Saturday, March 25, 2017

Prison: Aint No Good Chain Gang

purchase [Aint No Good Chain Gang]

Love can make you a prisoner. Love can set you free.

I got the sense that a search of <Prison> resolved to an inordinate number of country songs. You call it: maybe there's no corellation -I thought there might be one. I've got no money on any side here. I love and wish I could play along with the best bluegrass or country players.  But folklore would seem to side with me: The origin of many outlaws? .... country. Bootleggers? ... country. I won t go deeper - it's not my personal opinion... just [insert Mr Trump] ...fact.

So ... apparently lots of prison experience in the realm of country music. Guess that means  there's a lot of content/first hand expeience to write about.  Perhaps (just thinkin).

We've got Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash here doing a song about time inside: "There Aint No Good Chain Gang".

You might take a few seconds to picture the classic chain gang in order to gain some perspective before you prceed. As a good investigative reporter would prompt you, ask: "who, what, where, when... how?" Heck, even the name of this group pushes my point: what does the name Highwaymen evoke?

The Highwaymen were a "country supergroup" -  Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. This song and its album, however, were produced by a slimmed down group: just Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash

My vision of a chain  gang is the swamps of .... somewhere south. A good place to learn some lessons - that is - if you are of the type that learns lessons in prison. He sings:

There aint no good in an evil hearted woman (true)
I aint cut out to be no Jesse James (probably not)
Dont go writing  hot cheques (well ... yes)

Most likely, if you do, you'll end up <a-laying in jail>

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Rather than dive straight into songs with jail, gaol or prison, I am going to run with the lyrics that alight always in my mind at any mention of prison. I refer to this perennial favourite, by the Darkstar hitmakers themselves. The first version I ever heard, and the one that sticks is the one below, 'Friend of the Devil', covered by Lyle Lovett. This was on my Grateful Dead entry level initiation, on a wonderful and recommended LP, 'Deadicated', a tribute to the band featuring, as well as Lovett, other dignitaries varying from Indigo Girls to Los Lobos, via Burning Spear and Suzanne Vega. It is terrific.

So why did I need this easy entrance? Primarily, fear. As a teenager in the UK, the Dead were a massive iconic template from far way in California. I had read and knew all about them, Haight, the Acid Tests, the Egyptian concerts and triple, quadruple sets featuring, if you were lucky, the aforementioned Darkstar, an old rock and roll standard and, at best, a couple of other songs, spread out and shpongled into epic proportion. It seemed all bit much, a bit exotic for my innocent ears. OK, I got there in the end, actually in my first U.S. jaunt, the sad, usual first american experience of us brits, the wonder(?!) of Orlando. I recall difficulty finding a record store, going on a mini-spree when I found one, jay-walking diagonally across a huge x-roads. Before I knew it I had 3 of their records, including the one with the original version, 1970's 'American Beauty'. (Am I allowed to say it isn't as good?)

I guess I should explain the prison relationship, it being all within the lyrics, a masterpiece of american western gothic, a lyric by Robert Hunter, longterm lyrical cohort to the tunes of Jerry Garcia. (In the interests of fairness, I need to add that New Riders of the Purple Sage guitarist John 'Marmaduke" Dawson also contributed to the song.) I love these story songs of derring do and it is one of the best in the milieu.

I lit up from Reno
I was trailed by twenty hounds
Didn't get to sleep that night
Till the morning came around
I set out running but I'll take my time
A friend of the Devil is a friend of mine
If I get home before daylight
I just might get some sleep tonight
I ran into the Devil, babe
He loaned me twenty bills
I spent that night in Utah
In a cave up in the hills
I set out running etc,
I ran down to the levee
But the Devil caught me there
He took my twenty dollar bill
And he vanished in the air
I set out running etc.
Got two reasons why I cry
Away each lonely night
The first one's named sweet Anne Marie
And she's my heart's delight
Second one is prison, baby
The sheriff's on my trail
And if he catches up with me
I'll spend my life in jail
Got a wife in Chino, babe
And one in Cherokee
First one says she's got my child
But it don't look like me
I set out running etc,
Got two reasons why I cry
Away each lonely night
The first one's named sweet Anne Marie
And she's my heart's delight
Second one is prison, baby
The sheriff's on my trail
And if he catches up with me
I'll spend my life in jail
Got a wife in Chino, babe
The one in Cherokee
The first one says she's got my child
But it don't look like me
I set out running etc.

