Rock & Roll

The subject of my sermon today will be Motörhead, and, as may be deduced from my title, herein I will also be concerned with the topic of genre. When Motörhead began putting out records, there was often a bit of confusion as to whether they should be shelved as punk or heavy metal, but the general consensus ever since, to the best of my knowledge, is that Motörhead is basically a heavy metal band. This, however, is a consensus that, to the extent that the label as I understand it has any real implications besides a certain similarity in sound to other similarly labeled bands, I would prefer to dissent from, preferring to categorize Motörhead simply as—you guessed it—rock & roll. In doing so, I will be in good company, since Lemmy himself—to the woefully uninformed reader, that’s Ian Kilmister, the bass player, singer, and chief songwriter of the outfit—in scores of songs and interviews has never referred to his style of music in any other way, as far as I know.

First, heavy metal. There is no doubt that Motörhead has had an immense influence on the development of the genre; their 1979 song, “Overkill,” with its pounding double bass drum, repetitive riffing, and gruff vocals, probably single-handedly pioneered speed and thrash metal, although that’s admittedly not the informed opinion of a metal connoisseur, so I may be wrong. In any case, “Overkill” provided, both lyrically and sonically, the template for a good many self-referential metal anthems to come, among the more successful of which may be counted “Whiplash,” “Hammerhead,” “Battery,” “Heavy Metal Daze,” “Rattlehead,” and “Bonded By Blood.” But the first thing I want to mark is the difference, and a comparison of some of the lyrics of “Overkill” with those of Metallica’s typically turgid knock-off “Whiplash” seems like a good place to start.

“Overkill” starts simply enough, as if Lemmy is trying to avoid really saying anything, but of course the song has to be heard and not merely read:

Only way to feel the noise is when it’s good and loud
So good, I can’t believe it, screaming with the crowd
Don’t sweat it—get it back to you.

The emphasis here is on joy and release, which is exactly what the music provides. On the other hand, James Hetfield sings in almost the exact same cadence:

Bang your head against the stage like you never did before
Make it ring, make it bleed, make it really sore

Aside from the clumsy, apparently unintentional hilarity of “make it really sore,” the thing to be noted here is that the lyrics identify a fundamental problem with the music—it’s not intended to make you feel good, just to send you into a pointless frenzy. Whereas Lemmy wants to make you move, Hetfield sends you to the ER with a really embarrassing story.

What I want to identify here—and I do not intend to confine my argument to lyrics, it’s just that it’s all conveniently laid out there—is a fundamental aesthetic difference. And it’s not just a question of style, but also of attitude—heavy metal lyrics are rife with ridiculous posturing, whereas the best Motörhead songs manage to create a little distance between the singer and the posture, a moment of humanity for which most heavy metal lacks the courage. Again, here is “Whiplash”:

Now’s the time to let it rip, to let it fuckin’ loose
We’re gathered here to maim and kill ‘cause this is what we choose

Really? Next, another verse of “Overkill.” Note that, in terms of meter and length of line, these songs could trade lyrics:

On your feet you feel the beat it goes straight to your spine
Shake your head, you must be dead if it don’t make you fly
Don’t sweat it—get it back to you.

Lemmy wants to make you fly, whereas Hetfield wants to send you to jail, the hospital, or the morgue. Or rather, anyone capable of taking Hetfield’s lyrics seriously would say that, which pretty much rules out anybody over the age of 17. Lemmy, by comparison, only asks the listener to have fun, and the song immediately delivers on what he asks. The music performs what the lyrics are talking about, whereas “Whiplash” is pure, inarticulate fantasy, and not very much fun to boot (unless you’re pretty drunk, anyway).

Indeed, the posturing of most heavy metal lyrics, which complements the wooden feel of the music, shows up poorly in contrast to the irony, humor, love, sympathy and joy that pervade the words and music of Motörhead. A case in point is “Shoot You In The Back,” off 1980’s Ace of Spades. The song tries to impart a lesson about life by identifying the singer with a western outlaw. But the key moment comes at both the beginning and end of the song, when Lemmy announces that this is all happening “in the Western movie.” Rather than blustering about how deadly he is, Lemmy brings the song home by reminding us it’s about a common experience, not an invincible rock star. He acknowledges that he is no more a Western outlaw than his listener, which may disappoint the teenage metal fan but is a welcome caveat for those of us who would prefer a little maturity from a 35-year-old man.

In fact, heavy metal seems to be so much about posturing that it would hardly be the genre that it is without it, an especially ironic fact for those variants wont to fulminating about “posers.” It’s a poor copout when Slayer, for instance, sings about Joseph Mengele, all the while claiming to be reporting on something without endorsing it—the imagery of “Angel of Death” is of the essence of heavy metal, and it little matters who is evil, deadly, or badass, as long as somebody is, and that somebody can be sung about. Overblown phrases like “Monarch of the kingdom of the dead” don’t require a clear referent, because the posture is what the music is aiming for.

On the other hand, when Lemmy sings “Shoot You In The Back,” there is no bravado or chest-thumping; it’s not clear who we are meant to identify with, and anyway, it’s all in a movie:

The riders ride
Into the night
Into the west
To see whose gun’s the best
Got to realize
Before he dies
The rider wearing black
Always gonna shoot you in the back

The lesson here is that ethics and principles only take you so far in this world, and the lesson holds no matter what color hat we’re wearing. A basic human dynamic is tersely sketched in terms explicitly borrowed from the cinema, and no attempt is made to intimidate or bully anyone. Just don’t turn your back on the guy in the black hat, whomever that may be.

And what heavy metal band could have written or performed “I’ll Be Your Sister”? Although the title seems to indicate irony or camp, Lemmy plays it straight (in a manner of speaking!):

I’ll be your sister
I’ll be your lover
I’ll be your mother
If you need somebody

Is it possible to imagine Tom G. Warrior making such an offer? If he did, is it possible to imagine being tempted to accept it? From the introductory bass riff, the song kicks in with a fuzzed-out heaviness that anticipates ’80s heavy metal, but it moves in such a way that heavy metal never did; it’s pure rock & roll.

And whereas rock & roll is about need, longing, loss and recovery, how many heavy metal singers admit to needing anything? To being tired or lonely?

If you need me, feeling tired
Need someone to set your heart on fire
It’s so lonely hanging on the wire

Or how about being afraid? Here’s “Lawman”:

Every time you speak to me
Makes it clear that you don’t see
What’s really happening here
You just confuse respect with fear

Or, in one of his many regular-guy rants against record company suits and all they represent, when Lemmy insists:

You know that you can rob me
But you can’t stop me

what an abyss separates this from the empty bravado of “We’ll never quit, we’ll never stop, ‘cause we’re Metallica”!
But I don’t mean to spend the entirety of my time here beating up on heavy metal. Anyway, what I want to talk about is not really heavy metal, but rock & roll, and even if heavy metal is a subgenre of rock & roll, it is still absurd to tag Motörhead as a heavy metal band. Indeed the passion for rock & roll music, inexplicable or even inexcusable to some, is a constant theme for Lemmy, something holy and all-encompassing, not simply a label or an indicator of genre, but a fundamental position, a way of life:

Don’t you listen to a single word
Against rock & roll
The new religion, the electric church
The only way to go

Or, again:

I’ve got rock & roll
To satisfy my soul
And if that’s all there is
It’s not so bad

Or, most simply and classically:

If you want to feel good
If you want to feel alright
If you want to shake your stuff
Get some rock & roll tonight

(This last comes from a song called “Dance.” Is there any dancing in heavy metal?)

The point I’m trying to make is that there is humility, joy, passion, sorrow, love and hate, empathy and despair, in other words a full array of feeling, an undeniable humanity in Motörhead’s music. It would be tempting to say that there is a generosity of spirit there, and if I hesitate to do so, it is not simply because the phrase is such a cliché. More than that, if the name spirit has always designated the domain of ethics, reflexive reason, and the coming to self-awareness of the concept, would it not be inaccurate to speak of a generosity of the spirit? In that case, wouldn’t generosity instead be an effusion of the body? Indeed, wouldn’t spirit itself be a generous gift of the body? And, to arrive at my thesis at last, isn’t this what great rock & roll has always been about?

A view such as Guy Debord’s, which sees the role of art as self-negation, abasement before it’s own commodification and the autonomy of an aesthetic and cultural sphere divorced from life, could not be more at odds with a form that seems to allow the body to speak, which is what I am claiming for Motörhead particularly, and rock & roll generally. Lemmy seems to recognize this when he insists, “Rock & roll is not art. Rock & roll is about celebration…” This is not to say that rock & roll is not commodified, that it doesn’t sell soap, or cars, or itself. And this is not to say it manages to transcend its role as a commodity. There is no transcendence here. But what rock & roll so clearly enunciates is the body of meaning that does not itself mean anything, without which there is no meaning, or that which means without being meant. It is the body setting itself to work, rather than being set to work—not the bloody, sore body of the headbanger but the moving, living body of the bloody, sore headbanger, which makes all the difference here. If that isn’t clear enough, it’s because I’m trying to say something in the wrong medium, to enunciate in language what can’t really be brought to language. But that isn’t to say it can’t be expressed; it is expressed all the time, in the best rock & roll music. Heavy metal is for the most part a pale shadow of real rock & roll, and that’s what Motörhead is—real rock & roll.

Patriotism

In 1960 the Japanese author Yukio Mishima wrote the horribly beautiful story “Patriotism.” There is no possibility of ‘spoilers’ in this review, because it is announced on the first page that this is the story of the ritual suicide (‘seppuku’) of one lieutenant Shinji Takeyama (and we are also told, almost as an afterthought, of the accompanying suicide of his wife Reiko). The action of the story takes place in 1936. In a nutshell, the lieutenant has just been informed of a failed mutiny against the Emperor, to whom he is loyal, that was perpetrated by men to whom he is also loyal. He knows he will be called upon to suppress the mutiny and fight and kill his erstwhile comrades, an untenable situation. Fortunately, his culture provides him with a way to deal honorably with untenable situations—seppuku.

The entire story takes place in Takeyama’s home, and involves the preparations he and his wife make to end their lives; their rather intense relations leading up to the act, in which everything is done by the book, as it were, but there is still plenty of room for passion and steamy sex; and, of course, the grisly act itself, which is described unflinchingly, without romanticizing the mechanics of the thing or the necessary human frailty involved in carrying it out. The story has been quite aptly described by a friend of mine as “fascist pornography.” It is told without any irony or attempts to undermine the motives or honor of its characters; in fact, Mishima was to commit seppuku himself ten years after writing the story. The general feeling conveyed is a sort of grim exaltation in the face of fate.

In 1960 the Japanese author Yukio Mishima wrote the horribly beautiful story “Patriotism.” There is no possibility of ‘spoilers’ in this review, because it is announced on the first page that this is the story of the ritual suicide (‘seppuku’) of one lieutenant Shinji Takeyama (and we are also told, almost as an afterthought, of the accompanying suicide of his wife Reiko). The action of the story takes place in 1936. In a nutshell, the lieutenant has just been informed of a failed mutiny against the Emperor, to whom he is loyal, that was perpetrated by men to whom he is also loyal. He knows he will be called upon to suppress the mutiny and fight and kill his erstwhile comrades, an untenable situation. Fortunately, his culture provides him with a way to deal honorably with untenable situations—seppuku.

The entire story takes place in Takeyama’s home, and involves the preparations he and his wife make to end their lives; their rather intense relations leading up to the act, in which everything is done by the book, as it were, but there is still plenty of room for passion and steamy sex; and, of course, the grisly act itself, which is described unflinchingly, without romanticizing the mechanics of the thing or the necessary human frailty involved in carrying it out. The story has been quite aptly described by a friend of mine as “fascist pornography.” It is told without any irony or attempts to undermine the motives or honor of its characters; in fact, Mishima was to commit seppuku himself ten years after writing the story. The general feeling conveyed is a sort of grim exaltation in the face of fate.

The title in Japanese is “Yukoku,” which apparently means something like care or anxiety for one’s country. In any case, “Patriotism” is a perfect title for the story, with its connotations of homeland, loyalty, and even patriarchy. The essence of the story is expressed quite clearly in the following passage; Takeyama and his wife have just finished having sex for the final time, and a calm and dreadful certainty settles over them:

They had both sensed at that moment—though not, of course, in any clear and conscious way—that those permissible pleasures were once more beneath the protection of Righteousness and Divine Power, and of a complete and unassailable morality. On looking into each other eyes and discovering there an honorable death, they had felt themselves safe once more behind steel walls which none could destroy, encased in an impenetrable armor of Beauty and Truth.

Morality, honor, steel, armor, power, truth—this is a sort of fascist pornography indeed, although, if it is nothing if not consistently earnest, it manages to avoid any hint of kitsch.

In fact, if there is hint of nostalgia or doubt, or any sense that the domain of truth and beauty is less of an impregnable fortress than it may appear to be in the quoted passage, it does not appear within the story itself, but rather in the fact that the story was written at all. Although the story is about a sort of patriotism, few words are wasted extolling Japan, its emperor, or its soldiers; instead, the patriotic connection is more with honor, loyalty, and patriotism itself than with any specific object of fealty. Partly, no doubt, this is because any code of honor is in some sense self-regarding, holding honor itself higher than any mundane imperatives. Nevertheless, a declaration such as this one inevitably comes with a question mark or two, whether or not these are actually inscribed within the text. It is not simply that this affirmation of honor and truth comes against the backdrop of global capitalism and is thus politically coded in a certain way, which I have followed my friend in calling ‘fascist.’ The issue isn’t simply what is being affirmed here, but when and why. Mishima is defending the fort against the incursion of a global culture of monetary, rather then moral, values, and this means the central paradox of the story is that a putatively impregnable fortress must be defended at all.

