan Lomax, begun in 1946 as ‘field recordings’, the history, and thus the essentiality, of the work is equal to the power of the voices, styles, stories and history he captured. Born in 1915, Lomax spent almost 60 years continuing the work of his equally famous father, John, in recording literal and actual history, as understood through the guise of folk music.  Armed with various recording devices, including an automatic disk recorder, family Lomax traveled the United States and captured the unique songs and sounds and voices—some of which no longer exist—that displayed the entirety of the unique American ethnography of the people that came from so many places to call this land home. 

From Louisiana (Cajun music) to the Midwest and the multi-ethnic immigrant European communities, and especially the American South, from the Mississippi Delta to the Appalachian Mountains—the Lomaxs were able to create an archive that has become a uniquely personal, sociological and historical atlas of living art and expression.  And thus forever preserve various the kind of lives, customs and traditions that would have faded and been forever lost.

Historically, there is no greater sense of touching history than what comes from a tangible connection and the Lomax family were somewhat magician-like in the way they documented lives and the artistic fiber that made so many people who they were, at an ethnic and cultural level, to be sure, but also in what they were beyond their cultural identifiers. To record someone signing, reciting a poem, telling you the story of their life: that is capturing the emotional soul of a being and in their art, their story can be truly understood, without needing analysis or dissection. Art lays bare what is inside someone, and through voice, the strands of one’s emotional DNA are clear. What Alan and John Lomax did was preserve, yes, but they were also capturing history in a way that was never possible before.

Alan Lomax was a great proponent of what he termed “cultural equity" and promoted a movement called “One World.” Today, this would be termed more familiarly as multiculturalism.  What he was after was showing how a shared cultural identity, in all its various forms, was what bound us together, and that our differences did not divide us—it was just the opposite. There are two statements Lomax made in defense of his world view that I feel I have to share. He said both, “The dimension of cultural equity needs to be added to the humane continuum of liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and social justice,” and, "Folklore can show us that this dream is age-old and common to all mankind. It asks that we recognize the cultural rights of weaker peoples in sharing this dream. And it can make their adjustment to a world society an easier and more creative process. The stuff of folklore—the orally transmitted wisdom, art and music of the people can provide ten thousand bridges across which men of all nations may stride to say, “You are my brother.” [1]
IInterestingly, the FBI investigated Alan Lomax repeatedly for many years though no charges were ever filed against him. What were the Feds looking for on a folklorist armed with a pen and recording equipment? Take a guess…We are talking J. Edgar Hoover’s America, after all…but, I don’t want to go into politics.

You might know that the Lomaxs were the first to put such luminaries as Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Honeyboy Edwards, and Woody Guthrie to tape. The debt we owe to the Lomax family can’t be understated and the Smithsonian’s Folkways label and the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center, make it possible for all the myriad sounds can still be heard, studied and appreciated. ( A note for the historians among us: The Lomaxs traveled much farther afield than the US, and their history is just as fascinating as what they were able to preserve. But for our purposes, we are going to focus on one small portion and geographical region of their body of work.)

Of particular interest to me, and apropos of our theme this round, are the recordings that were captured in the American South, particularly Mississippi in 1947 and 1948. Known as the prison recordings, I can think of no music I’ve ever heard more haunting and visceral. Southern Penitentiaries were often forced labor work camps, and according the Association for Cultural Equality, “Southern agricultural penitentiaries were in many respects replicas of nineteenth-century plantations, where groups of slaves did arduous work by hand, supervised by white men with guns and constant threat of awful physical punishment. It is hardly surprising that the music of plantation culture — the work songs — went to the prisons as well.”  [2]

Drawing on the tradition of work songs sung in the field by slaves on the plantations, work songs in prisons carried much the same function of rhythm and spoke to the same sort of misery and desperation. Meant to help keep time in tandem working gangs, the songs have an undeniable rhythm and a raw, but beautiful cadence. But there is a palpable sense of anguish and misery that cuts through the acapella chorus, a choir of miserable souls bound to some duty, but somehow transcending the despair through the lifting of their voices. Hammer falls, wood cutting, tie-tamping—the sound of tools sinking into wood and striking the earth provide an imperfect rhythm track, but one that is equal ghost to the pained, drawn and anguished vocals.

The Lomaxs made a multitude of these prison recordings at the Parchman Farm, part of the Mississippi State Penitentiary system, and the liner notes to these recordings add to the haunted nature of the songs. The names of the inmates read like a gallery of souls from Dante’s Inferno, which, while it is an oft-used metaphor, seems fitting. One wonders about those men: what had they done to end up there, how long did they last? Dig deeply into the archives and you can listen to some of the non-musical tracks that were recorded, where the inmates talk about just that: what put them in the klink, what they planned on doing once they got out. It’s an amazing piece of preservation, but the songs themselves speak volumes that documentary interviews cannot. The rhythms, the stories the signers tell, are as vivid a portrait of pain and regret as you’ll ever hear. There is something vital in preserving even the saddest, most miserable of human experiences. I spoke of empathy in my previous post, but as an abstract of being invited into a fictional portrayal of a life we’re happy not to have for our own. But, in the prison recordings, there is no hiding from the reality. The longing, the anger, the prayers for release are unadorned by visuals or the writer’s syntactical flourishes. What you hear on these tapes is true, and therefore impossible to ignore for the spirit it carries. Pleas for release, for a woman left behind to remain true, for someone to believe their professed innocence—all these themes and more can be found in the songs, but knowing there is very little “performance” behind the words; the signers are being truthful in the only way that a man behind bars can express his plight in true terms.

