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15.04.2015 admin
Tom Waits doesn't release songs like Day After Tomorrow, which is one reason people listened so closely when it appeared on his 2004 album, Real Gone. Of course, on my second listening, I remembered that Waits' wife, Kathleen Brennan, grew up in Johnsburg, Illinois, which is close to Rockford and even closer to my own home town. Thinking of the lines as having been written by an Illinoisan subtly changes the meaning of the words.
When I was a college boy in Tucson, Arizona, I went to at least a hundred poetry readings, including perhaps a half-dozen readings by a poet named Alberto Alvaro Rios. Kathleen Brennan is from just this side of a border, a place where someplace else is always just over the horizon. In Day after Tomorrow, Waits and Brennan's soldier suddenly finds himself thinking of his hometown, old Rockford town, as if it were that mythical world on the other side of the border.
It might seem funny that anyone would think of Wisconsin as a default location for some kind of Valhalla. For one thing, my parents were from there — they met during WWII while bowling in downtown Milwaukee.
Once, a relative was bitterly complaining about FIBs, so I pointed out that the airwaves in Illinois were fully saturated with appeals to Escape to Wisconsin — constantly.
The song has a mysterious power to make you hit the repeat button over and over and over again, endlessly. I see now that the song is apparently about Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, which was founded by a family that did indeed have twins — Elizabeth and Mary.
But two white sisters were held by a group of Potawatomi Indians in 1832 — one of the most famous and influential incidents in the nasty, confused series of massacres and skirmishes known today as the Black Hawk War. It's troubling how little the schools I attended taught me about the pre-European history of this place so full of Native-American-derived place names, as well as cigar-store-Indian kitsch.
Later in the song, the Black Hawk War is somehow seen, if not quite recognized, on the evening news in the work of European settlers like Illinoisan John Wayne Gacy and Wisconsinite Jeffry Dahmer.
Waits seems to have deliberately painted Johnsburg as a place that exists mostly in his imagination — the kind of Midwestern farming community any Californian might imagine.
Of course, it could very well be that this confusion between the person, or town, and their image is what romance is all about.
In a sense, the soldier in that oversees war in Day After Tomorrow has gone from thinking of his hometown as a resident would to thinking of it as an outsider might. When I first started hitting the old stuff hard, I mostly listened to blues from the 1930's through the 1950's. Of course, my joke here is how these raunchy blues tunes supposedly fooled somebody at some point (who or when, I don't know) into thinking they were only about food (or deep sea divers, or horse jockeys), when in fact they were also "secretly" about sex.
Editor's Note: This is the sixteenth installment of my frenzied attempt to post something or other to The Celestial Monochord every day for the entire month of February without winding up like Katerina Ivanovna. But in terms of its ideas, the song has always kept me slightly distracted by little logical puzzles, trivial calculations. Time zone calculations — they're the kind of thing your mind does when you're far from home. Of the few cuts Henry Thomas recorded in his lifetime, a lot of them play this same magic trick on me, keeping me distracted with calculations while they prepare to hit me in the gut. I wouldn't put such knowledge past Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas, as he must've been pretty experienced in navigation. Songs like "Lovin' Babe" and "Red River Blues" are easiest for me to understand when I hear them in the context of the Underground Railroad — they are urgently, desperately focused on celestial navigation and the clock, the technical cornerstones of both freedom and imperialist empire. Clocks and Spoons is a worksong, not for the prison work crew or plantation field hand, but for the office worker.
In Clocks and Spoons, Prine is still tackling the problem he's been working on for much of the album — how to capture, like a fly in amber, what night feels like to him.
These first two albums show the marks of having been recorded at the height of an old-time string band revival — a late-1960's and early-1970's phenomenon that seems almost totally forgotten today.
In 1949, wonderfully introducing his equally wonderful recording of The Last Gold Dollar, Bascom Lamar Lunsford calls Gold Dollar "rather an elusive banjo tune." By now, I've come to think of Lunsford as having coined a name for a sub-genre — The Rather Elusive Banjo Tune. On the other hand, the back-to-the-land theme and with the hybrid rock-folk arrangement also remind me of other developments in music in the early 1970s.
I'm thinking of the laid-back LA singer-songwriters who had escaped to Laurel Canyon (Crosby, Stills Nash, & Young, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, etc.), and the parallel experiments rock musicians were conducting in Nashville (Dylan, Gram Parsons, the Byrds). It would be worth someone's while to go at Prine's first two albums this way — as artifacts from a particular moment in the history of the American music business. In any case, even if I could get it all sorted out — Nashville and Laurel Canyon in the early 1970s, Hank Williams of the 1950's, who Prine's father loved so much, the folk revival his older brother Dave seems to have been a part of, the folk it revived — I'd still be left to wonder how it could all somehow get folded up and be made to fit effortlessly inside the act of turning out the light at the end of a long day of delivering the mail. Readers of my series on John Prine's second album ("Diamonds in the Rough") may want to know that Arif Mardin died yesterday. The Great Compromise seems designed to be the climax of Diamonds in the Rough, to demand our fullest attention.