There are several reasons why “Patriotism” is such an aesthetically satisfying story, not least because it describes a way of life that doesn’t distinguish between ethical and aesthetic considerations but recognizes their deep, underlying unity; furthermore, it’s written in lapidary, gripping prose that displays a very high degree of both sincere commitment and masterful artistry, all of which keeps it from stumbling into the sort of hilariously didactic tar pit in which the bones of Ayn Rand are perfectly preserved. And it’s hard not to feel a yearning pang for the sense of meaningful belonging expressed in Mishima’s story. However, the sort of question I am interested in here is less personal and ethical than social and historical. This question is one of belonging, of some sort of homeland and what and where it may be. This is precisely the question put most succinctly by Heidegger when he asks: “What is the nature of dwelling in our precarious time?”

It is no coincidence, of course, that Heidegger himself was attracted to fascism, infamously joining the Nazi party in 1933. Fascism is one possible reaction to the relentless razing of every homeland that goes by the name of global capital. But Heidegger’s thought cannot be reduced to an apologia for his execrable political decision, although it is clearly not unrelated to the latter either. But he came to see the only type of authentic dwelling available to contemporary humanity as a sort of becoming at home in homelessness. Heidegger himself was able to maintain a very fervent kind of patriotism for the nebulous homeland of human homelessness, which (along with his period of allegiance to Nazism) has led many to see him as embracing a sort of parochial localism, without noticing that his patriotism was for a ground that is groundless and uproots as much as it grounds. But this kind of patriotism is much harder to muster than the type that impels Takeyama and Reiko to gut themselves in Mishima’s story.

If fascism is partly a reaction to capitalism that tries to violently reaffirm local and national ties, at least rhetorically, then communism insists that the wasteland itself can be made a home, seeing in capitalism an unpleasant precursor to a social form that is global and universal, but that nevertheless shucks off the traces of value production and the institutions that secure the dominance of capital. In that case, in some ways Heidegger is closer to communism than he is to fascism, and indeed although he cravenly joined the party and mouthed some of its more deplorable slogans, in the end he was never able to accommodate his thinking to a regime that held him in deep suspicion by the time of its final years in power.

In any case, critics of capitalism, when seeking to envision an alternative, are faced with a decision: not a simple choice between Nazism and communism, of course, but a choice that is not as easy, or as clear. This is the alternative between locating a homeland in the old way, on a smaller scale and with a group that is, in whatever way, clearly identifiable and distinguished from its neighbors, and a global social entity of whatever kind, however loosely defined or held together. The situation that any social critic is faced with, in other words, is homelessness and the meaning of the home. Posed more concretely, this is the question as to whether the liquidation of fixed meanings, rituals, and social hierarchies that capital brings is a lamentable obstacle to a healthy social body, or whether it in some way lays the ground for something new. This does not have to be posed as a choice between nationalism and internationalism, and thus can be separated from the question of whether the productive structures and institutions of capitalism can be adapted to a socialist framework, or whether they must be somehow abolished. No matter the answer, it is Heidegger’s question that must be addressed: “What is the nature of dwelling in our precarious time?”

The Red Tower

This month I want to say a few words about Thomas Ligotti, an author of short stories in the horror genre. This is not a genre I am particularly well-versed in; although I have been since my teenage years a huge H.P. Lovecraft aficionado, and am reasonably familiar with a lot of the Weird Tales-era pulp material that formed Lovecraft’s milieu as well as some of his literary progenitors like Poe, Machen and Blackwood, I don’t really have much of a sense for horror as a genre, and am almost entirely ignorant of late 20th century and current manifestations of the medium. I have read very little Stephen King, no Clive Barker, and am not even sure what other names are important enough to horror that my ignorance of them is relevant to this review. Thus, I am not capable of analyzing and contextualizing Ligotti’s work in a way that would be attentive to the larger thematic and stylistic conversation he doubtless sees himself as taking part in, or of writing a review that would satisfy a real fan of horror.

This month I want to say a few words about Thomas Ligotti, an author of short stories in the horror genre. This is not a genre I am particularly well-versed in; although I have been since my teenage years a huge H.P. Lovecraft aficionado, and am reasonably familiar with a lot of the Weird Tales-era pulp material that formed Lovecraft’s milieu as well as some of his literary progenitors like Poe, Machen and Blackwood, I don’t really have much of a sense for horror as a genre, and am almost entirely ignorant of late 20th century and current manifestations of the medium. I have read very little Stephen King, no Clive Barker, and am not even sure what other names are important enough to horror that my ignorance of them is relevant to this review. Thus, I am not capable of analyzing and contextualizing Ligotti’s work in a way that would be attentive to the larger thematic and stylistic conversation he doubtless sees himself as taking part in, or of writing a review that would satisfy a real fan of horror.

However, it strikes me that Ligotti has written some things that could be appreciated by a generally interested reader of fiction, for lack of a better way of putting it. As is probably fitting for an author who works in a genre that is often dismissed as pulp, Ligotti’s stories, particularly the endings, are often sort of hokey, contrived, or in various ways unsatisfying. Several of them, however, are quite remarkable; here I would include, among others, “The Frolic,” “The Town Manager,” “In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land,” “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World,” and “The Sect of the Idiot.” These are all stories I have either read recently or remember; several others may be worthy that I have forgotten or never read. But there are two stories by Ligotti that I find completely astonishing, each of which I have read repeatedly since first discovering them around 2005. The first, which I will not be considering here, is entitled, oddly and charmingly enough, “Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech.” The second, which forms the subject of this brief review, bears a more prosaic title: “The Red Tower.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “The Red Tower” is its characters, or perhaps it would be better to say its lack of characters—at least, its lack of human or even humanoid characters (There is a first-person narrator, but he (or she?) plays no real part in the narrative). And if the red tower, a broken-down “factory” of sorts, is the story’s protagonist, narrative tension is suitably provided by an antagonist, which is also not human. The first sentence of the story, in fact, introduces the main “characters”: “The ruined factory stood three stories high in an otherwise featureless landscape.” The landscape, then, is the other main “character.”

What is horrible, or horrifying, or anyway what makes this a horror story, is that the story provides a vision of existence in which creativity, production, and novelty are seen as a disease. The red tower is a factory which produces “novelty items,” which are gruesomely, and somewhat humorously, detailed by Ligotti. But we come to realize that what the tower produces is novelty itself, and that the latter is in some sense horrible, as it proceeds blindly, haltingly, and perversely to disrupt the grey solitude of nonexistence. The line between nature and artifice is made brutally irrelevant as we are brought to consider a factory that spontaneously produces its artifacts, often generating them in some ill-defined way that employs machinery which itself is grown more than made.

But if the line between natural and human production were simply erased in this way by authorial fiat, the story would be far too glib. Rather, what provides a vertiginously telescopic context to production is what might perhaps be termed anti-production, which is not anything as mundanely diegetic as “entropy” or any kind of force, but, hard as it would be to talk about, indeed, impossible as it would be to narrativize, is brilliantly adumbrated as the grey landscape that increasingly comes to the fore as the real, if implicit, subject of the story. And if production, novelty, that is, existence, is horrible, the grey landscape is even more horrible.
“The Red Tower” looks at existence, and contextualizes it in such a way that differences between natural and artificial, animate and inanimate, spontaneous and contrived, are not so much obliterated as made to seem petty. This is done by virtue of the “featureless landscape” which wages a sort of war against the red tower, subtly, insidiously, without effort or legible effect. Whether or not this is ontologically convincing, it is certainly horrible. But to call a story like this a successful horror story would be absurdly understated. “The Red Tower” is one of those pieces of writing that can be said to go beyond genre because it exemplifies nothing but itself, and it does so unforgettably.

Human Nature

If one function of ideology is to make things that have a history appear natural, then perhaps ‘nature’ is the ideological concept par excellance. On the other hand, if ideology forms a distorted or deceptive image of the real, something like nature is an indispensable correlate to ideology, without which a critique of the latter would be meaningless. This ambivalence is inherent to the concept of nature; for all the conceptual pairings it seems to so naturally elicit—nature/culture, nature/civilization, nature/artifice, nature/humanity—it refuses to be limited to one side of a pair. Nature, as much as ‘nature,’ is the ultimate colonizing force: it appears where it is least expected, even—I should say especially—when it was thought to have been banished. Not only is this as true of nature as it is of ‘nature’; more, the seemingly obvious distinction here between the reality and the concept of nature is dangerously unstable. Nothing is more natural than the unnatural.

If one function of ideology is to make things that have a history appear natural, then perhaps ‘nature’ is the ideological concept par excellance. On the other hand, if ideology forms a distorted or deceptive image of the real, something like nature is an indispensable correlate to ideology, without which a critique of the latter would be meaningless. This ambivalence is inherent to the concept of nature; for all the conceptual pairings it seems to so naturally elicit—nature/culture, nature/civilization, nature/artifice, nature/humanity—it refuses to be limited to one side of a pair. Nature, as much as ‘nature,’ is the ultimate colonizing force: it appears where it is least expected, even—I should say especially—when it was thought to have been banished. Not only is this as true of nature as it is of ‘nature’; more, the seemingly obvious distinction here between the reality and the concept of nature is dangerously unstable. Nothing is more natural than the unnatural.


The hilarious and thought-provoking Human Nature, with a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman (who also wrote the equally hilarious and thought-provoking Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York) is a movie about the pathology of civilization, which is a common enough conceit; but it could equally be said to be a send-up of the idea of civilization itself, as it shows the latter to be a series of ideological justifications that skim along life’s surface while nature goes on about its business undisturbed, and at the same time a send-up of the idea of nature, as it continually mutates and forms itself into civilization, culture, art, and pathology, simultaneously inventing and undermining its own distinction from all of the aforementioned terms. Everything the characters in the movie do is perfectly natural, which is to say it’s often perverse, self-conscious, pretentious, absurd, and petty, and it’s almost always self-defeating.

Dr. Nathan Bronfman is a psychologist whose life’s work and guiding passion is to teach table manners to lab rats. “If I can teach manners to rats,” he explains, “then maybe I can teach them to humans, and maybe the world will be a little safer.” Presumably manners don’t come naturally to humans, then, but it really seems unnatural to see rats holding chairs for each other and selecting the proper fork for the salad. But nothing could be more natural than the system of stimulated responses Bronfman uses to teach the rats; after being shocked enough times grabbing for the wrong fork, a rat quite naturally gravitates toward the correct one. If nature can be manipulated in such a way that manners are the result, Bronfman reasons, then there is hope for the human race. Nature must be doubled back onto itself, and the result of such an operation is civilization. What experimental behaviorism demonstrates, above all, is that domestication is eminently natural.

Bronfman’s upbringing would seem to have been an influence on his choice of work. His overbearing mother drilled into him the maxim, “Never wallow in the filth of instinct.” Without civilization, she insists, we’d be just like the apes. In other words, human nature is just the same as any other old nature, something we must rise above. But if there is no difference between human nature and ape nature, how did we become civilized to begin with? The notion of human nature is rendered problematic once we reflect that, if our ‘nature’ is our specific difference, then that difference is, more or less, to be creatures of culture, which is to say creatures who modify our nature and thus come to have an idea like ‘nature’ to begin with.

If the preadolescent Bronfman so much as touched the wrong fork, his mother would send him to bed without his supper. In such a situation, nothing is more natural than to become obsessive about table manners; after all, Bronfman learned his manners the same way his rats do, by responding to repeated stimuli in a predictable manner. But Bronfman is contemptuously dismissive when his shrink suggests his childhood had anything to do with his choice of career: “Isn’t that a tad convenient, Wendell? You can’t reduce my passion to ‘childhood.’”

Bronfman is, quite naturally, disgusted by his girlfriend, a nature writer named Lila Jute (author of a book called Fuck Humanity), when he discovers that she regularly shaves her entire body, which in its natural state is covered with fur. As ‘unnatural’ as this irruption of nature on Lila’s body is, this is small beer compared to the most unnatural character in the movie, Puff, who lives in the woods and thinks he’s an ape; or anyway, comes to think, in retrospect, that when he lived in the woods he was an ape. As Puff later tells a congressional committee, “I was an ape. I wasn’t really sure what type. Apes don’t think in terms of type. Apes don’t even know they’re apes…” If apes aren’t species beings who think in terms of type, this is as much as to say that nature knows nothing of nature; to an ape, the Empire State building, the atom bomb, and The New York Review of Books are just as natural (or as unnatural) as a ripe banana, although perhaps a bit less interesting.

Bronfman and Lila find Puff while out hiking one day. Bronfman tolerates these excursions into nature in order to keep Lila happy; in one of the funniest lines of the movie, when she gets angry with him for nervously laughing along with his mother as she denigrates nature, he protests “No, honey, I love nature! It’s my favorite!” Bronfman actually mostly hates nature, at least in the form of trees, babbling brooks, and hairy, sweaty, unruly instinct, but of course nothing could be more natural than his feigning a love of the wild in order to preserve his sex life.