With so many powerful songs to choose from, it’s hard to pick one or two that most capture the essential nature of the work. But, two of the more powerful tracks that have always stuck with me are “Early in the Morning” and “Rosie.”

“Early in the Morning” was sung by four inmate at the Parchman Farm in 1947. The palpable pain of the lead vocalist, credited as Tangle Eye, strikes an intense, material counter to the hollow thunking rhythm track which is actually the inmates’ axes striking wood. The lyrics are more about the rhythm than about making meaning. Though there is a bit of humor in what is being said, the lyrics cover traditional subjects that might accompany the experience of a man forced to work, forcibly taken far from home: complaints about having to get up early in the morning, admonishing his woman not to believe stories some other man might be her, and how he’s counting on her to remain faithful. That prayerful begging to keep a promise and remain true is one that can be found throughout these recordings and in “Early in the Morning”, we get a strange bit of juxtaposition, between the work and the woman:

Well-rocks ’n gravel make -a
Make a solid road
It takes a good lookin woman to make a
To make a good lookin whore[3]
Regardless of who he is singing to, Tangle Eye’s voice is fragile as a cracked vase and the axes striking wood, or perhaps it’s hoes striking dirt, bring to mind the desperation of the nearly dead. Or the kind of sadness that makes one wish for that specific release.

The other track I want to highlight is called “Rosie.” “Rosie” resonates with me as it was one of the first selections I heard from the Lomax archive. So, there is that sense of nostalgia, coupled with the power of how a song can muscle its way in and sink into your conscious, thus becoming part of your deeper understanding of music, the kind not easily described in terms that make sense of the feeling.  “Rosie” is a sad song, and a simple one in its sentiment:  be true while I’m away. It’s a classic call and response, the lead singer calling: “Be my woman, gal—“ and the rest of his gang answering back, “—I’ll be your man!” the lead vocal reminds Rosie to “Stick to the promise, gal, that—“ / “—you made me.” And that promise is not marry to “til I go free!”  But, by the end, we have an understanding of what worries the convict most, while his love is out there free and he’s locked away:

Call: "When she walks she reels and-"
Response: "-rocks behind."
Call: "Ain't that enough to worry-"
Response: "-[a] convict's mind."[4]

“Rosie” has a lighter tone than many of the songs in the prison collections, and I’ve heard renditions where Rosie is a young woman who sashays temptingly just beyond the gate, but ever out of the prisoners reach and thus as much a torment as she is a beauty. She might even have made some promises that to a desperate man might mean more than she bargained for. One of the interesting things I read while researching Lomax’s notes was the strange setup of many of these labor camps: "These recordings were made in 1947 in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. The singers were all Negro prisoners, who, according to the practice of Mississippi, were serving out their time by working on a huge state cotton plantation in the fertile Yazoo Delta. Only a few strands of wire separated the prison from adjoining plantations. Only the sight of an occasional armed guard or a barred window in one of the frame dormitories made one realize that this was a prison. The land produced the same crop; there was the same work for the Negroes to do on both sides of the fence. And there was no Delta Negro who was not aware of how easy it was for him to find himself on the wrong side of those few strands of barbed wire...”[5] Being so close to civilization, yet inexorably separated from it, had to be its own explicit kind of torture.

And, regarding that unique sound of the rhythm, and why the prisoners could sing such complex tunes wile working, I found this: “Songs like "Rosie" not only coordinated the dangerous teamwork of several men chopping trees but also made the workers more productive and helped the time pass. As with slave songs, the work songs also helped prisoners give vent to intense pent-up feelings, whether the words were specifically about that or not. Such singing and chanting can also ease the spirit, bring harmony to the group, and can even bring some pleasure to the moment. [6]

The prison recordings have been collected and released in many collections, and the Smithsonian’s Folk Ways releases are a good place to start. You can find a few collections in the Spotify library, as well. To read more about what went into these recordings, who you are hearing, the when and the where, so to speak, there is a wealth of information on the web, but is an invaluable resource. The site puts the history into a fascinating perspective.

I’ll end with what I touched on earlier: recordings like these, and the rest of the Lomax archives are beyond music, for listening’s sake. Preserving the voices, and thus the experience, of those minority segments of society, either due to simple numbers, marginalization, or poor choices that land one in jail, is essential to understanding who we are as a collective. That sense of collective humanity is one our modern world’s great failings: the lack of recognizing it, in particular. Hearing another’s voice, and the experiences behind that voice, reminds us of the essential sense that we are more connected than we are separate. And when we forget that we really are more similar than different, we tend to forget that first and foremost, we are on this earth to treat each other well. Music, of all the arts, can remind us of this in the most profound ways.