As ever, the idea of the largely middle class and effete Garcia being in trouble for anything other than his consumables or his tax-return is a little bit laughable, but, hey, rock'n'roll! I have a nagging doubt and concern however as to who, or what was the devil, though. Answers on a postcard.

Meanwhile, get dedicated with 'Deadicated'.

Prison: Jailhouse Rock

As a theme, getting locked up carries a lot of weight and takes on various manifestations: there’s mental prisons of our own making; lonely cells behind actual bars; locks, and chains and the heavy burden of time, doing it and being crushed under it.

It’s really no surprise to see the number of songs related to some variant of the word ‘prison’, not to mention movies. Prison films make up a special genre all their own, and I’m sure you have your favorite. Something about a piece of art that depicts the horrors of losing one’s most fundamental right, their freedom, just begs for a deeper look, and creates in the depiction a purer form of empathy than exists in other genres. Something about being locked away, unable to control even the slightest aspect of your own autonomy, and often subject to the basest of human behaviors, creates in the viewer/listener a sense of fear and sympathy. Simply put, it boils down to: there but for the grace of God…No matter how awful the subject, the lack of freedom makes us pause and wonder. And feel what the prisoner feels.

But, there will be plenty of time to focus on a nice, dark bit of music inspired by prison. For now, let’s have a little fun.

Despite the inherent silliness of this song I’m choosing, or perhaps because the subject leans so precariously toward the dark and the serious, I can’t resist highlighting The Blues Brother’s take on the classic “Jailhouse Rock” for our theme of “Prison.”

The Blues Brothers movie—cable TV ubiquity aside—is a classic. Over the top, gratuitous, destructive, balls to walls in every way, including the straight up marvel of the live musical numbers, The Blues Brothers is one of the films that tends to overcome its own flaws and take on a greater sense of iconic the older it gets.  The musical performances, including Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and more are the strongest aspect of the movie. The all-out musical mayhem and the use of the city of Chicago as a set to pay tribute to some of the great voices of Rhythm and Blues is what make the film. James Brown’s burn down the house preacher scene, Ray Charles’ pawn shop jam, Aretha Fraklin singing R.E.SP.E.C.T in the diner, John Lee Hooker as a street musician. The movie would be great without the addition of the madcap antics of brothers Blues, the Illinois Nazis (“I hate Illinois Nazis!”), the entirety of the Chicago PD force, The National Guard, and the Good Ol' Boys…You know the movie. If you don’t, you should. It deserves the cult status it has earned and for a certain segment of us, the “We’re On a Mission From God” poster was standard décor for the dorm room.

The song itself? If you don’t know it was one of Elvis’ earliest and biggest hits, then you probably don’t know much about music. Here, John Belushi and partner Dan Aykroyd, both musical aficionados and true fans in real life, use the movies to enact their own living, breathing rock n roll fantasy while paying tribute to the King, much in the same way they did with other greats, such as Sam and Dave and Solomon Burke. A lot of people viewed the Blues Brother’s musical venture with cynical scorn: two Hollywood goofs play acting their way through a vanity project. But with the heavy weight additions of some of the aforementioned greats, a legit backing band, and a true love for Rock ‘n Roll, Soul and the Blues, the Blues Brothers output, at this far remove, seems like a lot more than shtick. And, their first album, Briefcase Full of Blues, did actually reach number one.