Initially, Puff is devoid of language, but, using the methods he has honed working with his rats, Bronfman quickly transforms him into a fully-fledged man of the world, with the help of an electrical collar that is fixed around his neck. Puff is initially recalcitrant, but after seeing Bronfman and his assistant Gabrielle have sex in the laboratory, as unashamed as if Puff were a dog, he makes rapid progress. As he later tells the assembled Congressmen with a whimsically arched eyebrow, “To use the vernacular, gentlemen, I wanted me some of that.” Puff figures that learning the ways of civilized humanity is the best way to get out of his glass pen in Bronfman’s laboratory and get laid.
Being civilized, according to Bronfman, means “When in doubt, don’t ever do what you really want to do.” Accordingly, civilizing Puff for the most part involves repeatedly shocking him when he tries to hump waitresses, Lila, pictures of women, or anyone or anything else. Getting laid, Puff soon learns, mostly involves not getting laid. Now fully civilized (Bronfman remarks “He’s awfully well-read for someone who’s only been literate for a month”), Puff learns the intricate game that is perhaps what is most natural to human beings: deferring gratification in order to get what we want, acting against out desires, against our nature, in order to satisfy our deepest drives.
Although Bronfman is the most civilized of the three main characters in the sense of cultural refinement, he is also the most natural; everything he does is explainable by lust or pathology, covered with a veneer of half-baked idealism. Because Bronfman always has a selfish motive lurking behind his actions, he could be said to be perfectly natural: despite his upbringing, he is entirely motivated by instinct. Perhaps he truly pities Puff when he finds him; he ponderously muses, “That poor man…never to read Moby-Dick or marvel at a Monet!” But his insecurities are so strong that they motivate even his most ostensibly altruistic actions. He is thus demonstrably devoid of one supposed feature of the civilized human being: he acts entirely out of interest.
In any case, Lila eventually kidnaps Puff and forcibly returns him to the wild, retraining him to be an ‘animal’ with the help of the shock collar that remains around his neck. When Bronfman tracks them down, Puff kills him, but Lila insists she take the rap so Puff can return to the forest after telling his story to a congressional committee.
As painfully unnatural as the evening-jacketed, wine-sipping, opera-loving Puff must appear to us, nothing, of course, is more unnatural than a human being living in a forest alone and naked, without human company and unable to speak. When Puff decides to return to the forest, it can only be as a kitschy gesture calculated to make a point. He manages to capture the public imagination by appealing to our sanctimonious nostalgia for what we imagine to be a more natural lifestyle. Even the Congressmen are visibly moved, although Puff manages to shame them with a supercilious sneer when they titter at the juicier parts of his story. And Puff himself is carried away by the nobility of his gesture, captivated by an image of himself as no ape could ever be.
Puff marches out of the congressional hearing and trudges down the road until he reaches the path to his former home, shedding his clothes as he goes. However, as soon as the crowd of supporters who has followed him to the edge of the woods disperses, Puff sneaks back out into Gabrielle’s waiting car and the two ride off into the proverbial sunset. The naked and shivering Puff immediately demands some clothing, and announces that he needs to go to a restaurant. Puff forsakes nature for the ultimate trinity of natural needs: food, shelter, and sex, none of which are in abundant supply in his forest idyll.
What Human Nature shows is both the inescapability and the incoherence of nature, both as a concept and as a supposed thing-in-itself, if it’s even possible to tell the two apart. It’s not, of course, but the distinction remains indispensable. As that which is not a concept but nevertheless underlies all conceptuality, nature infects every concept just as much as it disappears at the first attempt to define it. In that case, the concept ‘nature’ is perhaps the fundamental concept, even as, in erasing the distinction between concept and reality, it undermines both naturalness and conceptuality. Nature needs something that is unnatural in order to appear at all, but having done so it immediately spills over into the unnatural, rendering it natural, thus effacing itself. Because apes don’t think in terms of type, they are not conservationists.
That is why, as the basis of any social critique, ‘nature’ is always an ideology. And ideology is, of course, perfectly natural. But the function of critique is to interrupt ideology, even if the latter cannot be ultimately banished from our lives any more than nature can. In order for that to be possible, it would have to be possible to finally disambiguate the two, and that is of course not possible. But without a critique of ideology, this very indistinguishability would not become apparent. If the critique of ideology is itself ideology, then, that does not render it any less necessary. Nature is necessary, impossible, and in any case unavoidable. But it mocks those who seek it in intuition or mysticism, or who promote it to a political fetish. The only adequate position toward nature (which is not the same as to say natural phenomena or the environing world) is not one of worship, veneration, protectiveness, affirmation, or contempt, but rather ruthless critique. That is above all because, as Heraclitus recognized, “Nature loves to hide.”

The Earl Brothers: An Appreciation

“You’ve got to keep the bluegrass music pure.” Thus spake Bill Monroe, or words to that effect. It was late in his career when he said this, no doubt; late enough that bluegrass was already considered a more or less distinct genre of music, and Monroe had become known as its “father”; late enough that he’d finished fiddling with electric guitars and pianos on some of his recordings, so that the style had become codified as string band music played by guitar, bass, banjo, fiddle, and Monroe’s instrument, mandolin (although some bands would include dobro, an instrument Monroe hated, but which became more or less the semi-official sixth bluegrass instrument thanks mostly to Flatt and Scruggs, whom Monroe for a long time also hated). The message was clear: bluegrass was, and is, a fundamentally conservative style of music. Unlike Jazz, where innovation is often privileged, bluegrass is a genre that must be maintained as it is, and innovation is often tantamount to corruption. Never mind the aforementioned guitars and pianos (and, once, even seagulls); even though most of the first generation of bluegrass musicians even recorded with drums once in a while, today they are banned from the stage of most bluegrass festivals. Not just frowned on—literally banned.

“You’ve got to keep the bluegrass music pure.” Thus spake Bill Monroe, or words to that effect. It was late in his career when he said this, no doubt; late enough that bluegrass was already considered a more or less distinct genre of music, and Monroe had become known as its “father”; late enough that he’d finished fiddling with electric guitars and pianos on some of his recordings, so that the style had become codified as string band music played by guitar, bass, banjo, fiddle, and Monroe’s instrument, mandolin (although some bands would include dobro, an instrument Monroe hated, but which became more or less the semi-official sixth bluegrass instrument thanks mostly to Flatt and Scruggs, whom Monroe for a long time also hated). The message was clear: bluegrass was, and is, a fundamentally conservative style of music. Unlike Jazz, where innovation is often privileged, bluegrass is a genre that must be maintained as it is, and innovation is often tantamount to corruption. Never mind the aforementioned guitars and pianos (and, once, even seagulls); even though most of the first generation of bluegrass musicians even recorded with drums once in a while, today they are banned from the stage of most bluegrass festivals. Not just frowned on—literally banned.

When Monroe started playing the music that became known as bluegrass, of course, there was in fact a whole lot of innovation going on. In 1945, Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys, consisted of Lester Flatt on guitar and vocals, Chubby Wise on fiddle, Cedric Rainwater on bass, and the man usually recognized as the first bluegrass banjo player, Earl Scruggs. The sound that band created became retrospectively known, probably some time in the 1950s, as “bluegrass music.” Bluegrass incorporated elements of jazz, blues, pop, and even, according to Monroe, Schottisch (a slower variant of Polka) in a repertoire consisting of old mountain ballads, covers of then-contemporary Country songs, and lots of original songs about home, mother, death and lost love.

In fact, about the only conservative thing about early bluegrass was the lyrics; almost every single song expressed some kind of nostalgia, probably because when Monroe started writing them he was an urban factory worker lamenting the loss of his rural mountain home life. The music was fast and exciting, due at least partly to its birth in the city; the conservatism of the lyrics, far from contradicting the freshness of the music, also conveyed the mood of city life, albeit indirectly through a melancholy reflection on another life that was lost. Bluegrass music is about the experience of being uprooted, cast out, left, and lost; in that sense, the lyrics and the often frenetic tempos are of a piece. Bluegrass is not the music of slow-talking, slow-moving and slow-thinking hayseeds, a stereotype Monroe resisted by insisting that his bands wear well-pressed suits. No overalls were seen on bluegrass album covers until the 1960s, when the stereotype began to sell, and even then they were rare.


In light of all this, it may seem that, as many have pointed out, Monroe was a hypocrite in insisting that bluegrass be kept pure, and I suppose, in some way, he was. But he was also right, at least if the aesthetic history of bluegrass is any indication. The electric guitar was mostly a mistake, the piano isn’t worth mentioning, and drums, mostly, do not work. But it’s not just the instrumentation that resists tinkering—bluegrass has proven the bane of many a songwriter, and for that matter many an adapter of other people’s songs, who has tried to put his (mostly “his”) own stamp on the genre. In the 65-year history of bluegrass, after the first few bands put their twist on Monroe’s sound and helped develop it into a genre, most innovative approaches to bluegrass have somewhat diluted the feel of the music, which is often to swallow for someone enraptured by the original blast of the ‘40s and ‘50s.


And that is because, whether this has been good or bad for the subsequent life of the genre, Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Reno and Smiley, Mac Martin, Jim and Jesse, The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers and others considered bluegrass’ first generation made music that was, in fact, perfect. Traditional bluegrass music is soulful, exciting, and intensely moving, and allows for far more variety in mood, tempo, and tone than most people not steeped in the genre seem to realize. But when something is perfect it can often lose something when it’s tinkered with. This is not to say that later bluegrass artists didn’t put their own stamp on the genre, but they mostly did so by maintaining a certain recognizable fidelity to the energy, mood, and tropes that had already been established by the first generation. Larry Sparks sings with more blues inflections than most first generation artists, and his lead guitar playing doesn’t sound like anything else in bluegrass. Dave Evans writes songs influenced by soul music and ‘70s rock and roll, songs that don’t sound like anything else in bluegrass. Dan Paisley’s vocals madly swoop, dive, and hover around a melody in a way that doesn’t sound like anything else in bluegrass, or in any other style of music, for that matter. The Vern Williams Band and Red Allen both made bluegrass that was so hardcore that it almost went beyond anything done by the first generation. These artists were indeed innovative, but in the manner of variations on an established theme.


To further complicate matters, the outside influences that do make their way into bluegrass often make a pretty bad fit. The worst aesthetic postures of post-1960s mainstream country, a pretty (and increasingly) dismal scene in its own right, seem to continually seep into bluegrass, with largely unpleasant effects. While bluegrass rarely notices rock and roll music that was made after the 1950s, when it does, the results are dismaying (Dave Evans being an interesting exception, which makes it all the more amusing that I once heard him jokingly apologize for playing a rock and roll song at a bluegrass festival before singing “Johnny B. Goode”). And the influence of hippies on the genre has in many ways been unfortunate, since for some reason bluegrass is to this day considered hippie music by many casual fans (and also by haters). “Jamgrass” at its most musically adventurous is often music made by musicians for other musicians, and at worst sloppy nonsense; concision has always been one of the cardinal virtues of a traditional bluegrass solo (to the point where the musicians often split the already short breaks), and those who color outside the lines often seem to lose in impact what they gain in expressive range.


It all seems obvious now, though. In order to revivify the genre and produce strikingly original yet viscerally affecting bluegrass music, all it takes is to be more innovative and more conservative than the competition. If this seems obvious, it is because the Earl Brothers came along in 2004 and did what nobody since the Stanley Brothers had been able to do: play music that is unmistakably a milestone in its inimitable singularity and freshness, but at the same time largely circumscribed by conventions not of their own making.


When my roommate handed me the first album by the Earl Brothers some time in 2004, I was quite skeptical about what I was about to hear. First of all, the album is called Whiskey, Women & Death, which sounds more like hipster alt-country than the title of a proper bluegrass album. And indeed the album is not a proper bluegrass album, which, as I’ve explained above, is often not a good sign.


The Earl Brothers sound like nothing else, but they are, unmistakably, a bluegrass band. That the music they are playing is bluegrass is evident from the first notes of the banjo on the opening number on WW&D, a slow and dirty roll that is unmistakably bluegrass banjo, even though it does not sound like any other bluegrass banjo. Robert Earl Davis (who has no brothers in the band, and presumably his real brothers don’t have the same middle name, but anyway) plays an archtop banjo, just as Ralph Stanley does. But his banjo doesn’t sound like Ralph’s does. Most archtop players, Ralph included, tighten the drum head on their banjo almost to the breaking point, producing a distinctly bright tone that is in marked contrast to the darker sound of the adherents of the style of Earl Scruggs, the other, first, and by far most influential progenitor of bluegrass banjo. Davis keeps the head of his banjo loose, which produces a dark but concentrated tone that is instantly recognizable. His style on the instrument is very basic, almost primitive, which is a fair description of the Earl Brothers’ sound in general. And for anyone familiar with the band’s music, after only a few notes it is impossible to think that you’re listening to any other banjo player.


After the banjo intro, the vocals come in, and they are also highly distinctive. In a high, raspy voice that is somewhat reminiscent of Bob Dylan, John McKelvy sings:


Turned up the radio so I could clear my head


Pulled into a corner store, picked up a bottle of red


Lost it all in ’94…


I been sittin’ here drinking, gonna drink a little more


It’s not that bluegrass songs don’t talk about drinking, but the attitude here is all wrong for bluegrass. If the drinking songs the Earl Brothers write often disguise themselves as cautionary tales, it’s never quite believable for some reason; even when the song is called “Don’t Drink From A Whiskey Bottle,” the music is more likely to make you want to drink, if you have a taste for the stuff.


Unlike most bluegrass music, which is usually a highly concentrated dose of energy even on the slow songs, the Earl Brothers sound is slinky and trancelike. Although the banjo and mandolin are recognizably lead instruments playing in the bluegrass idiom, there’s nothing on an Earl Brothers album that I would feel comfortable calling a solo. On “Been Sittin’ Here Drinking” the mandolin slides in on top of the banjo at the end of each break, playing basically the same thing every time through, creating a texture and a mood rather than expressing musical variations on a theme. This approach allows the Earl Brothers to employ the highly effective device of inserting a musical break between the verse and chorus of many of their songs. Whereas a full-blown solo would break the mood of the song, an Earl Brothers break heightens the tension that runs through most of their songs and creates an atmosphere that increases the impact of the chorus when it comes in.


