A PARTING GIFT FROM THE MIDNIGHT RIDER (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #109)

I confess I didn’t know that, in his last decade on the road, Gregg Allman, became only the third singer to really understand “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”  Dozens, if not hundreds, have tried, including a lot of gifted Yanks (Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin, who did probably the best sounding version) and the Yankeeest Southerner who ever lived, Johnny Cash (who proved you could be that and still be loved by the Southernest Southerners and who, perhaps for both those reasons, was completely confounded by the song on every level).

Out of all that and much, much more, only Levon Helm, Tanya Tucker and Allman got all the way inside it.

I offer a mea culpa as I assumed he was an oldies act.

Instead, he went down swinging, or at least figuring out it should have been “we was hungry” all along.

TANYA TUCKER’S MYSTERY ACHIEVEMENT (Segue of the Day: 4/11/2015)

Of the select group of singers who have been known to keep me up all night (you know, get me thinking I’ll just listen to an album or two round about midnight and still be on the player when the sun comes up, which is, believe me, the only way I ever get to see the dawn), only two have kept me up trying to figure them out.

That’s a very different quality than loving someone’s voice, though of course that has to be the foundation. I’m not gonna spend all night with somebody I merely like a lot. All three of my friends can tell you….I’m just not that kind of guy!

Anyway, one of those singers is surprise, surprise, Elvis Presley and over the years I’ve at least come to some sort of conclusions about his place in the Cosmos, some of which I’ve shared on this blog.

Somewhere along the way, I flat gave up on Tanya Tucker.

I even stopped listening to her all night (though admittedly this has something to do with how little of her best music is available on CD and the mysterious curse on my string of den-ready record players). I never forgot mind you. Never forgot how good she is, or how strange she is. And, before I stopped listening all night, I had long since dismissed any notion that she was merely eccentric, after the manner of Prince or Dr. John or Frank Zappa, not only because that style of studied accentuation of a persona never much appealed to me but because it just didn’t suit her at all.

She was great enough to be as great as anybody and strange enough to take all kinds of purely musical risks, not a few of which left her flat on whatever a singer falls on when they slip on the proverbial existential banana peel.

Also great enough and strange enough to find that little space the ordinary genius doesn’t find.

In other words, a lot like Elvis (who, yet again being uncannily-astute-even-if-he-was-just-being-polite-too, once called her the female version of himself).

On record this quality might have showed itself as subtly as the way she dug in at the very end of an otherwise note-for-note copy of Linda Ronstadt’s by then standard arrangement of “When Will I Be Loved” and not only cut away the difference between her very good voice and Ronstadt’s spectacular one but actually upped the ante.

Or it might have showed itself as completely devoid of subtlety as the in-your-face way she called up the harsh, pitiless desperation in John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” which a singer as fine as Bonnie Raitt had essentially treated as a folk song about an old person we ought to all feel sorry for and which even Prine had sung from the outside looking in.

It might have even come from as far out as the absolutely natural way she leaned on the key lines in this…

…which would have been a joke–or a folk song about a young person we ought to feel sorry for–coming from anybody else who ever lived. Coming from her (a superstar prodigy who hadn’t lived in “the real world” from the age of thirteen and hadn’t exactly lived a normal existence for a long time before that) it cut straight under the scar tissue covering the soul of every wild child you ever tried to look down on because you could take one look and know she was going to wind up in a Tanya Tucker song some day.

I don’t know. Seemed like worth staying up all night for to me, trying to get to the bottom of all that.

But, as I say, at some point I let it go.

I still listen, of course, but I never got a handle on her.

And I never will.

Last night I was running around YouTube, trying to piece together some sort of theme relating to why all my favorite living country singers are women just a few years older than me: Jeannie Kendall (b. 1954), Pam Tillis (b. 1957), Patty Loveless (b. 1957). And, of course, I was going to put Tanya (b. 1958) in there somewhere.

Then I ran across something that stopped me cold because it was the old, weird Tanya again, smoking up an Orlando club some-time in the eighties. I’d seen some of the footage from the concert before (there’s a version of “San Antonio Stroll” from the same concert which I’ve always been fond of that beats Miley Cyrus’ latest career moves by thirty years and every other kind of way).

I might have even seen this before.

But I never really heard it.

Maybe I had the not-quite-there version from her 1982 live album, (so familiar from those long ago all night sessions, which were by no means limited to what I liked because with Tanya half the time I didn’t even know what I liked), too firmly lodged in my ear.

Maybe YouTube isn’t the best venue for critical reassessment. Maybe the fact that she used Joan Baez’s folk-song lyrics instead of the Band’s hard-scrabble history lessons (“so much cavalry” for “Stoneman’s cavalry,” “I took the train” for “By May the tenth” and so forth) was calling up the rock snob in me.

Maybe no man could be expected to pay strict attention to the way any woman is singing when she’s getting away with an outfit that wouldn’t sell ice-to-an-Eskimo on anybody else the way it does on her.

For whatever reason, I probably listened before, but I definitely didn’t hear.

I heard it this time.

I very especially heard the way she finally put the rebel yell back in the song.

I heard what Levon Helm deliberately suppressed (he wasn’t in a position to let any Yankees think he was talking about them…not in 1969 with a review in Rolling Stone pending that might make the difference in whether he died rich as a rock star or poor as Virgil Caine) and what Joan Baez (a fair candidate for the Yankeeest Yankee in Yankeedom) couldn’t have conjured even if she had somehow imagined its existence.