“Jailhouse Rock” is the end scene of the movie, last in line for a lot of amazing musical numbers. While most of the movie was done in Chicago, and was, according to Aykroyd a tribute to the city itself, the finale was shot in LA. Somehow, the entire band ends up prison, thought it was only Jake and Elwood that got arrested. Joe Walsh, from the Eagles, plays the prisoner who jumps up on the table and starts the riot.  Its not the highlight of the film but it is the Blues Brothers doing what they did: down and dirty R&B that passed for the real thing, because it is.

As for the original, by Elvis—have you ever listened to the lyrics?  It’s a great rock song that features that indescribable shuffle and strum that only the King could spin, the beat that changed the sound of pop music ever after. It’s such an iconic piece of musical history, the covers of it run into the thousands (Search Spotify if you doubt me…). But honestly, its an odd song, content-wise, and I always wondered about it. According to Rolling Stone, the “…theme song for Presley's third movie was decidedly silly… kind of tongue-in-cheek goof. The King, however, sang it as straight rock & roll, overlooking the jokes in the lyrics (like the suggestion of gay romance when inmate Number 47 tells Number 3, 'You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see')..." I feel like I need to add, not that there’s anything wrong with that, and there isn’t, but, seriously:  the song has forever struck me as odd, simply for the fact that it does seem to be a strange, poorly told, and in poor taste joke, that despite his uber-cool, Elvis really didn’t get what he was singing.  Maybe that’s an indication of the times, maybe there’s noting wrong with keeping an innocent sense of what the song is. Maybe we should just focus on the sound: the clock-work rhythm, the punchy up-down guitar, the spin out drums and Scotty Moore’s quick-step riff or wailing solo. When a song is as instantly iconic and recognizable as “Jailhouse Rock”, does it really matter who sings it (movie stars), or what it really means, so long as it gets played? And really, great songs, or movies, don’t really need to make sense to be good.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Prison: Prisoners of Their Hairdos

Christine Lavin: Prisoners of Their Hairdos

My recent run of television-related posts would suggest a discussion of The Prisoner, one of the great TV shows of the 1960s, and one of the first shows designed to blow the viewers’ minds, and I still might, but while it had a theme song (with a great credit sequence), it really wasn’t a music based show.

I’ve also recently written elsewhere about Jason Isbell’s cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak,” so that’s out. As I perused my music library, I came across this song, which I hadn’t listened to in years, and which reminded me that you don’t need to be in a cell to be a prisoner.

Christine Lavin has been on the folk scene since the 1980s, and while she has had a long, successful career as a singer-songwriter, she never had the sort of national breakout that some of her contemporaries like Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman or Shawn Colvin, although she is incredibly well respected in the folk music world. Lavin writes mostly about relationships, and while she can write seriously, she is probably best known for her sense of humor. Many of her songs are laugh out loud funny. I sometimes wonder if her lack of fame stems from the fact that women folk singers are stereotypically supposed to be sad, tortured souls, and Lavin’s humor prevents her from being taken seriously. But that’s really too bad, because she has consistently written and performed great songs, not all of which are jokey.

In addition, she has long been an incredible supporter of other musicians, playing them on the radio, and working with them. I remember listening to her as the first host of WFUV’s Sunday Breakfast, playing music by artists she liked, sometimes even unreleased tracks. Even after friend (and fellow former WPRB Program Director John Platt) took over the show, Lavin would send him music to play, and she occasionally would sub for him. As much as I loved listening to John, which I don’t get to do as much since the station, in a bad move, pushed him to Sunday evening, when sports, TV, life and dinner usually take precedence (sorry!), it was fun to hear Lavin’s unique style every once in a while.

