Take a toke of QUILT
The brilliant indie/folk/psychadelic band Quilt has released their third album Plaza this year but this track from their second release Held In Splendor serves as a perfect intro to their music. The video is gorgeously underproduced and also works as a salad recipe. Consistently trippy with strong harmonies and poetic flourishes, this is as close as you’re gonna get to the 60’s today. Caution: A paisley shirt may seem imperative after this. And try not to fall in love with the gorgeous Anna Fox Rochinski. Stare too long into her eyes and she will draw you into an endless Sunday picnic under peppermint skies and reefer trees…
which is not a bad thing really...
“How can I proceed with thee?
This eastern harbor's full of grief
All my heavy dreams are simply a luxury
Horses in the pepper tree and the lighthouse floating in the sea
Newborn forms are weightless like doves
Everything will regenerate as it was
All your heavy hearts are simply illusory
They will find an open shell in which to grow and set you free
Mourning how a frozen thing can thaw and turn to brine
Salty workings in a restless process of the mind
Form becoming weightless like doves
Everything will regenerate as love
Not the kind you think you know and not the kind you learn
The arctic shark is living free in the coldest part of the Eastern Sea
All my heavy hearts are simply illusory
Finding time to trust them turning right side up inside of me”
Prince Rogers Nelson or Prince or TAFKAP or the Love Symbol was a musical behemoth straddling Rock/Funk/ R&B/ Soul/Pop/Gospel/Blues and everything in between. His musical influence will never truly be measured because it is so vast. His own influences were equally widespread but the most visible was Little Richard. The most tangible impact of his music on popular culture is ‘sexiness’. He made a lot of music from the waist down. He posed nude for the cover of ‘Lovesexy’ and wrote songs of unabashed sexiness like ‘Head’, ‘Sexy Motherfucker’, ‘Cream’, etc. He was also continuously engaged in a battle against the tyranny record labels which is why so little of his music is available online.
So a fitting tribute would be one of the sexiest videos of recent times. Australian act Tame Impala are one of the most exciting musical outfits active today. Tame Impala was started by founder Kevin Parker in 2007 as a home recording project but soon grew into a full fledged band. They have enjoyed both commercial as well as critical success in the last few years. This 2015 video is directed by a Barcelona production house called ‘Canada’. They also directed the video for Phoenix ‘Trying to be cool’ in 2013.
Soundtrack for a Shotgun Blowjob
I am glad this first post is happening today, just a few weeks after the death of a bonafide country legend, and just a few days after an album release by one of my favorite artists in recent years. On the 6th of April, Merle Haggard left to pick his guitar in greener pastures, and on the 15th of April, Sturgill Simpson released A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. I do believe this album is a landmark in more ways than one given that it marks a new direction for country music, and also heralds the mainstream arrival of a singer-songwriter bound for greatness. It also ensures that the fans of Merle, Waylon, Johnny and Willie still have music that they can get excited about.
I have a special place in my heart for country music even though it has its origins in a far off land that i’ve never known. Country music developed in the Southern states of America particularly around the Appalachian mountains. Atlanta was the early cradle of country and although essentially played by white musicians it drew heavily from blues music. The Great Depression drove record sales down so radio shows became the popular medium for music. Amongst the most popular shows was the country music showcase the Grand Ole Opry which runs to this day with the tagline -“the show that made country music famous”. Thousands tuned in to the show from line dancing cowboys in Texas, to hepcats in Chicago, to fancy Hollywood-types in California. Soon country music responded to diverse influences and took off in various directions -rockabilly, honky tonk, bluegrass, gospel. In the fifties the nerve centre of the popular country sound shifted to Nashville, Tennessee, the home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Years ago, on a marijuana-fueled night of infinite memory, i “remembered” living in Texas in one of my past lives. I recalled dying after falling off a horse at the age of eighty two. Now one may or may not believe in reincarnation but most will believe in horse riding accidents (though they mightn’t have been in one). If my fevered imaginings have a kernel of truth in them, i guess i probably tuned in to the Grand Ole Opry too.
