this monday at the hideout

By Robbie on April 16, 2014

It's me and Steve Dawson (Jon Langford, originally slated, will be rescheduled). We'll do mostly songs we wrote. We'll do one by Jesse W. We'll duet on a country song. The leonine Mrs. Steve Dawson will stop by to add some sparkle. Mmm!

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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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