“Prisoners of Their Hairdos” is on the funny side of Lavin’s musical spectrum, and points out that some people’s coiffures are so distinctive that:

If they changed the way they combed their hair 
They'd never be recognized anywhere 
They're prisoners 

Lavin lists Crystal Gayle, Dorothy Hamill, Don King, Lyle Lovett, Gloria Steinem, Stevie Nicks Leon Redbone, Pee Wee Herman, Tom Wolfe, Pope John Paul, Ted Koppel, and Mary Travers as hairdo prisoners, and I’m sure we could think of more recent ones, since the song was released in 1991. An amateur golfer/more amateur president comes to mind…..

The song points out that ZZ Top are, similarly, prisoners of their beards, and Dolly Parton is a prisoner of her…….wigs. But, on the other hand, the B-52’s beehives, she suggests, are prisoners of the band.

There was a time where I had a great deal of hair, but time and genetics has rendered me almost bald, and now I keep my hair short, for ease of care. Typically, when I go to the barber, she asks me, “what do you want to do?” And my response is usually, “there really isn’t much you can do.” My daughter’s father-in-law (English really needs a word like machatenester or consuegro) shaves his head daily, and has tried to convince me to do the same. I’ve declined, because I don’t want to become a prisoner of my baldness.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Prison: The Midnight Special

Leadbelly: The Midnight Special


Coming off a lively week here last week, we now have one of the richest themes popular music has to offer. Prison is such a popular theme, I think, because it implies a yearning for freedom. Certainly, that is true of my first selection.

In choosing a version of The Midnight Special to present, I had almost 100 years of recordings to consider. Leadbelly is often credited with having written the song, but the earliest known recording is from 1923, before Leadbelly’s time. Leadbelly was the natural choice for me however for two reasons: his great performance was the first to popularize the song, and he was black. That is important, because this song is about an essential part of the black experience in America. When Leadbelly sings, “If you ever go to Houston/ You better act right…”, he goes on to describe behavior that only landed his narrator in jail because of the color of his skin. Today, a black teenager can be shot for reaching into his pocket for a bag of Skittles, so The Midnight Special is, sadly, still relevant. Credence Clearwater Revival did a brilliant cover of the song that made it a rock classic, but some of the resonance of the lyric could not help but be lost because the song could not have been about their experience.

The Midnight Special in the title is a train that passes by the prison where the narrator is living. It is an interesting symbol for freedom, since a train is, in a sense, a prisoner of its tracks, able to go only where they take it. Indeed, if a prisoner was somehow able to get to the tracks and jump a freight train in the night, the police would begin their search in the places the train goes, making the escapee easier to catch. But trains can also remind the listener of the Underground Railroad, so they are a powerful symbol of freedom. The writer of the song, however, probably wasn’t thinking that deeply. He just saw a light that belonged to something that had the power to take him away from his situation, even if only for a while.

Prison: Harbor Lights

Purchase <Harbor Lights >

Critics pretty much panned Rock Love, calling it Rock Bottom, not much to love. But, you might cut Steve Miller just a little slack: the album was marketed without his consent. While he was laid up after his motorcycle accident.

Me? At around that time, I did a lot of listening to Steve Miller - culminating with the Joker and slowly going downhill from there, even though I guess he's better known for Fly Like an Eagle and Abracadabra.

Harbor Lights is kind of morbid - the last lines/thoughts of a death row in-mate. In its favor is the acoustic treatment and vocal harmonies: none of them great, but decent enough to warrant a trip down memory lane to lead off our new theme,

Middle: Cody Jinks, Somewhere in the Middle

Somewhere In The Middle, by Cody Jinks Cody Jinks—that name, it’s made for country music. Texas-bred Jinks looks and sounds the part, too: massive, mountain man beard, 10-gallon pulled low over the eyes, and a deep, Waylon Jenning’s inspired baritone that comes out either bourbon smooth, or low and rough, like a long, rutted gravel road. Lyrically, Jinks covers the kind of territory that only a voice like his could: sin, redemption, regret, hard luck and bad choices, counterbalanced with sincere love songs that traverse the territory of the heart and soul with a soft, gentle tread.