The country music i was first introduced to was inevitably Kenny Rogers, Don Williams and John Denver, but it was only when i heard Johnny Cash that i felt it really touch a chord. The joke about a country song being played backwards and your girl coming back, your car coming back, your home coming back hardly held true with Cash’s songs. They were much darker than mere complaining about some trivial absence. For trivial indeed was the loss of everything when compared to what Cash seemed to be losing- his soul. Cash had a troubled relationship with drugs and his maker. He was a devout Christian but his songs spoke of death and dying, cheating, drinking, and brawling, and his voice carried the tone of a man who is glib enough to put a cigarette to his mouth while having a debate with God…and then ask Him for a light… or maybe even walk up to Jesus on the cross and offer him a drag. Truth be told, Cash did his fair share of the country music staples, he even covered The Gambler (though i have always felt he would have shot that mofo if he as much as touched his whiskey). But he was at his best on songs like Long Black Veil, The Beast in Me, Folsom Prison Blues, and Delia’s Gone.
In later years Cash seemed to have made his peace with the Great Cowboy in the Sky singing songs of redemption and prayer, even writing a Christian novel. But he is not servile and cowering before the Almighty, just talking to a friend. There is a familiarity with death and mortality in his music that i find honest and strangely comforting. Despite his impressive catalogue of gospel songs if one word were ever required to sum up Cash, for me that would be -‘unrepentant’. He was congenitally defiant and it was a defiance that seemed at times to be at odds with his own better judgement. The unrepentant Man in Black made one final musical statement before bowing out as he took a Nine Inch Nails song and made it his own singing:
“What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt”
Johnny Cash also sympathized with people who had run afoul of the American legal system. He performed a string of concerts at prisons and many were recorded and released as albums. In 1958, as he performed at San Quentin Prison he left an indelible impression on a young inmate incarcerated for attempted robbery. That inmate was 21 year old Merle Haggard. Later Merle said of Cash-“He had the right attitude. He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards—he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.”
This music had a Bukowski-like contempt for all artifice. Though on the flipside, this was a music that was overtly masculine, it didn’t really offer any solace to the meek, mild, or timid. Yet it was not what it didn’t offer but what it did that drew me to it. This kind of country music made it okay for me to be an asshole. It made it fine that i would often be drunk at 6AM. It made it okay to be broke yet have enough money to smoke forty cigarettes a day. It was okay to be the idiot your older siblings thought you were. It was also okay to want to kill yourself but not have the balls to do it. Fine if you wanted to drive off a cliff, cut a vein, or as i liked to tell myself -“give a blowjob to a shotgun till the shotgun came”
I couldn’t really go back to listening to Kenny, Don and John after listening to Johnny. John Denver had, in fact been a divisive figure in country music with so-called country purists accusing him of being too pop, or not country enough. It is widely believed that the silver fox Charlie Rich set Denver’s winning ballot on fire at the CMA Awards in 1975 for this very reason. Frankly, Charlie seemed drunk out of his mind, you be the judge:
It is undeniable that the course John Denver set contributed greatly to the increase in the popularity of country music. His music was instrumental in the later mainstream success of Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and the like.
However that was not the country music i was listening to. I ran through the Hank Willams discography. Then my tastes veered to the bare country sound that had come out of the Southern Californian city of Bakersfield. The Bakersfield sound was a reaction to popular heavily produced and orchestral sound coming out of Nashville (often referred to as 'Countrypolitan'). The audio signature of this reactionary new sound was the twang of the Fender Telecaster and a picking style as opposed to strumming. A backbeat gave it a raw and edgy appeal. Among the many musicians influenced by this style of music were John Fogerty and Jerry Garcia. At the forefront of the Bakersfield sound was Merle Haggard.