In some ways this makes the music sound more like what is sometimes rather vaguely called “old-time” than bluegrass. A player or singer never asserts his ego; as unique as the playing and singing is, like the lyrics, it all seems to come from a certain distance. The band doesn’t relate thoughts, emotions and experiences to the listener so much as it brings the listener into a world that is at once very familiar and strikingly original. In fact, the Earl Brothers’ remarkable originality doesn’t consist in presenting something entirely new, but in making the old new through recombination and reinterpretation. The lyrics owe a lot to tradition, although at times it isn’t the bluegrass tradition that is invoked so much as the blues and mountain folk traditions. As I’ve said, the Earl Brothers aren’t the first bluegrass band to sing about drinking, but they don’t sing about it the way a bluegrass band generally does. Floating verses are imported from old songs, hackneyed bluegrass lyrics are pasted in, and familiar musical idioms are employed, but all in a way that sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard.


The second song on Whiskey, Women and Death is an instrumental, and like all Earl Brothers instrumentals the intent seems to be to present the sound and feel of the band more than to express any new musical ideas. What is so astounding about the originality of the band is that they never sound like they’re trying to be original; they are never afraid to recycle ideas, both other people’s and their own. “Mountain Rumpus” does manage to raise a bit of a rumpus, although the band sounds hypnotic even on their (relatively) fast songs. A reworking of the traditional “Cluck Ol’ Hen” follows, and it’s the only non-original the band has ever recorded, although even this is rearranged and lyrically supplemented to such an extent that the band probably could have claimed a songwriting credit. The banjo oozes out a slow and repetitive mantra and the bass swoops in at the beginning of each bar, creating a dark and chilling feel that sets off the absurd, non sequitor lyrics:


My old hen, she cackles a lot


She cackles when it’s cold, she cackles when it’s hot


McKelvy could be singing about the end of the world, and the effect would scarcely be more creepy.


McKelvy’s “Broken Motor,” the only song on the album besides “Cluck Ol’ Hen” for which Davis doesn’t receive a writing credit, introduces a brighter feel, and probably would have made a perfect album opener if there were anywhere else to put “Been Sittin’ Here Drinking.” “Broken Motor” is also the best song on the album to this point; it’s one of those songs that is simple and catchy without being cloying. The lyrics to the chorus are almost moronically simple, and sit flat and lifeless on the page:


In the morning and late in the night


Everything’ll be all right, everything’ll be all right


As sung, however, the chorus is an irresistible climax, and this is a typical characteristic of the band’s lyrics—nobody is going to anthologize them in a volume of poetry, but more often than not they come off just exactly right for the song.


On the next song, Robert Earl Davis’ lead vocals sneak onto the album, five songs in. Although his voice is less immediately striking than McKelvy’s, his singing is just as unique and memorable. Whereas McKelvy’s piercing voice rides on top of the music, Davis’ baritone whine settles right down in with the band, just as insistent and trancelike as the music, and just as mesmerizing. And like Davis’ voice, “Good Thing Gone Wrong” eases in and eases out, not announcing itself loudly but rather saying a few simple things exactly as they should be said. It’s such an unassuming song, in fact, that it takes a few listens to sink in, not because there’s so much to it, but because there is so little. “Good Thing Gone Wrong” sounds like an attempt to write a song that does not do one single thing it doesn’t need to do, either musically or lyrically. As a songwriter, Robert Earl Davis never says more then he needs to, and he never comes up with a new lyric or a new lick when an old one will do. It’s a dangerous way to make music, because the risk is always there that the songs will become tiresome or redundant, but remarkably, after four albums they haven’t yet.


Each song on the album, to this point, seems to reveal a little more of what the Earl Brothers can do than the last, while at the same time maintaining a certain stylistic univocity. It’s as if they are all parts of the same machine, viewed one at a time. The next song, “Bender,” exploits the trance-like side of the band to its fullest, with a circular, winding structure and a repeated mandolin and banjo tandem inserted each time between the verse and the chorus.


Play me a song, cool and tender


Strum on that old Fender


Pour me a drink, boys


Let’s all have us a bender.


A ” Fender” in a bluegrass song? Monroe banished them long ago, but here one shows up in the lyrics, if not in the flesh. Very strange.


“Bender” is the most unique song on the album; unlike most other Earl Brothers songs, it presents something both original and not immediately recognizable. It’s hard to say what the musical antecedents of “Bender” are, beyond the way the instruments are picked; it comes out of the blue, while at the same time fitting in with the rest of the material comfortably. But the real strength of the Earl Brothers is to play music that is constructed out of familiar idioms and yet sounds cohesive and original, and if “Bender” is the most interesting song on the album, it’s probably the least likeable. Davis, who took his time getting in front of the microphone, sings half of the remaining songs, and with repeated listenings, the material on the tail end of the album proves to be the strongest. In listening to WW&D a second or third time, Davis’ songs begin to stand out as the foundation of the Earl Brothers’ sound, providing a sort of anchor that also makes McKelvy’s songs sound better, although this becomes apparent only gradually because of the way the album is programmed.


Many of the lyrics on the album are an odd blend of the old and the outlandish, or anyway, outlandish for bluegrass. On “Bad Road of Regret,” the opening lines are a floating verse that has appeared, in similar or identical form, in a constellation of closely-related, similar, or identical songs under titles like “I’ve Always Been a Rambler,” “The Girl I Left Behind,” “My Parents Treated Me Tenderly,” and a myriad other names:


I’ve always been a rambler, my life has been quite hard


I’ve always chased the women, drank whiskey, and played cards


It’s not hard to imagine Ralph Stanley, Mac Martin, or Ron Thomason singing these lines—or at least it shouldn’t be hard, because all of them have. But it’s downright impossible to picture any of them singing the chorus:


Get out your razor
blades, get out your guns


Come on boys let’s have a little fun


Running fast and playing hard


Where’ll you be when they deal your card


It’s not that bluegrassers don’t sing about toting guns and razors—they do, sometimes, although most often when they’re covering the older, less sentimental mountain songs, the sort of material that provides the opening lines of “Bad Road of Regret.” But they don’t sound so pleased about it.


More typical is the note of warning sounded in “Don’t Drink From a Whiskey Bottle”:


Come on, boys, gather ‘round if whiskey rules your life


Stay out of bars and old pool halls, marry you a wife


“Come on, boys” is a recognizable “come all ye”-type folk beginning, kind of like ancient poets invoking the muse. With words like these, the audience is drawn in and made to understand they are about to hear a cautionary tale; often the invocation is gendered, so that we know we’re about to be warned about the other gender (and it goes either way) in the old songs, but here it’s whiskey that we’re going to be warned about. And “marry you a wife” is likewise a typical admonition; you’re supposed to live the other way; it’s too late for me, but maybe not for you. But “Don’t Drink” is not likely to send anyone scurrying to the altar, or to Alcoholics Anonymous, for that matter. It’s the form of a cautionary song that we’re supposed to appreciate here; the song rings some old changes in a new way and its recognizability, rather than its sincerity, is what makes it so effective .


On the other hand, this shouldn’t imply that the Earl Brothers sound particularly self-conscious or insincere. Like the best material by the Ramones, an Earl Brothers song is as much a comment on the style of music it invokes as an iteration of that style. And also like the Ramones,this isn’t so much an artifice as a perfectly realized statement of the way the artist thinks music should sound. If the comparison with the Ramones seems to be out of the blue, it is perhaps worth noting that the Earl Brothers list two influences on their Myspace page: the Stanley Brothers and the Ramones. The first-named requires little comment. But while the Earl Brothers sound nothing like the Ramones, their approach to music is in many ways similar; each of these bands, at times, takes a genre and breaks it down into modular units, discards the unnecessary or extravagant material, rearranges what’s left, and produces a distilled version of the music that manages, in being less than its antecedents, to also be somewhat more. Indeed, the Earl Brothers’ blend of conservatism and innovation is arguably a fair description of punk in general, and the Ramones in particular.


Whiskey, Women and Death is not less than an astonishing album, and deserves to be heard more widely, but it’s hard to say who the wider audience would be. The Earl Brothers occupy a small niche in a genre, and a subculture, that they’re not really made for; they have little historical heft because they don’t really fit into any recognizable history, which saps their music of some of the impact it might otherwise have. It’s hard to imagine anyone not steeped in bluegrass fully understanding them, but it’s also hard to imagine any great plurality of bluegrass fans fully appreciating them, either. For one thing, even though bluegrass music is part of a larger musical tradition that includes rural folk music and what is today usually called old-time, bluegrass listeners often neglect old-time music, and old-time fans and musicians are often downright hostile to bluegrass. For another thing, as we’ve seen, the Earl Brothers’ sound, lyrics and attitude are rather dissonant with their genre.


Indeed, the Earl Brothers did finally come to the attention of Bluegrass Unlimited in 2008, only to have their third album, Moonshine, panned by a reviewer who did not merely dislike the album, but was clearly annoyed by it:


The first sharp notes of the banjo indicate an inflexible approach to a highly nuanced music. That they don’t get it is obvious in the lack of depth in the vocals. Lyrics such as Billy was found by the side of the road/He wasn’t looking too good/Legs all bent from a bad accident/No one to call him there [sic] own or I was a rounder/That’s all I’ll ever be/You know that I will be lucky if I make 23… fill the songs that sound like something you’ve heard before, but upon close listening are nothing like what you may have heard before. Parodies? No. Rip-offs? Maybe. They plagiarize older songs and themes in deadpan vocals that catch the sound without the soul of old-time mountain singing. "Hell On The Highway" is a direct lift of Ralph Stanley’s "Kitten And The Cat" down to lyric cadence and banjo break.


The specific claim about “Hell on the Highway” should probably be addressed; it’s simply inaccurate. The banjo break on “Kitten and the Cat” repeats over a I-IV-V sequence, whereas “Hell on the Highway” goes I-V-I, although the chords of the chorus (but not the verse) are the same. And while the melody is similar, the lyric cadence is in fact quite different. But more importantly, the feel of the song is completely different; while Davis does break out his most Stanley-esque forward roll—indeed, the song is one of the most straightahead bluegrass numbers the Earls have recorded—in a genre where 90% of the chord changes are a variant of I-IV-V, a slightly different feel can equal a world of difference. The chorus doesmention a cat, though.


But bluegrass musicians have never been shy about recycling their own, and other people’s, chord changes, melodies, and even lyrics. The Earl Brothers are certainly no exception; “Whiskey Bound” from the first album is musically identical to the Stanleys’ “Stone Walls and Steel Bars,” and Davis even recycles “Hell on the Highway” with different lyrics and one different chord in the chorus on the Earls’ next album. And the reviewer even seems to recognize that the Earl Brothers are working in a broader tradition than bluegrass. In light of that, it’s astounding that he invokes old-time mountain singing and plagiarism in the same review; it imposes a modern standard of authorship on a tradition that has long thrived on borrowing, repetition, and thematic reiteration.


In fact, there is something impersonal about Davis’ lyrics and delivery that should not be mistaken for lack of soul. In the best folk tradition, when Davis sings there is a distance between the singer and the song that invokes universality rather than detachment. It’s not that you get the sense that he doesn’t feel what he’s singing; rather, he feels it no more and no less than you do, and you feel it. The lyrics themselves often function in same way. Consider “Heartbreak Game,” the second song on Moonshine:


I know I can’t win


Hurting again


Troubles inside


Our love has died


I know that I drank


Whiskey and wine


Can’t remember your name


We’ve lost it this time


Hurting so blue


Thinking about you


Can’t remember your name


It’s a heartbreak game


Thinking of you


I’m hurting inside


Lonely and blue


I know we both tried


Time has moved on


Don’t feel the same


Say our goodbyes


It’s a heartbreak game


On the face of it, these aren’t so much lyrics as a string of clichés. But the song exploits the power of cliché; it could even be said that it’s a song about the power of cliché.


The song is, in fact, about a game, as the title suggests, although not in the sense of anything trivial or frivolous. A game has rules, and a standard, prearranged set of actions that get set into motion according to a recognizable pattern. But that doesn’t mean that those who play the game don’t stake their happiness and their peace of mind on it. The song is about recognizable feelings and intentions that everyone can identify. Even the quirkiness of the plot—he recalls a lot of drinking, but not the name of the woman—serves to create a distance between the song and the singer that reduces the distance between the song and the listener; features that identify the song as being about the personal experiences of one Robert Earl Davis are downplayed, and as a result the lyrics round themselves into a whole that encompasses an entire sphere of experience.


After 2006’s Troubles to Blame, the Earls’ weirdest, and relatively weakest, album (emphasis on relatively—you should still buy it immediately), John McKelvy left the band and Davis took over as sole (pretty much) lead singer. The ensuing album, Moonshine, was the most bluegrassy album to date, and the changes seemed to leave the Earls in fine shape. McKelvy’s tenor vocals were as central to the Earl Brothers as his leads, but his replacement, Danny Morris, managed to recreate his distinctive harmonies, and the overall feel of the band changed little. But there were subtle changes, aside from the change in personnel; the music became a bit less sinuous and more driving, while retaining the elements of trance music that made the first two albums so hypnotic.