Jinks has an interesting history, which he often addresses in his songs (the whole of his catalog has an auto-biographical quality). While he dwells in traditional territory now, far from Nashville and closer to his predecessors like Cash, Jennings and Haggard, he made his bones in a thrash metal band called Unchecked Aggression as lead singer and guitar player. The difference is striking. That deep, low-voiced delivery and his often minor-chord guitar combine, among other musical elements, to deliver something that is off-kilter in the most pleasing way, yet still rough and raw and full of gut feeling . Outlaw magazine (I love that title!), described Jinks’ music as “ majestic and ethereal while remaining somehow bareknuckle.” That’s an apt descriptor for Jinks’ take on traditional country—it’s a feeling, bone-deep, rather than a sound, a sense that pervades the whole of the aural landscape it creates. Jinks, along with his band The Tone Deaf Hippies, work in a rare panorama of mood and impression, dark, brooding, yet suffused with a honky-tonk balladeer’s sense of looking up from the bottom and still seeing the good.

“Somewhere in the Middle” comes from the 2010 self-released Less Wise (Jinks is homegrown and grass roots: he started out releasing his own music and making a name the old fashioned way: grinding it out on the road and making fans one by one). His 2016 I'm Not the Devil reached number 4 on the country charts, which is something that strikes me as one more telling note about Jinks’ homegrown appeal. The song itself—that’s why we’re here, right?—is a classic barroom ballad, a lilting waltz set to a backdrop of fiddle, steel guitar and Jinks’ beautiful slow rolling, low timbre drawl. Jinks is a phenomenal narrative writer and he tells stories populated by lost, down and out souls. He works in the tradition of a storyteller who takes autobiography and mixes it with traditional story elements to create a deep history of knowing insight and universality of theme for ghost chasers, big dreamers and lost, yet hopeful wanderers. Great narrative writers who play guitar and sing are often compared to Springsteen or Dylan, and I know that kind of comparison often draws a telling sigh that means, OK, here we go again, another wannabe…But, that’s the lament of the undereducated and the unappreciative: when it comes to telling tales of characters that leap off the page (or, the turntable in our case), there’s no better way to hear their stories than set to music. Cody Jinks’ is a natural when it comes to creating a visual biography. “Somewhere in the Middle” is a song that dwells somewhere between regret and satisfaction at one’s station in life, and how arriving at the place, in this case, the middle, depends a lot on what happens in a life where nothing is certain. Jink’s narrator tells us about the places he’s drifted and he’s learned from living a wanderer’s life. More importantly, the speaker seems to have found himself by getting lost, and in the people he’s met along he way:

I’ve known a lot of real good men, grad school or no school
I've called em' my friends
I'm somewhere in the middle and that's just fine. 
No, I don't give a damn how much money you make
If your last shirt has pockets, take all you can take
I'm Well, I'm goin' out with nothin' like I came in

That refrain, “I’m somewhere in the middle, and that’s just fine”, says it all: Jinks’ character has built a life from what he’s learned. And while being in the middle is fine, he also knows

Treatin' saints and sinners right
Is a good thing to do all the time
You never know who you're talkin' to
But always know who's watching you
Keep your feet movin' straight down the line

So, in the middle, somewhere else, wherever, if Jink’s brilliant brand of country teaches you anything it’s this: keep your eyes, and ears, open and keep your feet moving—there’s a lot of world out there, lot of people, too, and all of them have something to offer if you stay on the road long enough to find out.

As a side note, in January, Jinks released his brilliant take on the Pink Floyd classic, “Wish You Were Here” as a single. Seek this song out—it’s a perfect example of how Jinks does country: classic style tinged with a purely original touch to create what amounts to wholly original and perfectly familiar. That’s enough adverbs for one day…my ‘l’ and ‘y’ keys need a break…but sometimes, great music gets me all effusive…