R.I.P. Jesse Winchester and all your weird genius

By Robbie on April 12, 2014

Update: I wrote the following in a rush, the day of the obituaries, and since then have thought of many things to revise or add or negate. It's more disheveled than I'd like, and the opinions are weakly substantiated since I hadn't been listening to the old JW records in many years. After refreshing myself the last couple days, listening to the records and singing the 20 or so songs I know best to myself in the car, I have a different slant on some of the subjects I prematurely dived into here. Unfortunately I won't have time over the next week or so to revamp what I wrote. But I will. In the meantime, please consider these caveats as you go.....


I was surprised and saddened to read the news early this morning. I've been an admirer of Jesse's since 1977, when I picked up a copy of Nothing But a Breeze, his post-Carter-pardon comeback record in the U.S. The gently upbeat title song's lyrics exemplify his approach, subject matter, tone, and quirks:

Life is just too short for some folks

For other folks it just drags on

Some folks like the taste of smoky whiskey

Others figure tea's too strong

That's the first half of the first verse. You see the easygoing, almost Hallmarky voice, and the inserted shadow, the breezy suggestion that life is unsatisfactory no matter what your tastes. Life dragging on! "Others figure" is pure Jesse, too, a coy double trochee and sort-of-rhyme, and a strange and cool phrase, since figuring is something one ordinarily does oneself, exclusively.

Another, earlier down-home philosophy tune called "Do It" has an enigmatic chorus: "Do it/'Til you're sick of it/Do it 'til you can't do it no more." Words like "sick" and "rainy" made frequent appearances in Jesse's cheerful songs. He went up to and occasionally over the edge of acceptable sentimentality, as well as contradiction. He tenderly loved language in general -- along with his gentility, mannerliness, and feeling for tragedy, a likely product of his Southern enculturation. Here are some words that showed up in his pop songs and probably no one else's, since 1940 anyway: fevered, bagatelle, vapors, hallucinogens, gilding, rascals, goodness (as in "goodness, you look pretty!"). That was a contradiction, too: his penchant, his aesthetic credo, really, was disarmingly simple and direct words.

A quirk revealed in the verse above: he freely traduced the principle of non-repetition of strong words (that don't begin or end lines). "Some folks...folks...some folks" -- no one else would venture to do that three times without a euphemism for relief -- Hemingway would, but not a professional pop writer. "Wintry Feeling" begins, "Look how the sky's all silver/Beautiful Montreal/And out of a sky of silver..." "Blow On Chilly Wind": "They can talk and talk and talk about us/And smile as we go by/And I know that they've been talking 'bout us/By the look that's in their eye." Of a piece with this, an ease with identities (self-rhyme): "Lo the Hebrew children the Pharoah took as slaves/And used them and abused them, as one will do with slaves." He was ever willing to risk overturning a delicate thought with an unaccountable burst of childish slang -- this kernel from a religious song, "Wake Me": "Be upfront/In all you do/And then just in general whoop-de-do." The mind reels at the absence of self-protective attitude. A silly thought, but if you took Jonathan Richman's hipness away and gave him a soothing and pitch-perfect voice, you might end up with something like Jesse.

Was he a little lazy? Some of his songs and statements (e.g., "Gentleman of Leisure" and the sentiment from an NPR interview, "Thank God I'm not a pop star and have to comb my hair every time I leave the house") suggest he might have been. I can't think of another first-rank modern American songwriter -- Bob Dylan, John Hartford --whose LPs are so speckled with half-realized songs (the afore-quoted "Pharaoh's Army," "Damned If You Do"), weak conceits ("Sassy," "High Ball," "The Nudge"), and goofy near-throwaways (the comic protest against impotent marijuana, "Twigs and Seeds"; the dhumb "Rhumba Man"; "Well-A-Wiggy"). Most of these songs have arresting and worthy features, but it's brazen to throw them on records alongside songs such as "Brand New Tennessee Waltz" and "Mississippi You're On My Mind." If you consider the former the cost of the latter -- to write something as perfectly, audaciously, awesomely austere as "Tennessee" or "Mississippi" you have to have gone through five other audaciously austere but imperfect songs -- then I'd of course pay it happily. Every song by Third Eye Blind is about equally good.