One new element on Moonshine does stand out, however; the last track, a one-chord drone with lyrics called “Life of Trouble,” features a fiddle player. This didn’t fail to escape the notice of Bluegrass Unlimited’s reviewer, who weighed in with the following: “The last cut is a clear lift of ‘Wild Bill Jones’ for ‘regional color’ one might guess. There is fiddle added to this track that is technically correct, but it’s not what mountain fiddling is all about.” This time, the specific claim is even more off-base than the last; “Life of Trouble” sounds nothing like any version of “Wild Bill Jones” I’ve ever heard, which makes it not so clear that it’s a lift.


More importantly, however, what the reviewer fails to appreciate, but no Earl Brothers fan could miss, is that the fiddle fits in perfectly with the band’s sound. It brings out a shuffle that was always there, and seems to have always suggested a fiddle, although it had never been felt as a lack. Indeed, years before Moonshine was recorded I heard members of the band express skepticism about adding a fiddle to the mix, but after three albums, it was time for the Earl Brothers to tinker with the sound. So for the next album, they brought fiddler Tom Lucas on board and became, at least on paper, a classic bluegrass five-piece.


I will doubtless be accused of hyperbole, but nevertheless I will insist that the resulting album, 2010’s The Earl Brothers, is nothing short of a masterpiece. This is not least, but also not solely, due to Tom Lucas’ fiddling. He has a bluesy scrape and shuffle reminiscent of the greatest bluegrass fiddler of them all, Curly Ray Cline, although with more of an old-time feel, including slightly inaccurate intonation that helps give this album a much rawer sound than the previous three. Lucas is the perfect fiddler for the Earl Brothers; he helps make The Earl Brothers even more of a classically bluegrass album than Moonshine, but, not being a typical bluegrass fiddler, simultaneously takes the band in a more old-time direction.


The Earl Brothers, as our Bluegrass Unlimited reviewer will perhaps notice, certainly do not get bluegrass right on this album; instead, they do something even better. If many of Davis’ earlier songs present mountain folk themes—complete with floating verses, well-worn tropes, and repetitive droning on the instruments—through a bluegrass lens, The Earl Brothers sets bluegrass itself back into the tradition, taking bluegrass lyrics and melodies as the building blocks and creating a more monolithic, impersonal, and epic musical statement that feels like its actually older than the original material it reframes. On their previous albums, the Earls were playing bluegrass while looking back through it at the sources from which it sprang (and at some it tried to overlook); this time, they turn squarely and face bluegrass, sweeping it up and taking it back into the mythical past, seemingly forgetting that the genre’s inception was as recent as 1945. Mother, the old home place, and even Jesus make their appearance on The Earl Brothers, not as particularly pressing concerns so much as inevitable touchstones that contribute to a brilliant meditation on the genre that has always been the Earl Brothers’ home, however uncomfortable a fit it may be.


The initial blast of off-key fiddle and banjo that kicks off the album is all wrong; it sounds more like a parking lot jam than a polished bluegrass performance. And the choice of opening number is just as odd and seemingly off the cuff; a ¾ time variation on the most hackneyed bluegrass theme imaginable, leaving mother back home in the mountains to go wander the wide wicked world. Musically and lyrically, there is absolutely nothing new going on in “Going Back Home”; I even had to check the label for the title before typing it, it’s so generic.


The song is reminiscent of so many bluegrass songs that it would be impossible to think of them all; for both melody and lyrics, “Mother’s Not Dead” immediately springs to mind:

Well I left my old home way back in the mountains
For mother and father had both passed away
We followed our mother up to the graveyard
For mother was called to heaven that day

Or another classic three-quarter time lament, “The Fields Have Turned Brown”:

I left my old home to ramble this country
No thoughts of the day when I would return
Now as I go home, to find no one waiting
The price I have paid to live and to learn
Son, don’t go astray” was what they both told me
Remember that love for God can be found”
But now they’re both gone this letter just told me
For years they’ve been dead, the fields have turned brown

To a melody that is similar to both of these songs, and to many others, Robert Earl Davis sings:

Many years have gone by since I left my old home place
I have no one left that remembers my name
I left my old home way back in Virginia
I left my dear mother, I left her to roam
Now I can’t go back to my home in the mountains
She’s no longer there I’m left all alone
I said my goodbyes when I left my dear mother
I never came back, I left my good home
I’m going back to my home in the mountains
Some little place that I can call home
They’re calling me back where mother is resting
If I can get back I’ll never more roam

The lyrics are a rearrangement of familiar themes, and they even begin to rearrange themselves after a while, as though Davis thinks that they are so good that adding new elements would just upset the balance.


Here, contradictions are no problem: I can’t go back, but I’m going back if I can get back, I’m going to go back home so I can call it home–whatever. Repetition is no problem. Cliché is no problem. In fact, there is no problem, because the song, like all good bluegrass, is perfect. A waltz-time mother song does not usually kick off an album; generally a crunchy 4/4 number or a barnburner is placed first for impact. But this song, whatever the hell it’s called—”I Miss My Home”? “My Old Home”? “Cabin Home On the Hill in the Pines”?—has plenty of impact. It serves as a manifesto for the album, a manifesto that basically just says “this is the Earl Brothers with a fiddle player, and we’re ready to play bluegrass!” Musically, the song is a raw, bleeding slice of bluegrass; if it’s not entirely traditional in its execution, I will say, at the risk of sounding hokey, that it is entirely hardcore. And for that reason, it’s the perfect opening number.


If the lineup is now fully in line with bluegrass protocol, the Earls are too primitivist to exploit it to the fullest; as if they’re embarrassed at the extravagance of a five-piece, often only three or four instruments can be heard on any given song. Davis kicks off “Cold and Lonesome” and takes the first break; the fiddle finally gets to have its say, but Larry Hughes’ mandolin stays in the background, even though there was an open slot for a break. But in the Earl Brothers, nobody takes a break unless they have a reason to. The mandolin would have sounded fine, of course, but the band plays it close to the vest.


So it is that “Won’t Be Around Anymore” features a guitar, bass, and banjo, and the fiddle and mandolin are absent. Davis does so little with his banjo breaks that it’s almost like he didn’t trust the other players to keep it reined in. The song has a bouncy melody that seems to cry out for melodic breaks to hammer the point home. Instead, Davis’ kickoff is droning and non-melodic. In fact, he ignores the melody almost entirely, not because he’s embellishing so much, but because he’s doing so little, just playing through the changes. It’s almost like the song is played as it was written; it’s possible to imagine that Davis sketched out the chords before hitting on the vocal melody, which is somewhat like an upbeat, major-chord rendition of “Little Sadie” with stiff, straight eighths. With melodic picking and some mandolin breaks, the song would have burst off the album with a catchy, bouncing leap; instead, as spare as the arrangement is, it envelops the song in a trance-mad undertow.


The banjo kicks off with a chiming, slightly retarded insistence, then repeats itself before the vocals unexpectedly come in as a variation on the understated theme established in the intro. When Morris tops Davis on the chorus, his tenor is so keening and mournful that it seems to corroborate the restrained argument of the arrangement; nobody should feel too happy about this song, it seems to say, certainly not happy enough to want to hear a mandolin break. After the chorus, Davis’ banjo repeats the exact same line as the intro, and then another verse and chorus, then the same banjo break again, another verse and chorus, and the same banjo break twice again—six times through in all with the same banjo line, the only small variation coming with the increased presence of the bass notes on the guitar that begin to rumble up from below the last time or two through the chords.


The lyrics are typically unconcerned about making a consistent point; like the banjo, they are more about a setting than a meaningful series of propositions:


Hard women and whiskey now I don’t regret


Remember the day that we first met


I don’t mind all the trouble I’m in


Let’s go out and do it again


If I had my life to live over again


Wouldn’t go back to that wild place of sin


Might stick around if you left this town


Won’t be around anymore


Let’s do it again, and I wish I could start my life over so I didn’t have to do it again, but I have no regrets, and so on. But expressions of regret are never entirely believable with the Earl Brothers; it’s not that the singer doesn’t regret it, it’s just that he doesn’t regret regretting it. Regret, pain, and hardship are not to be regretted, nor are they to be celebrated; they are to be sung about so we can all feel the range of suffering that comes with wicked pleasures, and if the thoughts are inconsistent, they are too common not to be true; if the words are too common to be consistent, they are too true to be trite.


As minimalist as the music is, it’s also amazingly rich. The last thing I want to do is give the impression that the Earl Brothers are more to be admired than enjoyed; in fact, they are one of the most riveting bands bluegrass has ever known. Even when the ideas themselves are spare, the effect is a paring away of potential distractions to leave what is most engaging about the music to come through with clarity and power. “When the Loving’s All Over,” like “Don’t Bring Trouble Home” on Whiskey, Women and Death, pushes itself so far toward the minimum ingredients of a bluegrass song that it reaches the commonplace and comes out the other side. A very typical bluegrass structure, in ¾ time, supports a melody that simply states what the chords are doing below, moving with the kicks to the IV and V, but otherwise staying put. When the chorus comes and the expected tenor vocal fails to materialize, the song suddenly gains depth from the omission; the payoff line, “Say our goodbyes, we’re drifting away,” having escaped being swamped by a harmony vocal, gathers the song together and releases it, transfigured, toward the verse. Any deviation from the song’s simplicity would only have reduced it.


Another standout track is “Thinking of You.” Like the first Earl Brothers song with a fiddle, Moonshine’s “Life of Trouble,” “Thinking of You” is basically a vocal number written over a fiddle groove. But whereas on “Life of Trouble” the lyrics almost felt like an excuse for spending three minutes with the shuffling fiddle, here music and vocals come together perfectly; when the tenor vocal belatedly swoops in on the final line of the chorus, and then the fiddle swells up into the break, the sheer perfection of the thing can’t help but make you smile.


If after three albums the Earl Brothers’ style seemed to be closing in a bit, The Earl Brothers sounds like it has opened up a range of future possibilities for the band. For one thing, they could make a far more conventional album and not sound like they’re getting tired; bluegrassier arrangements with a little more room for the mandolin may not be necessary, but they wouldn’t hurt anything either. Not least, that is because Larry Hughes makes use of his opportunities here to make you wonder what more he has to say on his instrument now that the band is not merely playing bluegrass, but actually thinking about it, too. His tremolo introduction to “Walk in the Light” is a case in point; Hughes brings to mind Curley Lambert’s work with the Stanley Brothers on songs like “Angel Band” and “Hills of Roan County,” and I can’t recall thinking that about a mandolin player before. But this is just another example of how bluegrass-literate the album is, so to speak; any reviewer who again accuses the Earl Brothers of trying to play like the Stanley Brothers and failing would not be listening to the album closely enough.


In fact, there seems to be very little room between what the Earl Brothers want to do and what they can do. That’s not because they can do anything; you should buy a Bela Fleck album if that’s what you want, I suppose. It’s just that the Earl Brothers want to, and can, do the right things, even as they themselves, with every album, are setting the standard for what the right things, for them, are. Their music manages to be as good as the best bluegrass because, like the best bluegrass, it achieves a kind of perfection. Even where their limits show—Davis’ weird swoop into a falsetto on “Troubles,” the repetitiveness of the instrumental breaks, Lucas’ intonation—the effect fits the music; the Earl Brothers are a perfect illustration of the oft-repeated point that one’s limitations define one’s style.


To return to the Bluegrass Unlimited review of Moonshine, a reader sent a letter to the editor defending the Earl Brothers which stated, in part: “The Earl Brothers are certainly not the Stanley Brothers of the third millennium, but neither are they musicians ‘who don’t get it.’” My point, however, is precisely that the Earl Brothers are the Stanley Brothers of the third millennium. Like the Stanley Brothers, they are the state of the art of a genre that they did not create, but that they are helping to define. But unlike the Stanley Brothers, the prospects for the Earl Brothers getting widespread recognition, even within the bluegrass genre, are slim; in the end, they may not have any influence or historical significance in bluegrass or acoustic music in general, and their albums may be out of print and impossible to find in ten years’ time. Only someone with a deep knowledge and appreciation of bluegrass music is likely to understand the Earl Brothers’ music, and that is already a small pool of potential fans. And bluegrass afficianadoes have not been flocking to the band. Their music, as engaging, soulful, and thought-provoking as it is, nevertheless, due to the circumstantial quirks of history and genre, is strangely obscure. But it will always be a rare treasure for those who know how to find it.

Common Sense

Some albums are collections of great songs, with varying degrees of consistency in style, mood, instrumentation and lyrical content, often not without a high degree of cohesion, but nevertheless without demanding to be evaluated as a single, unified work. Aside from these, however, there are those albums which somehow manage to be more than the sum of their parts by a significant margin. The albums that fall into the first category are almost too numerous to warrant examples, but how about The White Album, Who’s Next, The Heart of Saturday Night and every single Merle Haggard album. These aren’t necessarily just patchwork collections of songs, of course, but I want to distinguish albums like these from those such as The Wall, Red Headed Stranger, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, and The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, as well as Tommy and most of the other various “rock operas,” “concept albums,” and album-length suites that have followed in its wake, that contain songs that cannot be divorced from their context without a certain amount of distortion. These aren’t perfectly lucid categories, largely because there are any number of albums that work both ways, which is to say albums that contain perfectly crafted songs that can make themselves at home on greatest hits collections, compilation tapes, and the radio, but at the same time need to be listened to in their entirety, and often in order, so as to be fully grasped (for some examples, how about Abbey Road, John Wesley Harding, Sticky Fingers, and Kind of Blue, and the list could go on and on). And some artists have so much cohesion that their work could almost be rearranged at will without significant distortion; every song on the first three Ramones albums is basically a hologram, containing a perfect image of the whole in every verse or riff.