It turns out my resistance to the song is really part of a larger issue — how meaning works, or should work, in popular song. But many of Dylan's — and probably Prine's — listeners think they're hearing an encoded message, a hidden song that could be exposed if only you knew the code.
But much like Souvenirs and Billy The Bum, I've warmed up to this song over the decades, and particularly during the Bush years. Since the song was written, we've seen so many "celebrities" publicly "pick sides" on so many issues. No matter what I said earlier about meaning, the real job of the listener, here, is to contend with what it must have meant to Prine to write this song — to compare love of country with spending "the night in that sick woman's room" — to write that down on paper. My dad was a huge Hank Williams fan and I think, at the same time, that I was trying to learn songs — Hank Williams songs — so I could sing them for my dad, so he'd know I could sing. Take the Star Out of the Window seems to have a public face and a private life, and they're fiercely at odds with each other.

On its face — that is, its overall sound — the recording is a catchy sea chanty, among the most gleeful and snappy guitar-mandolin duets I know of. One reason for the long pause in this series on Diamonds in the Rough is that it's taken me a while to decide what Take the Star Out of the Window really is, musically.
Ultimately, the most influential of all the brother acts was The Monroe Brothers, whose junior member would "invent" Bluegrass during and after World War II. I wish I knew enough about country music to say whether this fiddling is more Hank Thompson than Bob Wills, or whomever. The song is another of Prine's border-line parodies, this time of a honky-tonk jukebox record.
Being a honkytonk record, after all, the beat has to come down heavy, so you can feel it in a noisy juke joint even if you can't actually hear any music.
John Prine writes a song like The Frying Pan now and then — strong shades of parody, joyously silly (even stupid), and irresistibly appealing. The lyrics to The Frying Pan are wildly unambitious and seem like they may have been made up on the spot. John Prine understands that the ordinary details of everyday life are where all the drama and meaning are. The last door-to-door salesman I remember seeing was an actual Fuller Brush Man who came to our door when I was around nine. Appreciating a Prine song –- or any song –- requires more and more research, explanation, and imagination the older the song gets.
Bluegrass is lurking in all the arrangements on Diamonds in the Rough, but only The Frying Pan puts it at center stage.
Around 1999, after I'd pretty much memorized the Anthology of American Folk Music, I was starving for more blues and hillbilly recordings from the 1920's.
Initially, I was a little impatient with them — a bit embarrassed, disappointed and amused by their commercialism and their hokiness. With the first statement of the chorus, Bromberg begins dubbing over (I assume, unless he's playing with his toes) the sliding dobro that gives the song much of its countrified twang.
By this point, I've come to decide that it's a defense mechanism, this tendency not to really hear the lyrics of these old-style sentimental songs.
When the morning newspaper appears in a Tom Waits song, it's usually to complete a still life with eggs and weak coffee.
Each time, he would tell the same old story about growing up in Nogales and playing a childish game of walking in two countries at once — literally, one foot in the USA, one foot in Mexico.
Maybe such people know exactly where to locate their mythological worlds — over on the other side. I can't speak for Kathleen Brennan, rather obviously, but when I was growing up in Illinois, my family always had Wisconsin on its mind in a way. As a result, my parents' respective home towns seemed like bizarro worlds where people spent every day of their entire lives wearing clip-on ties, going to lengthy Catholic services, and then getting ecstatically drunk.
Every Illinoisan who crossed the border was awarded an Escape to Wisconsin bumpersticker and encouraged to hurry back.
It's a very weird song, almost a nonsense song, that makes sense on a level no other song makes sense. I suspect that power might derive from the song's evocation of place — it conjures the experience of occupying that particular borderland in a way you never thought possible. But those place names and that kitsch and the beauty of the Wisconsin landscape swam around in my head my entire life.
There was no telling how long ago any of this history happened, or whether it really happened at all, or whether it ever even stopped happening. Back then, Brennan and Johnsburg were new to Waits, comparatively, and Brennan didn't yet have the kind of intimate involvement in the writing that she does today.
He plays a character who can't tell the woman from the photo, the community from the Rockwell painting. The war experience has transformed him from a resident of the border town, like Brennan, to a dreamer of a mythical place, like the Waits of 25 years ago.
They mirror the song's emotional roller coaster, a volatility that rises in the narrator, but is unprovoked by the action in any plot.
Like most magic tricks, they use misdirection — Henry Thomas will sometimes keep me puzzling over celestial navigation until he's got me in tears.
And a good reminder, among other things on these albums, is this back-to-the-country theme. A place to start would be with Kris Kristofferson, who's often said to have "discovered" Prine, and who had one foot firmly in rock, the other in country.
Senate and the House of Representatives, instead of just one or the other — hence, the compromise.
But back in the 1930s, what mattered most about Bill Monroe was his fiddle-influenced handling of the mandolin, which almost immediately revolutionized the status of the instrument:They sang higher and played faster than the others.