Merle was inspired to take up music seriously after hearing Cash in prison. As far as badass country musicians go Merle was the real deal. Whereas Johnny Cash wrote about and performed in prisons he only ever served one night stints in jail and that too on charges like trespassing on private property to pick flowers, car crashes, or carrying drugs without prescription. Merle was imprisoned for a string of thefts and brawls right from his teens. In fact one drunken attempt at robbery was typical of his amusingly reckless ways. Merle and two of his friends tried to break open the back door of a restaurant believing it to be 3AM and being sure the establishment was closed. It was actually 10:30 PM and the place was open.
His travails early on in life are exemplified in the 1968 track Mama Tried:
“And I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame 'cause Mama tried”
A string of number one hits followed- Sing Me Back Home, Legend of Bonnie and Clyde, and Hungry Eyes.
However in 1969 Merle recorded two of his most popular yet controversial songs. The songs saw Merle become the establishment that he had been at cross purposes with all his life. He sang in support of Vietnam war and against marijuana and the Hippie movement sweeping America. Okie from Muskogee and The Fighting Side of Me would probably qualify as hate crimes today. Merle himself admitted 2003 -“I had different views in the '70s. As a human being, I've learned [more]. I have more culture now. I was dumb as a rock when I wrote 'Okie From Muskogee'. That's being honest with you at the moment, and a lot of things that I said [then] I sing with a different intention now. My views on marijuana have totally changed. I think we were brainwashed and I think anybody that doesn't know that needs to get up and read and look around, get their own information. It's a cooperative government project to make us think marijuana should be outlawed.” Yet, the Hippie crowd at the time, specially at the club- Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas, accepted Okie From Muskogee as a kind of 'in' joke, a sarcastic statement. The song was a huge hit.
Music offered Merle redemption and a chance to leave his criminal past behind. He embraced the opportunity and was given an unconditional pardon from all his crimes in 1972 by California governor Ronald Reagan. He continued to make great music well into the 2000’s. In an ironic turn of events Merle was one of the musicians who jumped to the Dixie Chicks defense when they were hounded for criticizing George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Life had come full circle for the Okie from Muskogee.
But in the early seventies, while Merle was singing contempt for the shaggy haired flower power folks in ‘Frisco, two of his contemporaries were celebrating all that the movement had to offer in terms of lifestyle and music. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were country’s mercurial new talents and one of the greatest friendships in all of music. They were writing great stuff and smoking better stuff. Their talent was the hottest thing on country music scene but the record labels didn't know it. They rejected the country convention of ‘short hair and hard liquor’ for ‘long hair and drugs’ .
Willie had moved to Texas after feeling stifled in Nashville. He grew his hair and beard began playing a pared down, honest music at the iconic Austin club- Armadillo World Headquarters. The crowd at the the club was divided between Hippies and Rednecks. The music of Willie Nelson got these two disparate groups together. He would go on to become one of the greatest songwriters of all time.
Waylon was signed to RCA , a Nashville label, but rebelled against attempts to control his music saying- “They wouldn't let you do anything. You had to dress a certain way: you had to do everything a certain way.... They kept trying to destroy me.... I just went about my business and did things my way.... You start messing with my music, I get mean.” He joined Willie in Texas and they started playing and touring together. The result was similar to Bakersfield but edgier…and it was brilliant! A magazine called this new music Outlaw Country and the name stuck. Outlaw Country was essentially a rejection of the polished Nashville lifestyle.
“Lord it's the same old tune, fiddle and guitar
Where do we take it from here?
Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars
It's been the same way for years
We need to change”
Waylon met the songwriter Billy Joe Shaver and started recording at Tompall Glaser's independent studio Hillbilly Central. This configuration provided the Outlaw Country with its signature sound. However, life on the road was an uphill struggle and Waylon has troubles with finances and a bout of severe hepatitis. Yet he pulled through. The outlaws were flawed but made no attempt to hide it. Their songs spoke of good times, love, addictions, and heartbreak and stayed away from preaching. The crowds at their gigs kept getting bigger and their playlist expanded.