Some albums are collections of great songs, with varying degrees of consistency in style, mood, instrumentation and lyrical content, often not without a high degree of cohesion, but nevertheless without demanding to be evaluated as a single, unified work. Aside from these, however, there are those albums which somehow manage to be more than the sum of their parts by a significant margin. The albums that fall into the first category are almost too numerous to warrant examples, but how about The White Album, Who’s Next, The Heart of Saturday Night and every single Merle Haggard album. These aren’t necessarily just patchwork collections of songs, of course, but I want to distinguish albums like these from those such as The Wall, Red Headed Stranger, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, and The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, as well as Tommy and most of the other various “rock operas,” “concept albums,” and album-length suites that have followed in its wake, that contain songs that cannot be divorced from their context without a certain amount of distortion. These aren’t perfectly lucid categories, largely because there are any number of albums that work both ways, which is to say albums that contain perfectly crafted songs that can make themselves at home on greatest hits collections, compilation tapes, and the radio, but at the same time need to be listened to in their entirety, and often in order, so as to be fully grasped (for some examples, how about Abbey Road, John Wesley Harding, Sticky Fingers, and Kind of Blue, and the list could go on and on). And some artists have so much cohesion that their work could almost be rearranged at will without significant distortion; every song on the first three Ramones albums is basically a hologram, containing a perfect image of the whole in every verse or riff.


In any case, I am sure that there is at least one absolutely perfect specimen of an album where the songs cannot be removed from their context without suffering a serious diminishment in significance and impact. John Prine’s Common Sense (1975) is an astonishingly original piece of work that deserves to be considered a classic, at least if I have any say in the matter. Yet there probably isn’t a single song on it that I would include on a list of my ten favorite John Prine songs. This isn’t to say that there aren’t great songs, or that they entirely fall flat when taken out of context. The title track, “Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard,” “Saddle in the Rain,” and “He Was In Heaven Before He Died” sound just fine on Great Days, the Prine anthology released in 1993. But these fine songs become something more when considered in context, which is what I intend to do in this review.

Most of John Prine’s best-known songs are on his first album, 1971’s John Prine, which is a shame because he had not yet reached maturity as a songwriter or as a performer at that time. The album does contain two indisputable classics, “Paradise” and “Angel From Montgomery,” one probable classic in “Donald and Lydia,” several that sound like they should be classics but on closer examination miss the mark by a bit, and one, “Far From Me,” that is just as good as a classic even if it isn’t one. All of the songwriting is highly proficient, but some of it sounds, probably uncoincidentally, like a very young man with truckloads of talent but not enough experience to go with it. “Sam Stone,” which is one of Prine’s most celebrated songs and was even covered by Bob Dylan, has a satisfyingly catchy chorus but comes off a bit heavy-handed and silly overall. “Hello in There” has a beautiful melody, although listening to the 24-year-old Prine sing about encountering “hollow, ancient eyes” while walking down the street always makes me cringe for some reason—he’s probably thinking of a 52-year-old, I can’t keep from suspecting, and anyway the lyric is overdone here and underdone elsewhere (“We lost Davy in the Korean War/ Still don’t know what for/ Don’t matter anymore” is singsongy and banal). And in addition to all that, the album contains some out and out filler (“Pretty Good,” “The Quiet Man”).

And then there’s “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” a very good anti-Vietnam song that seems to have earned Prine the tag “protest singer” for a while, a trade he also tepidly plied on his second album, Diamonds in the Rough, with the mediocre “The Great Compromise” and the mystifying “Take the Star Out of the Window” (unless someone can explain to me what “Take the star out of the window, let my conscience take the rest” means; I mean, it sounds like it should mean something, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t) before mostly abandoning it. It’s hard to imagine John Prine being called “strident,” but if he had made a few different choices along the way perhaps he’d be remembered as the long-hoped-for amalgam of Dylan and Phil Ochs that could earnestly strap on the mantle of social responsibility along with his guitar. What’s more likely, though, is that he’d have been remembered as a semi-obscure folkie with a promising debut album.

“Rolling Stone” even accused Prine of excessive bitterness in its review of “John Prine.” With the benefit of 40 years’ perspective on Prine’s (continuing) career, it’s hard to imagine a less apt epithet for him. I would contend that Prine’s work could more properly be said to strongly militate against bitterness, while at the same time keeping an eye trained on all of the unpleasantness and heartbreak that seems to be the lot of mortals everywhere and always. If he does this with a sense of humor, it is nevertheless just as wrongheaded to accuse him of cynicism, as the “All Music Guide” goes so far as to do (which isn’t to say he’s never cynical; he sometimes is, particularly on Common Sense). His attitude to suffering is perhaps made most explicit on “Bruised Orange” (from the 1978 album of the same name); it may even be tempting to accuse the song of self-help vacuousness or Buddhist nonattachment when considering the chorus:

You can gaze out the window, get mad and get madder,
throw your hands in the air, say “What does it matter?”
but it don’t do no good to get angry, so help me I know.
For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter.
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
wrapped up in a trap of your very own chain of sorrow.

This advice is tempered by the next verse which, far from asserting the transience of human suffering, manages with startling economy to put the listener in touch with the most universal, which at the same time means the most personal, feelings of sadness and regret, all the while insisting that full recovery will never be in the cards:

I been brought down to zero, pulled out and put back there,
I sat on a park bench, kissed the girl with the black hair
and my head shouted down to my heart: “You better look out below!”
Hey, it ain’t such a long drop, don’t stammer, don’t stutter,
from the diamonds in the sidewalk to the dirt in the gutter,
and you carry those bruises to remind you wherever you go.

If these are not the most uplifting words you’ve ever heard, neither are they cynical or bitter.

But if it was possible at the time of John Prine for “Rolling Stone” to accuse Prine of bitterness, that is because the 24-year-old who wrote “Sam Stone” could not have written “Bruised Orange.” In fact, for all the songwriting prowess displayed on Prine’s debut, there are times when he sounds like he just might be faking it a little. Prine’s slightly stilted, coffeehouse folk-singer vocals don’t help matters any, either. Not that it is a bad album; it’s a very good album, and almost even a great one—it’s hard to listen to “Paradise” and not get the feeling that the song is in a certain way perfect. But it’s also hard to agree with Kris Kristofferson’s comment in the liner notes: “Twenty-four years old and he writes like he’s two hundred and twenty.” Whatever a 220-year-old might write like, most of the songs on John Prine sound like they were written by an exceptionally talented 24-year-old.

Prine’s second album, Diamonds in the Rough, was panned when it came out, but in many ways it is an improvement over the first. While there is nothing that can match the perfection of “Paradise” or the pathos of “Angel From Montgomery,” the best thing about the album is that Prine starts to loosen up a little, and loosening up is the key that opens the door to the entire rest of what has priven to be a spectacular career (assuming, of course, that he won’t revert to being awkwardly earnest in his dotage).

Incidentally, this is also the album where Prine sounds the most like Bob Dylan. For one thing, his voice often sounds the way Bob Dylan looks on the cover of “The Times They Are A’Changin’” (if you don’t remember the cover, picture a young kid self-consciously trying to look like Woody Guthrie, who was himself plenty self-conscious in trying to look like a salt-of-the-earth proletarian). Add to that “The Late John Garfield Blues,” the most Dylan-like song Prine has ever done. Nevertheless, Prine never sounds like a lesser Dylan.

Indeed, it’s a remarkable testimony to Prine’s originality that he always sounds just like himself even though he has a voice a bit like Dylan’s and sometimes writes songs that could almost be Dylan songs. If “Sweet Revenge” were running from the cops, it could safely hide somewhere on side B of New Morning or Planet Waves until the heat was off. And “A Crooked Piece of Time” could hole up there too. “People Putting People Down” sounds like it could be on Oh Mercy; it makes little difference that it was released five years before Oh Mercy and covered by Dylan himself. Prine simply figured out a way for Dylan to sound before Dylan did in this case. But again, what’s remarkable here is that Prine can do songs like this with impunity, and nobody with any sense will question his originality.

There were little hints of the absurd or the whimsical on “John Prine” (mostly in “Illegal Smile,” “Spanish Pipedream” and “Pretty Good”), but on Diamonds in the Rough Prine develops these aspects of his writing even further with songs that sometimes seem to be just tossed off without much deliberation. Still, all of the songs that meet this description are winners, with the only clunkers on the album coming when Prine gets a little more serious on the two anti-war songs mentioned above, and perhaps Billy the Bum, which is a bit too long and slow to be as interesting at the end as it is at the beginning. If the first album took itself a little too seriously, Diamonds in the Rough has the feel of something intended to be a minor effort, which isn’t a knock on the album; in fact, that is precisely what makes it a step forward from John Prine. What is becoming evident with this material is that the more Prine allows himself to have a sense of humor, the better his work will be.

The third John Prine album, Sweet Revenge, is really just as good an album as anyone could ask for. Just on the strength of the songs, in fact, this is probably Prine’s best album ever, although I hope to explain why Common Sense could make a claim to that title, according to different criteria. From this point on in Prine’s career, there is no more self-consciousness, and even when the joists show through the songs are well-constructed; after Sweet Revenge, awkward lyrics are mostly welcome idiosyncrasies rather than mood-breakers. In other words, on Sweet Revenge Prine has finally settled into his style. And absurdity will be a big part of that style.

Whereas the material on John Prine sometimes sounds a bit forced, from Sweet Revenge on Prine sounds so relaxed about his songwriting he can at times be almost sloppy. The most extreme example is probably “Everybody Wants to Feel Like You” (from 1991’s The Missing Years), otherwise a very straightforward song. In the middle of the first verse Prine sings:

Everybody wants to be wanted
I mean, I ain’t no scarecrow cop
I don’t want no transalization
I don’t want no diddley-bop

What just happened? Apparently Prine had written some placeholder lyrics and decided to leave them in the finished song out of laziness, perversity or frivolity. Perhaps the recording is a demo he liked so much that he decided to use it; coming immediately after “The Sins of Memphisto,” the most sonically florid thing Prine ever recorded, it’s a solo number for voice and guitar. In any case, the lines neither enhance nor damage the song, they just flow right by and allow you to chuckle before getting you back into the song’s proper mood of mild indignation at never having the upper hand.

Getting back to Sweet Revenge, then, the album is just as ambitious as John Prine and just as relaxed as Diamonds in the Rough. There is very little filler on the album, but it must be admitted that there probably is not a single John Prine album without at least one disposable song (with the exception of Common Sense). There is a pointless cover of “Nine Pound Hammer,” and “Often is a Word I Seldom Use” isn’t really unpleasant, but it isn’t really necessary, either. It’s a good title; Prine should have invented a hack songwriter (like Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout) and just attributed the title to a non-existent song, because there’s not much else to like about this one. On the other hand, “Mexican Home” sounds like a throwaway the first couple of times through, but with repeated listening it opens up into something more, not least because of the poignantly understated lyrics:

Well it got so hot last night I swear, you couldn’t hardly breathe
Heat lightning burnt the sky like alcohol
I sat on the porch without my shoes and I watched the cars roll by
As the headlights raced to the corner of the kitchen wall

Well mama dear your boy is here, far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred core that burns inside of me
And I feel a storm all wet and warm not ten miles away
Approaching my Mexican home

Well, my God, I cried, it’s so hot inside, you could die in the living room
Take the fan from the window, prop the door back with a broom
Well the cuckoo clock has died of shock and the windows feel no pain
The air’s as still as the throttle on a funeral train

Well mama dear your boy is here, far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred core that burns inside of me
And I feel a storm all wet and warm not ten miles away
Approaching my Mexican home

My father died on the porch outside on an August afternoon
I sipped bourbon and cried with a friend by the light of the moon
So it’s hurry, hurry, step right up, it’s a matter of a life or death
Well the sun is going down and the moon is just holding its breath

Well mama dear your boy is here, far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred core, that burns inside of me
And I feel a storm all wet and warm not ten miles away
Approaching my Mexican home

In addition to classic material like “Please Don’t Bury Me,” “Blue Umbrella,” and “Grandpa Was A Carpenter,” Sweet Revenge contains Prine’s second song about masturbation—the first was John Prine’s “Donald and Lydia,” an excellent song, and “Christmas in Prison” is at least as good as that song. Both songs contain plenty of humor, but neither is primarily a humorous song or a novelty number. Rather, both songs deal with the anguish and sadness of a blocked pathway to others, in one case due to shyness and social maladaptation, in the other due to being in the hoosegow.

Such, at any rate, was the career of John Prine up to the point when Common Sense was released in 1975. The trajectory of this career would quite a bit different from the way I’ve given it if reviews were taken into consideration: a more standard view is that Prine released one brilliant, classic album, suffered a bit from the sophomore jinx and then righted himself with his third record, although he would never completely match the brilliance of John Prine. And, according to common sense on the matter, Common Sense stands in a similar relation to Sweet Revenge as Diamonds in the Rough does to John Prine. In reviewing an album that questions the sense of common sense, however, it is only appropriate to demur from consensus. And, while I don’t consider Sweet Revenge to be overrated, Common Sense is certainly an underrated album much like Diamonds in the Rough.

The album opens up with a fairly ordinary, off-the-cuff song, “Middle Man.” That is, the song starts out sounding ordinary, but the lyrics never quite attain anything like the discipline that would keep them making sense. The narrator meets a girl at a diner, named Flo, who purports to be looking for a “middle man,” sort of an ordinary Joe who doesn’t run too hot or too cold but sticks around and gives her the love and stability she craves. It is a commonsensical view of love, and the narrator expresses his willingness to fit the bill, but the lyrics keep taking off into flights of fancy; a scheme to sell half-dollars to the French and a half-baked idea to rip off Flo’s own money in order to support both of them seem to indicate that the singer isn’t quite as steady as the job description requires. However, on second thought, it appears equally likely that the world described in the song is so batshit crazy that these are legitimate schemes. A “middle man,” according to Flo, “has a left-handed manner and leans to the right,” and as the floor of the diner pitches, we get the sense that the middle is a place where you have to move around a lot just to stand still.