Steve Goodman always told me that if I'd taken another couple of minutes and put a chorus to the song — there isn't any, just a tag line to every verse — that it would have been a hit country song.
They relate the tragic tale of a man who comes home from work to find that his wife has left him.
But the details of everyday life keep changing with surprising speed –- you realize this more the older you get.
I dimly remember his case full of brushes, as well as the feeling he created that buying some brushes was absolutely inescapable. It requires more and more of the listener’s participation and knowledge to make the full meaning and pleasure happen. Steve Goodman provides the requisite smokin' bluesy guitar solo and high-lonesome backup vocals. So I sought out recordings by many of the same performers Harry Smith had put in his collection.

These earnest, stiff numbers told tales full of pathos about drowning sailors, dying orphans, childhood cottages never seen again. But after listening closely to dozens of them, researching the origins of several of them, and having a few conversion experiences with them (I guess you'd say), I've come to love them. The Carters recorded these sentimental parlor songs more often and more movingly than anybody ever has.
In no small part through the influence of the Carter Family, country music is heavily based on them (what do you get when you play a country record backwards?). I hear it within a tradition that's well over a hundred years old and that I've taken deeply, if cautiously, into my emotional, intellectual, and maybe spiritual life. The first verse again establishes John Prine's firm flat-picking, accompanied by David Bromberg on a second acoustic guitar. Also on each chorus Dave Prine enters, turned down very low in the mix, singing back-up vocals in a strained, high-lonesome wail, like a far-off cry in the wilderness. But given Prine's body of work and the religious themes he's explored so frankly, I think we're bound to take this portrait seriously. If we took them literally, pictured them, read them over, took them at their word, they'd cut too close to the bone.
And, regardless of what else might be said about them, it's no wonder that these Revivals are continually experienced by their participants as a burning away of some vast, heavy haze of sanitized corporate nonsense to reveal something that finally, at long last, matters. But Day After Tomorrow is a beautiful anit-war song — politically disheartening, spiritually uplifting, and about as moving as anything Waits has ever done.
His folks back home wouldn't believe how shoveling snow and raking leaves now seem to him like that gold at the end of the world. FIBs were known for driving drunk, littering, and being loud and disorderly — even more so on all counts than native Wisconsinites. And what chamber of commerce wouldn't thank a writer for naming such a song after its town? Songs like John Garfield, Torch Singer, and Billy the Bum try to convey what night is like, what afflictions and freedoms it entails — what's at stake in nightfall. Writing about this old-time revival, Thomas Carter writes:The music was the first step back to the land. The first words Sara Carter ever recorded were "My heart is sad and I'm in sorrow," but the song was an irresistibly jaunty jingle.
Charlie's bass runs on the guitar were snappy and attracted attention; Bill's mandolin playing, with its speed and dexterity, was unique. Should we think seriously about a song that couldn't even get recorded with a straight face? I think this is why the songs on Diamonds in the Rough seem so meaningfully, precisely, poignantly located at a specific point in the past.
I very distinctly recall my mother once asking me to tell him I was home alone while she was, in fact, hiding nearby. That’s why it makes sense to me, at least, that popular song first became high art in the context of a Folk Revival.
This open, spacious, adaptable meter is what allows the complex, synchopating, polyphonic, collective noodling of a bluegrass band — and it also allows that band to “stay together,” to remain in close conversation with itself. The result is a banjo that sounds simple, old, and sincere, if somewhat bound by circumstances. And there, beyond the Anthology, were many astonishing surprises for which the Anthology had not really prepared me. Trapped among such people by his physical disabilities and his shame, Billy, a real fluorescent light, cried pennies on Sunday morning.
Like Alberto Rios, my family and I never quite got beyond straddling that border, growing up in two places at once. Whether Prine knew it or not, Take the Star Out of the Window taps into the estranged character of American folk music to portray America's mindset during Vietnam. I guess I may be from the last generation of John Prine listeners who will have direct experience with Fuller Brush men at the door.
And Dave Prine plays the most recognized of all bluegrass signatures — a 5-string banjo with a resonator back, played with three fingers and finger picks. It also sounds like the banjo-playing that David Akeman and Earl Scuggs did in Monroe’s band in 1945 and 1946.
In the late 1920's, white folk musicians made sound recordings of them for the first time, their original copyright status long forgotten. He consistently reminds us that disillusionment is a more potent political force than mere disagreement with others. The closest recording I could think of was "Is It True What They Say About Dixie," recorded by Steve Goodman and Jethro Burns five years later. The solo spot after each chorus is taken by another instrument, passing the spotlight around from one bandmember to another. The Frying Pan sounds like a portrait of bluegrass represented exactly at the moment it became itself. But if this is right, his work presents us with a rare and fearsome portrait of a blazingly angry and disappointed, public-spirited, and wildly playful faith. Patterson)In terms of its arrangements, Diamonds seems to embody this old-timey, nature-fantasy more than the first album, which was recorded with Nashville studio musicians. No doubt, his sitting alone in the bar getting ever more drunk is itself the development, the twist in the relationship that happens during the course of the song.

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