We were sitting outside a bar somewhere, and one of us, thinking aloud rather than engaging in conversation, absently read aloud the words “Made in Milwaukee, Wisconsin” from the label of his beer. “What Made Milwaukee Famous…” I responded.
“What made Milwaukee famous what?” he asked.
“Oh, I think there’s a song, What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out of Me)”
“That’s an incredible song title. Is it a country song?”
“Probably. I bet it’s a great tune.”
“How could it not be?”
A few days later we had tracked down a Rod Stewart album with a reasonable-sounding version of the song, originally written by Jerry Lee Lewis. We bought one each. As expected, the song totally ruled.
Sometimes all you need is a title. The great story-telling songs are remarkable for their economy, for how they can make their story seem real to you with only a few lines, and a short few minutes. Some go a bit further and tell you everything you need to know in the title alone. The rest of the song is just a fulfilling of that outline.
Thus it was when I discovered the existence of a song by The Palace Brothers called “I Was Drunk At The Pulpit”. Familiar already with the gothic Americana of the Will Oldham style, I could hardly have failed to be enthralled by a title like that. This was a song that had me at hello. I immediately sought it out, and was not disappointed.
“I was drunk at the pulpit,
though I knew it was wrong,
and I left in mid sermon,
tempted by a bar house song”
it begins, the opening quatrain as striking as the title that makes up the first line. No time period is specified, though the song has an archaic feel to it. One pictures our narrator striding unsteadily out of a wooden New England church, sometime in the eighteenth century. Out the door and into the bar he goes, joining his old school mates, now far gone, years gone in drunkenness. They pull up a stool for him, as if they are surprised only that it’s taken him so long to join them. And there, in that “shit-smelling pit”, amongst the “grinning and dribbling” drinkers, our narrator has a crisis of faith. Whatever faith he professed and preached in the fool’s paradise of church was bogus, and only now in the dark and with the sinners does he feel God rise within.
The lyrics are extraordinarily complex, and I had to see them in writing before I could grasp everything that was going on in the song. This is most unusual – most songs seem a little thin and banal when stripped of their music, but this one loses none of its profundity. The phrase “church-dark widened eyes” is wordsmithery of the highest order, worthy of the finest of poets. Barely a line in the song is wasted – also unusual in song-writing, a discipline that does not disdain filler in the same way as does poetry. Take, by way of further example these piety-scorning lines:
“Let them abstain
on unbucking high horses,
Poor wooden structures
that merely eye courses”
This is an inspired conceit: the high horse as hobby horse, “unbucking” and therefore untesting, eyeing the courses of the world, but never running them.
There’s relentlessness to the song, an unswerving journey from church, to bar, to deep within the darkest recesses of the soul. The faith that is found here is a deep, dark, fiery one, and it is born of solitude. It ultimately amounts to nihilism. In shunning the church, the narrator shuns human society. The fact that he is surrounded by others in the bar does not mean he is not alone – a glance at the alcoholics drinking at mid-day in any pub will confirm that. In line after implacable line, he retreats further within himself, expressing his scorn for the very idea of companionship, concluding that “the world is within you and without is mud”.
It’s an uncompromising, frightening song, but then I knew that before I ever heard it.