As unsettled as our common sense probably is after hearing Prine croak “Middle Man,” the next song gets right to the point, whatever that may be. “Common Sense” has a nice, commonsensical chord progression and a beautiful steel guitar, but what is it about? I’m not entirely sure. The chorus claims “It don’t make much sense that common sense don’t make no sense no more.” Prine’s own comments on the song, in the liner notes to Great Days, are helpful up to a point:

This was my Bicentennial tribute to that other great American patriot, Tom Paine. It’s a song about the American dream only existing in the hearts and minds of immigrants until they live here long enough for democracy to make them cold, cynical, and indifferent, like all us native Americans. It don’t make much sense.

One thing that strikes me about this is how unlikely it would be for any reasonably popular singer to say words like those today, as innocuous as they may have sounded 14 years ago. But after September 2001, the only criticism of the United States one is likely to hear in popular music is on the lyric sheet of some fringe rap album that rants about black nationalism, the New World Order, and space aliens running things behind the scenes in Washington.

Of course, it is still possible to be anti-war, and even to have a critique of capitalism to a certain extent. Michael Moore, after all, is still a popular figure. But in 2010, it seems like no remotely mainstream critic of any aspect of America can speak without bending over backwards and half-retracting everything that is said in a lame attempt to reassure everyone involved, both speaker and audience, that, deep down, everyone involved, both speaker and audience, is a loyal American. The most immediately familiar example of this is the absurd fact that anyone who criticizes the American involvement in one of this century’s interminable wars is required to avow that they nevertheless support the troops, thus immediately rendering their supposed opposition to the war nonsensical.

But that’s common sense: it doesn’t need to make sense, because it conforms to extrinsic imperatives. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. And here I have to pause and proceed more carefully, because I have already begun to muddy things up, which is unavoidable, because the term common sense is ambiguous, which is to say it contains an excess of sense. On the one hand, common sense is something like the zeitgeist, the sense of what is possible and what is fitting that prevails in a given period of time. This changes with time, as we’ve already seen by comparing Prine’s remarks a decade and a half back with the sort of discourse that commonly goes on today. On the other hand, “common sense” can refer to something like a faculty or a capacity, our ability to conform to common sense in the first sense, as opposed to a foolish or pernicious tendency to deviate from it. These, then, are two senses that “common sense” has in common. And in this case, if there is a common sense that regulates what we say, if we have common sense we will conform to it as an extrinsic standard.

But there is more. The cover of Common Sense rather solemnly depicts a yokel stepping on a rake, the handle of which is coming up to meet his face. This seems to suggest that the common sense Prine has in mind is “horse sense,” which is not something that shifts with time—at least not as long as there are things like rakes. This is rather the sense that everyone needs to survive, regardless of circumstances (there will always be rakes); in other words it is entirely intrinsic, which is why it’s sometimes called “the sense you were born with.” Thus, it would seem that we are all born with common sense, but some of us lose it as we age. On the other hand, Humpty Dumpty repeats an old saying when he accuses Alice of having “No more sense than a baby,” and this would seem to suggest that things happen in quite the opposite way, after all.

This brings us to yet another meaning of the phrase in question: common sense can refer to old saws, bromides, proverbs or sayings that circulate throughout common discourse and maintain a certain amount of order in daily life, even if they do seem to contradict one another at times: although haste makes waste, a stitch in time saves nine; a penny saved is a penny earned, but if we worry too much about pennies we may be penny wise and pound foolish, which is all well and good were it not for the fact that if we take care of the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves—and so on. And this again points to the primary ambiguity of common sense: if we have common sense, we have an intrinsic ability to conform to the extrinsic measure given in these sayings. On the other hand, perhaps having common sense means having the sense to know when common sense makes sense and when it doesn’t, when we should count the pennies and when it’s time to worry about the pounds. Common Sense is a tug of war between the internal and the external, and to resolve this conflict something beyond common sense is required. In fact, Jesus is required; someone to fulfill the law by negating and preserving it all at once. To resolve this conflict between external and internal, we need to somehow eat the law. We cannot understand this with common sense. Common Sense does not make sense.

All of these senses of common sense should be kept in mind when listening to the title track of Common Sense. The song starts out with a couple of lines that seem to bear more on the platitudinous sense of common sense than anything to do with Tom Paine:

You can’t live together, you can’t live alone
Considering the weather, oh my how you’ve grown

Here it doesn’t seem like we’re heading into particularly choppy water, especially with that piano swelling in the background. But if you’re looking for a song about common sense that makes sense, you’ll have to wait for 1991 and “It’s a Big Old Goofy World”:

Up in the morning
Work like a dog
Is better than sitting
Like a bump on a log
Mind all your manners
Be quiet as a mouse
Some day you’ll own a home
That’s as big as a house

Here you may think that Prine is setting you up for a box on the ears, but in this later song the message turns out to be that common sense does make sense after all:

Kiss a little baby
Give the world a smile
If you take an inch
Give ’em back a mile
Cause if you lie like a rug
And you don’t give a damn
You’re never gonna be
As happy as a clam

Listen, the singer seems to be saying, this is all true. And it all may sound a bit insipid, but the irony that the truth is insipid makes the song funny. And if the song is funny, then at least the song is not insipid, even if life is insipid. But of course it isn’t life that’s insipid, common sense is insipid by its very nature because it reduces life to certain formulae, and the truer the formulae are the more hackneyed they become, but when we live these formulae they make experience rich, vivid, and rewarding. And of course, this is all true. But in order to be true, it has to confine itself to a very narrow slice of what we mean when we talk of common sense.

By comparison, “Common Sense” is utterly chaotic. Since we just put the song aside for a while, let me reiterate the first two lines before quoting the rest of the verse:

You can’t live together, you can’t live alone
Considering the weather, oh my how you’ve grown
From the men in the factories to the wild kangaroo
Like those birds of a feather they’re gathering together
And feeling exactly like you

Birds of a feather flock together, we’re told. But what is that kangaroo doing in the factory? The only part of Prine’s Great Days comment that seems to apply here is, “It don’t make much sense.”

“Common Sense” isn’t nonsense, however. Sense that makes no sense is still sense, after all, and therefore different from nonsense. The song does not really push at the boundaries of sense, or even break away from common sense altogether; rather, it feverishly recombines elements of sense to show that common sense can make no sense just as easily as it can make sense. Parts emerge and abruptly break off, giving way to something new, which is why the song continually dupes us into thinking it’s making sense before pulling the rug out from under us again. “Common Sense” is like a patchwork quilt in which every square displays a pattern, but taken together as a whole there is no pattern. There is no overriding theme, except, of course, common sense, which isn’t so much a theme as the possibility of there being a theme in the first place.

The structure of the song is a little bit odd, too, although I wouldn’t go so far as to call it strange or adventurous. But after a single verse and chorus, there is the bridge, a short break, then a double verse and another chorus. The chorus consists of lines that are structured in such a way that they feel like they make more sense than they actually do, a common effect on the album:

They got mesmerized by lullabies and limbo dance in pairs
Please lock that door…

It’s hard to say who “they” are; if we grant Prine’s Great Days comment authority, perhaps it means “immigrants”; if not, then at least men in factories and kangaroos, or really just one kangaroo, as I can’t detect any sibilance at the end of the line, and the lyric sheet keeps it in the singular. (Of course, he could mean “the wild kangaroo” the way we say “the North American timber wolf,” but I don’t like that possibility, so I’ll ignore it.) And one kangaroo is more confusing than several; indeed, sense demands a plurality of kangaroos. Only what the kangaroos have in common makes sense; all sense is common, in this sense. The singularity of the kangaroo refuses to be made sense of; if sense consists in concepts, singularity is an outrage to sense. A single kangaroo can’t limbo dance in pairs; all he can do is form half of a single pair that keeps us from safely generalizing about the pairs. In other words, a single kangaroo subtracts from the sense of the situation in the factories. We don’t even know which factory the kangaroo is in. Or are they gathering somewhere outside the factories? Not on the kangaroo’s turf, however, else there would be more kangaroos hanging around.

In any case, anyone who starts thinking that this song makes perfect sense, which you can do for at least a line at a time, mostly, should keep the kangaroo in mind. There are lots of kangaroos, in that sense, in this song. And then there’s “please lock that door…” Is something unsavory going on here? Is someone about to burn down the factory with the kangaroo locked inside? And the payoff line: “It don’t make much sense that common sense don’t make no sense no more.” Not only does common sense not make sense, it doesn’t make sense that it doesn’t make sense. How could it? Tom Paine is spinning in the grave, one imagines. If he made arguments for American independence that any reasonable person was supposed to be able to follow and agree with, Prine’s rhymes about American decadence are themselves decadent, just as frustrating to the reason as the corrupt and brutal social and economic obstacle course faced by immigrants in the factories, equally composed out of fragments of coherence that fail to add up to an overall sense.

The bridge vaguely hints at feelings of frustration, perhaps the frustration felt by these immigrants and their marsupial co-worker, with the first two lines drawing a false symmetry that rhymes well enough but reasons little:

Just between you and me, it’s like pulling when you ought to be shovin’
Like a nun with her head in the oven
Please don’t tell me that this really wasn’t nothing

A lot of effort has been expended, forehead veins are popping, don’t tell me this wasn’t nothing: it was nothing, but it was a nothing consisting of lots of little somethings, the way white can be generated by combining all the colors. Common Sense has been shown to be not nonsense but schizophrenia: meaning abounds, it spills out in all sorts of directions, ruining the big picture with its proliferation of detail. The kangaroo just doesn’t fit in a song about Tom Paine’s “Common Sense,” nor even in a song that says common sense itself no longer makes sense. Only a song that maintains that it don’t make much sense that common sense don’t make no sense no more can accommodate that lone kangaroo.

After the bridge, the pedal steel guitar comes in and suddenly makes any American with any sense at all feel sorry for anyone who isn’t American. The steel guitar is an evocative instrument in that way; one has to have a sense for it, just as a Frenchman would presumably have to feel sorry for anyone who isn’t French when he eats his buttered snails. I assume this is so, but of course it’s just a guess; I’m talking about a community of sense from which I am excluded, and I’m assuming that there is a sense even more common that links all of these communities of sense, a sort of meta-sense that allows me to draw an analogy between the sound of a pedal steel guitar and snails. Because you wouldn’t catch me eating snails, and yet people pay a pretty good price for the things.

I don’t mean to suggest that a foreigner couldn’t appreciate a pedal steel guitar solo, on the other hand; I only mean she couldn’t be expected to appreciate it properly. The pedal steel has a context, and the sense for that particular context is a sense we Americans have in common; but actually, we don’t all have it, only the ones who have it have it. This is the nature of taste: not everyone has it, but everyone should, and the only way to know what it is, is to have it yourself. But most people who don’t have it think that they do, so only those who actually have it know that they have it and are right that they have it. That is the perplexing nature of taste, as distinct from opinion; common sense assures us that everyone has opinions and, by virtue of this fact that we all have them, they are completely worthless.

On the other hand, taste, according to Immanuel Kant, posits an ideal community—the predilections of any actual community are, statistically speaking, always pretty ghastly. Kant says that taste relies on a sensus communis (Latin for “common sense”): if we didn’t all experience things in the same basic way, we would not be able to appeal to even an ideal community, because sense would be private and there would be no such thing as taste, or community for that matter—there’d be no common and no sense. So maybe every Frenchman doesn’t appreciate snails, but they all should, because they taste basically the same to all Frenchmen, which means they’re either good or they aren’t (they aren’t, of course, although I’ve never tasted one, but it’s only common sense). And that is one reason assimilation to another culture is difficult: play a room full of immigrants some Merle Haggard (who not coincidentally is one of the primary influences on John Prine, who in my opinion has good taste in music), and many of them will probably plug their ears (there’s no accounting for taste).

But in fact, the immigrant experience is intrinsically jarring to common sense; fragments of one community are thrust into another, which they can not understand until they begin to understand some of the ideal communities that both arise from and structure the actual collection of people at the factory gate, or anyway the many not-so-ideal communities that reflect the deformed taste of the many actual people, and the one true ideal community that reflects the genuine taste of the actual people who really do have taste, if anyone really does, but maybe just the kangaroo has it, to be honest.

Now we must leave our kangaroo, however, listening to Merle Haggard and reading the Critique of Judgment on his legally guaranteed 15 minute coffee break, if such laws apply to kangaroos, and return to the song after a pedal steel break that actually only lasts for a couple of bars. Long enough, however, for frustration to have turned to menace in the interim:

One of these days
One of these nights
You’ll take off your hat
And they’ll read you your rights
You’ll wanna get high
Every time you feel low
Hey, Queen Isabella,
Stay away from that fella,
He’ll just get you into trouble, you know.