It interests me that Jesse's choruses often have a weak or ambiguous thematic relation to his verses. How did he compose "Nothing But A Breeze"? The chorus is: "There we'd do just as we please/It ain't nothin' but a breeze" -- uninspiring, on its face; if that was your starting-point, you'd seem to have to flesh it out with hedonism, it's-5:00-somewhere celebration, holiday fantasies...but how do you proceed to the life-drags-on verse above? Or the third verse about ageing and losing the interest of pretty women? Jesse was a familiar essayist and a formidable shirtsleeves philosopher, and I believe he understood that he brought his songs more value by letting his mind off leash than by attending to formulaic drudgery such as propping up his hooks with clear illustrative detail and observing foolish consistencies. The verse of "Dangerous Fun" is about a beautiful woman who is immune to his amatory efforts, then comes the fantastically unpredictable life-advice chorus: "It takes patience to walk/And spirit to run/And nothing to pity yourself, but it's/Dangerous fun." 

I feel sure that in the wake of his death a lot of people are going to be remembering Jesse by his lyrics, but a nod to his melodies is in order. Here again his austerity drive, for less and less and simpler and simpler, sometimes went too far for my tastes. "Defying Gravity" has its virtues and its many admirers, but a melody that offers nothing more than a repeated octave-long descending major scale? In Eyvind Kang's hands, maybe. If you listen instead to "Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding," "You Remember Me," or "Biloxi," you can get the full measure of his brilliance, his gift for simple symmetries and for twisting diatonic scales ever so slightly into beautiful new patterns, also his instinct for where the highest note should land -- where on the scale and range of the song, and on what word. His high notes alone would break you down. What a voice! I don't like any of the many cover versions as well as his own extremely earnest deliveries, which is probably partly because I don't accept his lyrical idiosyncrasies coming from someone else, but more because hardly anyone around sang as well as he could. On top of all this, the composing and lyric-writing and singing, his nylon-string guitar work was nimble and creative and truly accomplished. You can see how gracefully (and casually -- never looking down!) he accompanies himself on the Elvis Costello "Spectacle" show, where he performs "Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding."

Jesse recorded under a lot of producers since his first record in 1970. Robbie Robertson, Todd Rundgren, Brian Ahern, Willie Mitchell, and Norbert Putnam all brought something of interest to the table, but in my opinion the imposition of these strong musical personalities tended to create a double-bill situation where I would have preferred to hear -- or would prefer at least to have, within all his catalog, now that he's gone -- a less fussed-over presentation. Learn To Love It is pretty pared-down (and makes good use of the ever-creative Amos Garrett), but generally the self-produced recordings sound a little dense and are marred by a flute besides. It's too bad Jesse never worked under the auspices of a Rick Rubin or Steve Albini; a recordist in sync with the songwriter's own minimalisms would have seemed just the ticket.

If you're unfamiliar with Jesse, have a look at the lyrics to "Biloxi," which I think is one of the finest -- and most authentically poetic -- songs of the 20th century. There aren't many songs whose excellence you can grasp off the printed page, but "Biloxi," with its nearly exact verse-by-verse meter, its interestingly varied line lengths, its absence of rhyme, and its repetition of nouns on the line endings across verses, is one. What a pleasure to see a songwriter describe, plainly and softly. Not emote, not bluster, not polemicize, not show off. Jesse Winchester left plenty of good examples for less-accomplished tunesmiths to emulate, and I hope someone is coming along right now that can assume the mantle of humble, quietly adventurous, philosophical, performing writer -- but I doubt it.