In other words, the girl who had sung the New South anthem, “I Believe the South Is Gonna Rise Again” (oh, but not the way we thought it would back then) and the neo-Confederate anthem “I Still Sing the Old Songs” (where the south that the singer wants to see rise again is precisely the one “we” thought about back then) with equal spine-tingling conviction, had come to a place where a setting that was half Vegas-warm-up and half barn-dance-stomp seemed like as good a chance as any to assume the position that Dixie never got drove down at all and to hell with you if you think it did.

Believe me when I say that it’s a rare white Southerner, however enlightened, who doesn’t get this, just as it’s a much rarer white Southerner than you might think who isn’t secretly glad the Yankees won.

And lest you think it’s even that simple, bear in mind that, if you flip around YouTube a little longer, you’re likely to run across this next video, which I confess I had all but forgotten about and which sprang from the Rhythm, Country and Blues project in the nineties.

That was one of Nashville’s periodic attempts to pretend the hard, segregated line its generations of suits (with admittedly some collaboration from artists and audience, though that’s complicated, too) started taking almost ninety years ago doesn’t really exist.

Little Richard, one of the artists the particular line drawn in the late fifties had been especially designed to exclude (a line so rigid it left Elvis and Brenda Lee and the Everly Brothers on the far side of it, kicked to the curb so to speak, even though they were Southern whites recording in Nashville with the same producers and musicians everybody else used and were, basically, the biggest pop stars in the world), was finally to be invited inside the tent.

And if you didn’t want that to be fake, or awkward, or embarrassing in either the musical or political sense, there was exactly one Nashville hit-maker you could call.

Gee, who do you think that was?

The female Elvis maybe?

More especially if you hoped to sell ice-to-Eskimos live on television with a thoroughly bemused let’s-all-try-to-get-through-this-now Vince Gill introduction…

 

THE THINGS THAT SHOULD CHANGE SO RARELY DO….(Levon Helm and Poly Styrene R.I.P.)

The Band “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (studio)

X-Ray Spex “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” (studio)

Searching for information on the death of Levon Helm (drummer and foremost lead singer of the Band) I found one of those “this time a year ago” links to the April, 2011 passing of Poly Styrene (principal writer and lead singer of X-Ray Spex).

Before this accidental mash-up I don’t think much ever linked these respective cults in my brain or anyone else’s.

Even the size of the cults was substantially different. The Band got gold records in their heyday. That’s how far rock had got by then. A very few years later, punk of the sort Styrene epitomized helped change all that. It was the hammer that–for better and worse–eventually smashed the rock world the Band personified into atoms.

And any linkage that exists now, in this everybody’s-internet-my-brain moment, will undoubtedly fade within days or weeks, as it surely deserves to.

But one thing that sticks in my mind right now and might stay stuck there for a while is the utter absence of even the slightest hint of flash or style or wit from the numerous tributes the atomized culture tossed up to either artist in their first hours on the other side of the greatest divide.

In an hour or so of dispirited searching, I found nothing in April, 2011 or April, 2012 that suggested the best music made by either Helm or Styrene left even the slightest alteration in the numb voices that are hired to provide contextual gauze on such occasions. Thus, a year ago, we got  “her simple but powerful message was that it was OK to be different because everyone is special.”  (From Dave Simpson at The Guardian), or, last night, “Watching him, it was easy to believe his mighty groove and massive grin could burn off any disease. For a while, it seemed, it did.” (From Will Hermes at NPR).

Switch a pronoun or two and one tribute could be substituted for the other.

Perfectly representational statements. Perfectly sincere and perfectly hollow.

I never got close to Poly Styrene’s music, but the message of “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” was anything but simple and in no way reducible to a simple declarative statement of any kind–not even to suggesting that anyone who caught thinking of it’s “okay to be different because everyone is special” as any sort of actual message is just the sort of hopeless maroon who deserves a beat on the obit-desk in this world Germfree Adolescents failed to change nearly enough.

Wherever Poly Styrene is, I hope she’s not amused.

As for Helm–well, all I can say is that every time I heard or saw him in the last ten years, he looked and sounded like he was at death’s door, a very long way from being a threat to “burn off any disease.” And–for this non-Yankee at least–his long-held “professional Southerner” pose didn’t wear any better in his creaking, twilight years than it did in the three or four or five decades prior.

That doesn’t take away from his real accomplishments, which ranged from being the sort of drummer who could actually keep the sprawling elements of the Band’s best music strung together in some sort of cohesion to the only man alive who could ever have made “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” bite all the way into the bone back in ’sixty-nine to the only artist on last year’s fine Hank Williams tribute who could keep up with Patty Loveless (that is to say, the only artist who did more than could be expected–sometimes, being at death’s door has its advantages).

The idea that Helm or Styrene might have been in any way complicated, failed, possibly unblessed–either as artists or people–seems to have been completely submerged long before either passed away and it’s probably unrealistic to expect their deaths to be an occasion for reassessment. It seems sacrilege now (especially among the nonreligious) to suggest that their rare moments of brilliance got their very sting and might from their proximity to failure–from being measured as they were against all those vast, becalmed stretches of non-stinging, non-mighty, not-brilliance.

From being, in other words, one vital part of the essence of what rock and roll has always meant to so many who were born to be kicked.

I may or may not ever write at length about “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” or “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”–but they’re the sort of records I started this blog to celebrate. Idiosyncratic, revelatory, disturbing, surprising, potentially life-changing. Not foreseeable until their existence made them seem inevitable. All that sort of thing. And I know there are probably lonely voices on the internet right now celebrating Helm and Styrene as they deserve to be celebrated–as the sticky wickets they actually were.

It’s just too bad–all these years down the road, with plenty of examples to guide us–that such voices still can’t quite seem to reach the middle of the stream.