Drive-By Truckers: Zip City
[purchase Southern Rock Opera]
There is one member of my family who would be disappointed if I had the chance to write about songs that begin with the letter Z and didn’t write about “Zip City,” maybe my son's and my favorite Drive-By Truckers song not written by Jason Isbell.
In the early days of the Truckers, Patterson Hood dominated the songwriting, but Mike Cooley’s smaller output was often more memorable. I once saw a quote from Hood somewhere in which he essentially said that he wrote tons of songs, not all of which were great, and that Cooley wrote fewer songs, and they were all great. I can’t find the damn quote, but I know I saw it. And if you look at the commentary that Hood writes about all of the band’s albums, he invariably refers to a Cooley song as his favorite on the album. Sure, there is a bit of modesty there, but I honestly believe that Hood is sincere.
The new English Oceans, released today, has 13 songs, 7 by Hood and 6 by Cooley—but for the first time, Cooley sings a song written by Hood. Stuff like this is just manna for fans. I could have streamed the new album, but I’m waiting for my CD to arrive (hopefully in today's mail) before listening to it. I’ve liked what I have heard, so far.
But back to “Zip City,” from the Truckers’ breakthrough album, Southern Rock Opera. This was the album where a band that wrote songs like “The President’s Penis is Missing,” matured into one of the great American rock bands. Using a slightly fictionalized version of the Lynyrd Skynyrd story as a jumping off point to discuss perceived misconceptions of the South, modern southern mythology and the power of rock ‘n’ roll, it is an album that grows on me every time I listen to it.
“Zip City” is probably the Cooley song that fans most want to hear, and I think the band plays it at most every show (the version I posted is from a 2010 show at Webster Hall in New York that I was lucky enough to attend). And it is great live. Despite that, being somewhat of a contrarian (polite for “smartass”), the song is omitted from Cooley’s live solo album, The Fool on Every Corner,” which was released in late 2012. And it wasn’t like he didn’t play “Zip City” during the live performances that were used to create the album. Here’s proof. He just chose to leave it off.
What makes “Zip City” such a great song? Start with the story—although at the base, it is a classic tale of teenage lust, there is a twist. The seventeen year old narrator displays incredible maturity—he knows that he is never going to marry the girl, and he resignedly tells her to keep her drawers on, because it just isn’t worth the fight. And add to that the overlay of the narrator’s recognition of the hypocrisy of his girlfriend’s father, a church deacon, and the subtle references to the aimlessness and boredom of the narrator’s life. But then there are the lyrics, which are typically brilliant. For example, after telling his girlfriend that she should keep her drawers on, the singer predicts the dead end life his girlfriend faces:
By the time you drop them I'll be gone
And you'll be right where they fall the rest of your life.
The bleakness doesn’t stop there—Cooley describes her family like this:
Your Daddy is a deacon down at the Salem Church of Christ
And he makes good money as long as Reynolds Wrap keeps everything wrapped up tight
Your Mama's as good a wife and Mama as she can be
And your sister's puttin' that sweet stuff on everybody in town but me
Your brother was the first-born, got ten fingers and ten toes
And it's a damn good thing cause he needs all twenty to keep the closet door closed
I particularly like his description of the closeted brother.
There’s more, but better you should listen to the song, which, according to Hood is “90% true and is my personal favorite song on the album.”
And, if you want to learn more about the actual locations in the song, and see pictures, check out this blog.