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this monday at the hideout (and last monday at the hideout)

By Robbie on April 9, 2014

Last Monday I didn't get around to posting, and it was House of Stuart/Stewart night, wherein we paid tribute to Stuart/Stewarts of many an ilk: Rod, John, Chad, Martha, Jimmy, Donald Ogden, Little, Dave, Hamblen, Gary, Marty, Al, Copeland, Hamish, Eric, Wynn, Miller a/k/a Rhett, and perhaps some others that have slipped my mind. Apologies to all we skipped over for lack of time and maybe interest: Kristen, Red, the mathematical theory regarding traingle cevians, Mary, Alice, Patrick, Smalley, Smith (though the "Steuart" variant may be a disqualifying factor), Jon, the guy from Big Country, Duncan, Ron, and O'Nan. There's always next year! Or, based on last Monday's turnout, not.

This Monday it's no more "funny ha-ha," back to "funny how few people like country blues music," as I welcome my good friend Eric Noden back for a night of the John Hurt and Bill Broonzy kind of thing, augmented by a generous amount of originals and offbeat stabs.

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hey you in seattle

By Robbie on March 22, 2014

I'll be up there for a wedding on April 19. If anyone has a potential house concert on the evening of the 18th I'm all ears.

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this monday at the hideout

By Robbie on March 22, 2014

A quartet -- Shad Cobb, Ron Spears, Robbie Gjersoe, and me -- will try our hand at some b-grass chestnuts, fiddle tunes, and original songs from my records.

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some thoughts on "Llewyn Davis"

By Robbie on March 19, 2014

Since learning that my cat-astrophe of last week, recounted on my GapersBlock.com daily travelogue, spookily recapitulated an event from the beginning of Inside Llewyn Davis, I decided to catch up with the movie. I'd meant to see it upon release, but it seemed to come and go in rather a flash, and some of the rumbling and downbeat scuttlebutt going around might have dulled my intent. Christine Lavin "hated" it, for portraying a cool and colorful performer, her friend Dave Van Ronk, as a "doofus." Suzanne Vega disliked its compression of the Village folk scene from a multihued vibrancy to a "slow brown sad movie" -- great phrase, and a decently fair description, though "brown" only applies to the neurasthenic emotion of much of the film, which boasts a strongly heightened visual palette. A filmmaker acquaintance suggested to me that I avoid Llewyn because, as he saw it, one more Coen movie with a go-nowhere signify-nothing narrative that justified itself by brazen reference to the Ulysses myth didn't deserve anyone's time or support.

I understand completely that if you knew Van Ronk well (I worked with and dealt with him a few times, happily, but certainly didn't know him well) you'd bristle at an unlikeable character that is based to some acknowledged extent on him, and that if you were a member of the 1960s New York folk scare (in its last throes as I reached Gerdes in 1980) and brought expectations that the film would dramatize that episode and environment, even apotheosize its leading lights, well, you would be bereft. I think what the Coens were up to, with their use of Mayor of Macdougal Street, was taking a few threads and weaving what they wanted to, and I think that's indisputably legitimate. The Glenn Miller Story has its virtues, but this is something else in intent and effect, and I would much rather have seen this non-cheerleading treatment than a celebration of the scene.

The go-nowhere, gratuitously mythogenic criticism is I think a stronger criticism. Directly after the movie ended I felt uncertain about the experience, tepid even. It's not really about plot and has a minimum of character development. But the ideas stayed with me afterward, and to me the film seems most valuable for dramatizing a few propositions that are both reality-based and unpleasant (or antisentimental is perhaps better).

1. Artistic talent doesn't correlate with any other virtue. The protagonist, Llewyn, is candid and intelligent, and his face amusingly records indignation and skepticism, but that's about all you can say on his behalf, besides that every time he picks up a weatherbeaten Gibson and opens his mouth, beautiful sounds issue forth. He manipulates and insults and irritates his family, friends, and lovers. He's selfish, unremorseful, and unreflective. He contributes little tangibly to society but recordings and aborted fetuses. He's largely a cipher. This characterization is doubtless slanderous to good old Dave Van Ronk, but it nails some singer-songwriters, painters, and actors whose names we can all think of without working hard.

