Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Song 5: I Was Drunk At The Pulpit

December 10, 2008

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.

Song 4: Carpetbaggers

November 26, 2008

After the end of the American Civil War, the farmers and plantation owners of Dixie were forced to confront the consequences of fighting a losing battle to maintain a slave economy. They had no money and no assets but land, and the land was both ruined by years of war, and unworkable without slave labour. Down from the north came opportunists with cash, looking for bargains. There’s a scene in Gone With the Wind where Scarlett confronts two of these Yankees, sending them home, as one might imagine, with fleas in their ears. The camera, with clumsy portentousness, makes sure we get a long look at their luggage.

These bargain hunters bought up much of the South for a song, and were unsurprisingly hugely resented, the best Irish parallel being the flash Returned Yank (someone someday should write a song about that, and the whole Yank/Yankee connection.) “Carpetbagger” entered the common language of the South and later of all of America, where it means any opportunistic outsider or new arrival on the make. When Hillary Clinton made her home in New York, the better to run for US Senate there, the epithet was levelled at her, as it had been at John McCain upon his arrival in Arizona years before.

Jenny Lewis was born in Las Vegas, and is best known as lead singer of Indie band Rilo Kiley, so the emphasis in her solo work on American roots music might strike certain purists as a bit carpetbaggerish itself. Me, I think the proof is in the listening, and given my tastes, it’s hardly a surprise that I prefer her two solo records to anything by Rilo Kiley. In “Carpetbaggers”, written by her boyfriend and musical partner Jonathan Rice, she warns not of Northern Republicans but gold-digging women. “Carpetbagger” has shown it’s self to be a versatile phrase over the decades, and Lewis here gives it a whole new meaning without ever overstretching. The song’s opening lines combine the metaphor’s new use with its post-bellum origin so effortlessly that one is amazed that no-one ever thought of doing it before:

They come to town when the war is over

Dirty boots in the middle of the night,

Trolling the bars, hitting on soldiers,

The boys give it up without a fight

Yes, the boys always give it up without a fight. Not for us the resistance of the Confederacy. Seduction goes from Fort Sumter to Appomattox within the space of an evening. Speaking of seduction, although it doesn’t come within the remit of the song as written, I feel I must draw your attention to the middle portion of the below video, and the awesomeness therein. There is a certain kind of male music fan with a fondness for the female voice who looks upon certain of the more attractive of those artists with an adolescent mixture of adoration and lust. They are nothing so vulgar as groupies – they actually want the singer in question to be their girlfriend. This video, and in particular the bit starting at 1:20 will be like catnip to them.

I am not, quite, one of the dudes described above, but seriously, synchronised dancing in a gold lame minidress and cowboy boots with a beer bottle in hand? That is perhaps the finest minute of rock chick cool I have ever witnessed.

The song’s second verse continues the warning, this time relating the cautionary tale of a friend who let himself get hooked by one the carpetbaggers. In the released version on Acid Tongue, that part is sung by Elvis Costello, but I prefer the live version where the song’s author sings the verse. Costello’s voice is all wrong for country, and his arrival is so sudden and incongruous that it threatens, for a moment, to throw the whole song off kilter. There is something a bit awkward about having that second verse sung by a male voice, whoever’s it is. It has to be admitted that the ball-and-chain type stuff is a little misogynistic, but I suppose songs about no-good wives and husbands are par for the course in country music. (In fact, I’d argue that up until gangsta rap took over hip hop, mainstream or classic rock was the genre that was most consistent in it’s marginalising of the female perspective. But that’s for another post). Whatever the sexual politics, it’s a well written verse, providing some symmetry to the song, and finishes with a reference to the Carter Family’s “I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore”, appropriate given the genre. True, it might have been more palatable sung by Jenny, by the break gave her an opportunity to do that dance. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back and watch it again. Though, as I say, I’m not really one of those dudes.