On the other side of the break, we seem to have entered a zone of relative calm, at least as far as interpreing the lyrics is concerned. No more kangaroos, just police, drugs, and Columbus, certainly a more or less recognizable portrait of America, where the only wild marsupials are possums, and none of them know how to operate a drill press. We’re on a roll now, we get it, bad things are happening, even if the how, the who, and the why are pretty vague. And next we get another big shovelful of sense, even though it would make more sense to have the chorus here, since when songs have a double verse it is standard for it to be the first verse. But as a consolation for that small perplexity, now even the people who haven’t read the liner notes to Great Days will recognize some immigrants in the next line (although an uneasy thought appears at the edge of consciousness: if the song was really about immigrants, as Prine says, we should have had some in the first verse, instead of a kangaroo):

But they came here by boat
And they came here by plane
They blistered their hands
And they burned out their brain
All dreaming a dream
That’ll never come true

A dire enough picture. And to seek redress where sense is wanting is, sorry but I must say it, senseless:

Hey, don’t give me no trouble
Or I’ll call up my double
We’ll play piggy-in-the-middle with you.

And then “Common Sense” slides back into the chorus and comes to a conclusion. If the song is taken as a straightforward critique of the American system, it has gone from being incoherent to being merely vague after it has been patched together with some steel guitar. But the song is, of course, much more than incoherent or vague, although at this point it should be clear that this “more” necessarily defies summarization.

According to Wikipedia (although no source for this is given, so you’ll just have to trust me that I didn’t write it myself): “In America, the term pig in the middle is sometimes used as slang for being under pressure from both sides of a dispute. The similar term piggy in the middle means the same in the United Kingdom.” The newcomer to America, to the factory, to capitalist democracy in general, if there is such a thing as a newcomer to these things, tries to make sense of her experience and finds that sense is just a ball that gets tossed around over her head, always out of reach. There are plenty of chunks of sense getting tossed around, but they don’t add up to anything because sense is just another tool in that factory, which isn’t there to make sense, it’s there to make money, and not for you, at least not very much for you, but for the piggies that aren’t in the middle. But for consolation, there’s always the steel guitar.

After this, anyone would need a break, or at least anyone trying to interpret the lyrics. “Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard” makes perfect sense—at least, it does so in the way an easily interpretable dream makes sense. This song is also on Great Days, and this time Prine’s comments seem to get right to the point of the song:

At that time, there were a lot of people who were leftover hippies who never made it all the way to California, as if they got to the Rockies and went, “God, I can’t get over that,” and just settled in. Also, I had different friends of mine who went through the ’60s, from being totally straight or greasers, then turned into hippies, and then into a religious thing. So I created this character who had done all those different things.

The verses to the song, however, are pretty cryptic:

Selling bibles at the airports
Buying Quaaludes on the phone
Hey, you talk about
A paper route
She’s a shut-in without a home
God save her, please
She’s nailed her knees
To some drugstore parking lot
Hey, Mr. Brown
Turn the volume down
I believe this evening’s shot

You can work with some of this apparent nonsense (any number of interpretations for “a shut-in without a home” would work), some of it you can only shake your head at (nailed her knees to the parking lot? “Mr. Brown”?), but the overall effect is the opposite of “Common Sense”: here the big picture makes sense, even if we can’t do much with the details.

After this small reprieve, we’re plunged deep into obscurity again with “Wedding Day in Funeralville.” Whereas in “Middle Man,” stability could only be achieved by tacking from side to side, here we are hung up on the horns of a dilemma: “It’s wedding day in Funeralville what shall I wear tonight?” However, the tone of the song is not anguished, but rather somewhat lighthearted. It’s hard to listen to a song that is both anguished and frenetic; “Wedding Day” opts for frenetic, whereas the nest track, “Way Down,” expresses anguish. Although “Way Down,” along with the songs included on Great Days, is a song that could easily prosper outside of the confines of this album, it takes on more weight here as it comes on calm, stately, and serious, three qualities that have been in short supply so far.

And yet lyrically, “Way Down”is by no means out of place here:

The air is thin and the sky is fat
I’m gonna buy me a brand new hat
Wear it out and go insane
Christ, I hope it never rains.

But there’s nothing really very confusing about “Way Down”; anyone who listens to it will no exactly what it’s about, at least anyone over the age of 14, and anyone under that age will think they get it anyway:

Way down, way down it must be
I can’t stop this misery
It must be way down.

“My Own Best Friend” is a pretty cynical song, as far as I can tell, although I’m never sure exactly what its about, or if it’s just about seeming to be about something:

I’m a victim of friction, I just got too close to see
Yeah, we sparked in the dark and God hung a light on me
And the lamp gets real heavy, and it hangs from my heart
And it comes and it goes till I can’t tell the difference apart
But I’ve done it before and I’d do it again
‘Cause it’s the only time that makes me feel like I’m
My own best friend

Self-betrayal? A sense of impersonal beatitude? Self-mockery? Masturbation again?

In any case, if seeming to be about something without actually being about anything is something to be about, that’s exactly what “Forbidden Jimmy” is about. It’s a catchy sort of calypso number that churns along pleasantly with lyrics that I can’t even think of something to say about, I just have to quote the song in full:

Forbidden Jimmy has got a mighty sore tooth
From biting too many dimes in a telephone booth
He’s got half of his bootlace tied to the dial
Thank you, operator, for getting Jimmy to smile
“Call out the Coast Guard,” screamed the Police,
Forbidden Jimmy, he’s got three water skis
He put two on his wavelength, and gave one to his girl,
She’s a mighty fine person, it’s a mighty fine world
I’m gonna make all your sorrows bright, set your soul free
I’ll see you tomorrow night if I can still see
Ginger Caputo And Dorian Gray
Oughtta stay out of pictures if they got nothin’ to say
Stack ’em back on the rack, Jack—you know you’re hurting my eye
Forbidden Jimmy, he’s getting ready to fly
I’m gonna make all your sorrows bright, set your soul free
I’ll see you tomorrow night if I can still see
I got caught cooking popcorn and calling it hail
They wanna stick my head inside a water pail
You know they’re gonna be sorry they’re gonna pay for it too
Forbidden Jimmy he’s coming straight at you
I’m gonna make all your sorrows bright, set your soul free
I’ll see you tomorrow night if I can still see

The line about Ginger Caputo and Dorian Gray would seem to be a pretty clever witticism if Ginger Caputo were a silent film actress or something like that. But actually, a Google search for Ginger Caputo only turns up the lyrics to this song, along with some people on John Prine discussion boards asking who the hell Ginger Caputo is. As for the rest of it, it’s anybody’s guess.

Next up is another anthologized number, “Saddle in the Rain,” which could have been a hit or at least an FM staple if catchiness were all that was required. As for the lyrics, again we have to consult the liner notes to Great Days, even though this time Prine’s remarks are not entirely helpful:

That’s another song about friendships and relationships, and being let down. Ever since I can remember, when I was a small kid, anytime I had a friend who really let me down, it would affect me. The disappointment was always large with me. So I guess that’s why that’s a theme I go back to every once in a while. I don’t do it with a lot of bitterness. If I’m going to nail somebody, I like to make sure that I give them all the rope in the world, along with a speech about their better points. So they’ll know I wrote it because I liked them. Like, “This is going to hurt me a lot more than it’s going to hurt you.”

So somebody let Prine down, and he’s getting his revenge in this song. Whoever they are, however, they probably never noticed, unless the following serves as a devastating put-down:

Try spending the night sometime
all alone in a frozen room
afterneath you’ve lain
your Saddle in the rain

That “afterneath” is probably the only time on the album where sense is distorted on the level of a single word. It goes by pretty quick unless you’re reading the lyric sheet, but if you were to hear the song out of context it would sound bizarre. But in the lyrical context of the album it isn’t entirely surprising.

The ensuing verse is pretty weird too, and it’s even harder to interpret this in the light of Prine’s Great Days commentary:

I dreamed they locked God up down in my basement
And he waited there for me to have this accident
So he could drink my wine and eat me like a sacrament
And I just stood there like I do, then I came and went
I came and went
Like a bird in a foreign sky
Couldn’t even say good bye
Or come and share the pain
My Saddle’s in the rain

This has a zonked-out prophetic tone that is rare for Prine, but it is quite evocative here, even if, as with so many other lyrics on the album, it’s hard to say what it means.

Prine usually comes off more folksy than prophetic, although I would choose a less condescending word than “folksy” if I could think of one. Once in a while he uncorks something like this, though; in the middle of “Everything is Cool,” a minor song on The Missing Years, we meet with the following lines:

I saw a hundred thousand blackbirds just flying through the sky
And they seemed to form a teardrop from a black-haired angel’s eye

The song slides back into mediocrity after that, but it’s a stunning lyric that sounds a little too creepy to be exactly optimistic, although the song asserts, with whatever degree of irony that the listener wants to detect, that everything is copasetic, even though bad things are happening. In “Saddle in the Rain,” the lyrics just hint at a general condition of misfortune, and I suppose it is probably bad to leave one’s saddle in the rain; even if the words don’t add up to a total statement that could be readily paraphrased, the song does not come off as incoherent so much as cryptic. “Wedding Day” and “Forbidden Jimmy” are more or less gobbledygook, but “Saddle in the Rain” is like a story told in a dream that seems to make sense until, upon waking, it is recollected.

And that’s about the way “That Close to You” works, also, which is to say that it does work, but oddly. A string of similes open the song:

Like a bolt of lightning, like a bolt of thunder
Like a cloudy day down at the zoo
Like a drowning man that will never go under
That close to you, yeah, that close to you

In the end, it seems that being “that close to you” is pretty much a good thing, but even that’s not certain. As for the rest of it, who the hell knows? This may be the weakest song on the album, but it’s by no means bad. If you put this on a mixed tape, you may get some funny looks. But at this point of the album, the listener isn’t entirely surprised find himself being asked to contemplate just how close (humid?) a cloudy day down at the zoo is to someone he loves.

“Middle Man” is a hypnogogic vision of an ordinary day in America, not quite the American “dream” but a precursor to the latter, which makes its appearance with the second song, “Common Sense.” And something like wakefulness only begins to return, slowly, with “He Was In Heaven Before He Died.” The song, then, is a sort of bookend to “Middle Man”—sleep is ending, but it hasn’t ended quite yet, or at least the song is still trailing streamers of dreamstuff as it stretches its way into daylight. Prine’s remarks on the song:

I was writing about friendship. My father died back around when my first album came out. I was thinking about the trips we used to take down to Paradise. We’d cut through Indiana and cross the Wabash River; I wanted to make a specific reference to that. That one started out with the picture of the rainbow of babies over a graveyard. Where do you go from there? I consider that a challenge, though, to paint myself into a corner and then get out. I figured out that what you’re trying to do as a writer is go to places that aren’t so comfortable, that you don’t already know how to get out of.

I’m not sure if he did get out of “Forbidden Jimmy,” but never mind that right now. Paradise is the town in Kentucky whence Prine’s family hails, and which he sings about in the song of the same name on John Prine:

When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay?
Well, I’m sorry, my son, but you’re too late in asking,
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.

“He Was In Heaven” is similar in feel to “Paradise,” with a chord structure and melody that is strongly reminiscent of, although not exactly the same as, the earlier song. As Prine points out, the lyrics of the two songs are directly connected, and the lines of “He Was In Heaven” are rhythmically identical in length to the lines of “Paradise,” so that the lyrics of either song could be substituted for those of the other without needing to revise them. “He Was In Heaven” is in some ways a rewrite of, and a commentary on, “Paradise.” But there’s no rainbow of babies in “Paradise,” which wouldn’t fit in on this album anyway, any more than “He Was In Heaven” would fit in on John Prine:

There’s a rainbow of babies draped over the graveyard
Where all the dead sailors wait for their brides
And the cold bitter snow has strangled each grassblade
Where the salt from their tears washed out with the tide

These lines are just as convoluted as anything else on this lyrically convoluted album, but they need no explanation or justification, which is one reason why the song works well on Great Days. And in the chorus, daylight is finally streaming through the blinds, to continue the motif of dreaming and waking:

And I smiled on the Wabash the last time I passed it
Yes, I gave her a wink from the passenger side
And my foot fell asleep as I swallowed my candy
Knowing he was in heaven before he died

There’s nothing outlandish going on here; we’ve left Funeralville for a funeral back in Muhlenburg County, KY, with nary a kangaroo in a rented tux in the pews. “Heaven” in the tag line is a clear reference to “Paradise,” and this would probably be evident even without the benefit of Prine’s commentary, considering lines like these from the older song:

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waiting
Just five miles away from wherever I am.

The third line of the chorus of “He Was In Heaven” does give us one final twist on common sense; “my foot fell asleep as I swallowed my candy” is a line that’s so ordinary it sounds a little weird. The mundane details of a highway trip are not completely out of the blue after the wink and the smile brings us back from the reverie about dead sailors and flying babies, but they are nevertheless jarring here. That is because their only connection to the emotional state conveyed by the song is to remind us of the ordinary context in which the most extraordinary thoughts and feelings usually occur; the way that Prine’s body suddenly demands consideration in this line is like a crying baby interrupting a sermon.  In fact, my baby is crying right now; if that statement seems out of place in this review (if anything does after the kangaroo), it’s for the exact same reason Prine’s line about candy catches us by surprise.

A perfectly acceptable cover of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” brings us back to earth as it closes out the album. One reviewer, in panning the album, said that this outclasses anything else on the record, but even if I felt like I could evaluate such a claim, it’s hardly fair. “You Never Can Tell” is a song by the first truly great rock songwriter, and is a commonsensical take on common sense: the young folks lack it, except when they don’t; common sense isn’t infallible, and if the old folks have statistics on their side, there’s an exception to every rule, as they say. So common sense even has sayings that cover the situations when common sense fails: it’s usually right, but you never can tell. The song functions here to ease us back into daylight, and is a wry comment on the rest of the album, which puts common sense through the ringer but allows it to have the final word, albeit an ironic one.