2. Most people who get into the business of performing and recording music are brief temporary workers. (Truer then than in the present day, when 20-year-long careers aren't nearly as much of a novelty.) Llewyn's colleagues and competitors are an Army recruit, a woman on her way to a cheerfully anticipated housewifedom, a mountain lady with autoharp, a conditionally skilled flash-in-the-pan (among others) played by Justin Timberlake. All of them except the mountain lady are eager to fit in, make their mark, get their jollies, and take away what fairy-dust they can. Then they graduate to normalcy, after a few years. You can't sleep on couches into senescence; as a song whose writer I can't remember says, "you can't make a living on a song and a prayer."

3. The gatekeepers of the music industry -- club promoters, producers, managers, union reps, agents, label honchos -- are of a starkly different ilk from the performers: a generation older, unidealistic, and with no particular sympathy to or understanding of artistic talent as an isolated quality. I'm not certain how much or how little that has changed since the period of the film. Llewyn's attempts to negotiate and communicate with these people -- most especially F. Murray Abraham's Mitch Miller-esque impresario character! -- are deeply hilarious. Abraham's character advises him to reunite with a partner who has killed himself, and also discloses his affection for another folksinger who dresses nicely and is aggressively inartistic. Bullseye. But, to look at it from these characters' perspective, why should they be concerned with a musician who, sitting in a room with voice and guitar, sounds better than the competition, even if they did register Llewyn's superiority? Their job is to satisfy audience demand, or to protect and fatten their own particular institution. What's more, for every lavishly gifted artist in the music industry, there are 100 others with nonmusical gifts -- anything from closing a deal to wiping a tabletop -- and 400 more with no clear gifts at all, only well-intentioned and with families to feed. By what law should the whole house be torn down and rebuilt for the benefit of one jackass who sings and plays great? An interesting question.

I appreciate how Llewyn Davis reminds us (even if it doesn't capture the entire world of the Village folkies as they experienced it) of the uncertainties of a place and time before history flattens them into a digestible tale with a direction home. We tend to think of Bob Dylan, Van Ronk, and Phil Ochs as natural giants, of their paths as predestined, of their talents as unmissable, of the Village clubs as gravitationally distorted by the presences of these bright stars. But in the period of the film, the Kingston Trio were the commercial pacesetters, a lot of snobs ranked Aunt Molly Jackson over any scruffy amateur tunesmith, and Bob Dylan was hustling to be heard amid Carolyn Hester and the New Lost City Ramblers and so many others. Folk revivalism, like rock-and-roll a few years before, looked like a short specific commercial event, and so, arguably, it was. Jazz snobs (John Goodman's character) and music businessmen had no reason to be loyal to or respectful of it. Into this present-tense world walks a distinguished, not-altogether-shrewd artist and...what happens? This, rather than plot as usually understood, seems to me the animating set-up. What happens then? Frustration, miscues, and incredulity all around. Llewyn acts as though the world owes someone who is as good as he is...something...and we in the audience, steeped in stereotypes and the conventional categories of recent cultural history, instinctively agree that he is, and are unhappily surprised that no one else can hear this music that we can. But, on second thought, we probably shouldn't be surprised. If you sing and play well for some friends, and also lose their cat, it's the latter act that will leave a stronger impression. If you sing and play something that fits into no established category, paying no attention to what an audience has scientifically demonstrated it wants to hear, who is going to line up at your doorstep? Nobody owes you anything, and there's no justice.

I'm not convinced that the over-the-top production design had a strong, necessary relation to the action or the intellectual content of the movie. Why not a grittier documentary look? Maybe there's already enough of that -- Barbara Loden's fantastic Wanda, Stranger Than Paradise, Buffalo 66, and others take a rawer punker approach to confused persons of interest drifting through an indifferent landscape. But I was impressed by the thorny, and, in my experience at least, true-feeling conflicts the movie barreled into head-on.

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