In 1976 RCA decided test the Outlaws popularity and released a compilation of songs called Wanted! The Outlaws featuring the songs of Waylon, Willie, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glasser. The result surprised everybody. It went on to become country music’s first platinum album and remains one of the greatest albums of all time:
Wanted!' made superstars out of Waylon and Willie. They swept the Country Music Awards and now had more control over their music as the record companies stepped back. They also changed the way people dressed as cowboy hats and boots became popular across America.
Outlaw Country was a label that was soon also applied to Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Hank Williams Jr. But Waylon, who had refused to live by other peoples expectations all his life, was somewhat irked by trying to live up to an image. It was left to him to provide this classification with a fitting epitaph:
“I'm for law and order, the way that it should be.
This song's about the night they spent protecting you from me.
Someone called us outlaws in some old magazine
New York sent a posse down like I ain't never seen.
Don't you think this outlaw shit has gotten out of hand?
What started out to be a joke, the law don't understand.
Was it singing through my nose that got me busted by the man?
This ain't it, this outlaw shit has gotten out of hand, out of hand.
I never felt like a fan of these musicians but more like a friend, a kindred spirit. And that was part of what made this music universal in its appeal. What Johnny, Waylon, Willie and all the other so-called outlaws did was to reach into the heart of country music, take out its moral compass, and shoot that shit straight to hell. But this wasn’t an act of malice because that compass was never the real thing. It was a cheap imitation and rigged with magnets hidden in the plastic casing. Everybody knew it needed to be broken and stomped upon. And what better boots to stomp on it than the musical spurs of Waylon and Willie. Kay Kyser’s may have jingle-jangle-jingled but theirs went twang.
Right up there with the best country albums ever are Waylon's 1973 releases - Lonesome, Ornery and Mean and Honky Tonk Heroes. What Waylon Jennings guitar work achieved is a simple purity that has withstood the test of time. What Waylon Jennings voice achieved was to be strong and vulnerable at the same time. Waylon had played guitar in Buddy Holly’s band before his country career. In fact, he gave up his seat on that plane the day the music died. One may not believe in destiny but most will believe in plane crashes (though they mightn’t have been in one).
Waylon Jennings was one of a kind. So on the 13th of February, 2002 when he set off on the final long ride into the sunset after brawlin’ with diabetes i thought that such a thunderous, rebellious, yet affectionate and tender voice would never be heard again. Which is where Sturgill Simpson comes in.
The first i saw of Sturgill Simpson was when i stumbled upon a youtube video of him performing at the Sun King Brewery. In front of a wall of beer cans his band ripped into You can have the Crown before slowing it down a touch for Some Days. Both are down-and-outer anthems speaking of addiction, poverty, procrastination, suicide. Standard country stuff. But its the booming voice and the words that elevate this stuff above the ordinary:
“Well now Lord if you can hear me won't you throw a damn dog a bone
Cause if the Devil shows up with a better deal this old soul's going down
I sing 'em real pretty I sing 'em real sad
All the people in the crowd say he ain't half bad
They call me King Turd up here on Shit Mountain but if you want it you can have the crown”
Sturgill Simpson was born in ’78. His father was a policeman and mother came from a family of coal miners. Sturgill served three years in the US Navy before he formed a bluegrass band in 2004 that enjoyed only moderate success. In 2013 he released his first album High Top Mountain.
It is difficult to listen to High Top Mountain without noticing the similarity in voice to Waylon and similarity in sound to Merle. The same tough-guy-in-hard times swagger is there in the tone of the album but the words are anything but familiar And he’s aware of it! In fact he says so himself it in the opening verse of the album:
“Well that label man said son now can you sing a little bit more clear
Your voice might be too genuine and your song's a little too sincere
Can you sing a little more about outlaws and the way things used to be
He told me you just worry about writing them songs leaving everything else to me”
In general, High Top Mountain stays pretty close to the script but there is enough evidence of Sturgill’s unique gifts and superlative talent throughout. His singing style relies on underplaying to the extent of losing a few syllables. Yet when he pushes the pedal to the floor the result is exhilarating. He manages to draw on some deep inner pain and anguish to elevate the vocals of Water In a Well to goose-bump inducing heights. He sings songs about his grandfather with an earnest and sincere affection that would make outlaws squirm. And then he lets himself have a good time on Poor Rambler, adding some ragtime piano for good measure:
“When my Earthly trials are over
Throw my cold dead body in the sea
Tell that false hearted lover of mine
That the whales are gonna fuss over me”
If there is one overarching impression of Sturgill that is formed by High Top Mountain it is that the singer is a sensitive, tender, and loving family man. The album is named after a cemetery where many from his family are buried. Yes he has had his run in’s with drugs, alcohol and Mary Jane but thats not what defines him. He is not bashful about his lack of bluster, in fact he celebrates it-“Well the most outlaw thing that I've ever done was give a good woman a ring”. Yet the sound is most decidedly Waylon-Merle.
Sturgill Simpsons second album was released in 2014. The title Metamodern Sounds in Country Music alludes to Ray Charles seminal Modern Sounds in Country Music that influenced a whole generation of country and R & B musicians. Metamodern Sounds’ reduced me to tears. It is the most heartfelt, elegant exploration of drugs, depression and the human experience undertaken with a few musical instruments and one Samurai katana of a voice. If one were to read the lyrics of Metamodern’ before listening to it, one might think it would be pretentious and labored. But that voice carries the honesty of an inner quest and imbues every word with a sincerity that is hard to resist.
The first song Turtles All The Way Down (which incidentally references the first chapter of Stephen W. Hawkings “Brief History of Time”) is a laying bare of Simpsons questions about mortality, theology, and life. This is not just deviation from the country music of old, it is a launch into another planetary system. And its freakin' brilliant:
“There's a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there beyond this plane
Where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain”
It would be easy to be a skeptic but Simpson just does not give you the luxury. This is not mindless psychedelia, this is the fruit of an authentic mystical experience. And it is not just Christian but also Buddhist terminology that is being used. The lyrical adventure continues on Let It Go:
“But am I dreaming or am I dying
Either way I don't mind at all
It feels so good you just can't help but crying
You have to let go so the soul can fall”
Sonically too, the album deviates liberally from the template. The ghost of the Bakersfield sound is there but its just stopped by to ensure that Nashville hasn’t blunted Sturgill’s edge and it does a great job of that. The songs are well produced while still managing to sound wild and free. Laur Joamets on guitar experiments continuously to set up a parallel narrative with Simpsons voice. The guitar rampages wildly in the intro to It Ain’t All Flowers and warps into a distorted wailing on the Buford Abner penned Long White Line. The highlight in terms of vocals is the cover of When In Rome’s The Promise. Simpson slows the song way down and holds back through it but then roars into the penultimate chorus with thunderous abandon. The highlight of the album however remains Turtles All The Way Down. Simpson is deeply influenced by Dr. Rick Strassman's book The Spirit Molecule and a lot of Terence McKenna audio lectures.and the results are evident:
“Every time I take a look inside that old and fabled book
I'm blinded and reminded of the pain caused by some old man in the sky
Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT they all changed the way I see
But love's the only thing that ever saved my life”
Metamodern Sounds’ is an album that would prove a hard act to follow for most artists. I mean when you've covered the Reptile Aliens and the Buddhist Bardo (intermediate state between two lives)…where do you go after that? Well Sturgill became father to a son and released his latest album 5 days ago. A Sailor's Guide to Earth is and earnest attempt to make sense of the life-changing event that is fatherhood. It is also an attempt to give his son something of intrinsic value in a transitory universe. Sonically it is majestic.
When I first heard Sailor's Guide’ I was a little taken aback, disappointed even. Where the hell were the outlaws? Why had they left the backup band? Were they all out mourning Merle?
Then I heard it again, and again…and again. They were all there. They were sitting in a New Orleans bar slouched over their guitars. Willie had passed around a doobie and everyone had zoned out. A lot of people joined them at their table - some motown folks, Alan Watts, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations…hell, even The Boss showed up. The doobie didn’t help him none though, three long drags and he was still raring to go. Cobain took his finger off the trigger. And there in the middle of this crowd…in the center of all the smoke, and the alcohol, and god knows what else…was a little crib with a baby boy in it.
Sailor’s Guide’ unsurprisingly draws a lot from Sturgill’s days in the US Navy. Going by the premise of songs to his son one would expect some sentimentality here but Simpson, as ever, never falls off that precipice. Even the tender welcome is grounded and restrained. Sturgill adds ‘Pollywog’ in parenthesis which is Navy slang for newbie. Halfway through it veers into a hard Motown groove courtesy Brooklyn’s Dap Kings brass band. And the groove runs through a good part of the album.
Sea Stories takes us through his Navy days and a tour of Southeast Asia. He rattles off the names of all the ports he’s visited to tell us he’s seen the world…from the inside of a bar. His conclusion after his years spent in the service of Uncle Sam:
“But flying high beats dying for lies
In a politician's war”
The album also includes an audacious cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom. It’s slowed down to a crawl and the vocals are sweet and lyrical. Its gloom seeps in deeper (dare I say it) than the heavy guitars and vocals of the original.
Another standout is Breakers Roar, an oddly comforting meditation on the illusory nature of life. It is almost lullaby that takes you to the brink of the abyss and shows you the light behind the darkness:
“Thoughts turn to a love so kind
Just to keep me from losing my mind
So enticing, deep dark seas
It's so easy to drown in the dream”
If ever i do decide to give that shotgun a blowjob, this is what will be playing on the sextape.
For the last song on the album everyone on that crowded table ‘round the crib is given a Red Bull and asked to join Sturgill on stage. The Boss is the first one there. A Call to Arms is as rambunctious a protest song as you’ve ever heard. The Dap kings pull out all the stops and so does Sturgill:
“Wearing that Kim Jong-il hat while your grandma’s selling pills stat.
Meanwhile, I’m wearing my ‘can’t pay my fucking bills’ hat”
In the last lines of Sailor’s Guide’ Sturgill shows us a mirror and then shows us the door:
“Nobody’s looking up to care about a drone
All too busy looking down at our phone
Our ego’s begging for food like a dog from our feed
Refreshing obsessively until our eyes start to bleed
They serve up distractions and we eat them with fries
Until the bombs fall out of our fucking skies
Turn off the TV
Turn off the news
Nothing to see here
They’re serving the blues
Bullshit on my TV
Bullshit on my radio
Hollywood telling me how to be me
The bullshit’s got to go”
A Sailor's Guide to Earth is much more than damn nigh the greatest country album of this century, it is a great music album. At a time when country is well served by the likes of Chris Stapleton (from whose song this blog gets its name), Kacey Musgraves, Natalie Prass and Jason Isbell, it makes the whole genre definition in music appear pointless and silly. It's honest, heartfelt and it's independent. It is mainly a Sturgill Simpson album. And Sturgill Simpson always is the real deal. I know there are a lot of indie acts out there making great music but Sturgill never sounded like an indie act even when he was self-funding his first album. He made his music with a self-assuredness that comes when you are the same person inside out. He knows, just as it should be for everyone, that the most important person in his life is him. He is casually going through the motions of becoming one of the greatest artists of our time.
For someone who doesn’t play any musical instrument my relationship with music has been fairly stable and long lived. Starting with the LP records that my father played on an old turntable, to the cassette tapes that most of my school pocket money was spent on, to CD’s that one thought would last forever, and now to mp3/flac files on my computer. There was a brief period (three days actually) when i ran away from high school to pursue a life in music. However, like most dreams, it ran into common sense, parents and older brothers. I am fond of various types of music and can listen to a record continuously for months (and sometimes never listen to it again). It still is amazing to discover, enjoy, and share new sounds and voices from all over the world; a pleasure made easier by the all pervasive power of the internet. Harnessing this same power to get to the two or three people who are even vaguely interested in what i share is the reason behind this waste of bandwidth.