Saturday, May 16, 2020


I was going to go off on one again, lambasting and/or lampooning the various bouffant topped orange faced men leading the free(!) world, but, no, the targets too easy and all that. Plus our own UK mini-me version is looking decidedly pasty of late.....

Dangerous Man

So it is to Dwight Yoakam I turn, even if the lyrics of this song seem oddly prescient for the folk I am shunning in this post. Dwight is a maelstrom of a country maverick, and a conundrum, in that is he is or his he ain't? Is he a bona fide retro country-rockabilly honky-tonk throwback, or is he a polished opportunist with an eye for a gap in the market, seizing the niche between rock ('n'roll) and country, his break through coming at a time when Nashville was all smooth-croonin' "hats"? I incline toward the latter. For a start, as a born Kentuckian, the style he gravitates to is 100% true to that state, even if he was brought up largely in Ohio. He staked an initial claim in Nashville, ahead of slinking away to the West Coast, deemed far too rowdy for the dishes of the day. L.A.'s heady mix of cultures and countercultures was ideal for his energy, performing alongside acts as diverse as X, The Blasters and Los Lobos. Much as, in a way, had George Frayn's Commander Cody a decade before.

Of course, he looked the look, impossibly tight jeans, sometimes of leather, encasing his stick thin legs, a denim jacket and a permanently welded on 10 gallon hat. Yet, rather than aligning him with the dreary Nashville sludge in similar headwear, intriguingly this set him apart. I bought his debut, Guitars, Cadillacs, etc, etc, the expanded vinyl of the original EP, much as soon as I became aware of him: as ever I suspect was probably a piece in New Musical Express or a slot on TV's Old Grey Whistle Test, neither verifiable today, that had alerted me. This was 1986 or 7, and i was ever vigilant for crossover fertilisations, loving equally, if confusingly, folk, country and punk. The Joe Ely association with the Clash had earlier been a huge fillip to the validation of my tastes. And what a buy it was, one part rollicking roustabouts, one part beery country weepies and one part classic covers. Yoakam's yelping delivery, a yodel seeming only ever a hiccough away, was one part of the draw, the other being the searing guitar and arrangements of right hand man (and producer) Pete Anderson. More of him later.

It Won't Hurt

It would have been maybe five years later before I could catch him live, his appearance in an early afternoon slot at Glastonbury being a highlight of that years festival. By now I was expanding my interest in and expanding my collection of cover songs. Yoakam had already made for a credible presence on the Grateful Dead tribute, Deadicated, and I was then lucky enough to chance upon a copy of Croix D'Amour. This does not appear in all of his discographies, being a non U.S. release only, and, not that I realised it then, a compilation of earlier released tracks, including his alluded to version of Truckin'. With eight of the twelve songs being covers, I was in clover. He remains the only person ever able to instil any joy into the anodyne formulaicism of Queen.

Crazy Little Thing Called Love

Over the years I have continued my watch on him, spotting his appearances in not a few films and TV shows, broadly playing versions of what I imagine to be himself. He has released a regular outpouring of recordings, sometimes his own work, often more covers projects, including covering the work of his musical inspiration, Buck Owens, and several repackagings and reworkings, notably his acoustic and near solo In all of this one might forget quite what a great songwriter he is in his own right. Chris Isaak, no slouch himself, cites Yoakam "as good a songwriter as ever put a pen to paper". At the time of writing he continues to remain an active force for good, even if current tour dates are banjaxed. But, if you can't hear him play live, at least you can eat his biscuits, something you can't say for all your favourite stars!

Close Up the Honky-Tonks

Finally a brief word, as promised, about Pete Anderson, by Yoakam's side as rudder, between 1986 and 2002. This extraordinary multi-instrumentalist has become, through his sheer ubiquity, a guarantor of quality across the varied boards he treads. Think of all those guitar runs across most of the songs featured here, all him, the hickory smoke to Yoakam's BBQ wings. Scan this list of all his other projects and prostrate yourself. Here too is a good interview, covering, in part, the years the pair worked together.

Light blue touch paper.....

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Mayday/Danger: Help Me

Joni Mitchell: Help Me

If you believe Wikipedia, the use of the word “Mayday” as a distress signal began in 1921, when a radio officer at Croydon Airport near London was asked to come up with an appropriate word, and because much of the air traffic then came from Paris, he settled on “Mayday.” derived from the French word m'aider ('help me'), a shortened form of venez m'aider (“come and help me”).

So, it is appropriate that we discuss Joni Mitchell’s song “Help Me,” from the great Court and Spark album (which also includes “Free Man in Paris,” which doesn’t appear to relate to air traffic, but which did supply this blog with its name). A breezy, jazzy tune, it was written and produced by Mitchell, using the fusion band L.A. Express as the backing musicians. “Help Me” was Mitchell’s highest charting hit—at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, it was her only top 10 hit, and it topped the easy listening chart. Joni considered “Help Me” to be “a throwaway song, but it was a good radio record. My record companies always had a tendency to take my fastest songs on albums for singles, thinking they'd stand out because they did on the LPs. Meantime, I'd feel that the radio is crying for one of my ballads!”

Not to turn this into some sort of treatise on sexual mores, but as one commentator noted:

Like the erotica of Anais Nin, the songs of Joni Mitchell have been a move, in a world generally dominated by men, to express the experiences of physical and spiritual love solely from a purposeful woman's vantage point. Through an often-angry admission of her emotional weakness for and dependence on the opposite sex, of her foolhardy miscomprehensions and unrewarded acts of faith, and of her ability, however imperfect, to make the process of self-love and the search for romantic fulfillment compatible, she has forged a fresh image of the autonomous female artist. It is not a political representation, tied to trends or to movements like Women's Liberation, but a forceful announcement of her own singularity. She began by embodying the archetypal fair-haired hippie-chick singer, ornamenting the male folk-rock enclave, taking lovers (Graham Nash, James Taylor) from among her associates, yet making it plain that they were her peers, that she claimed co-ownership of the experiences, and that she reserved the right to think out loud about them. Mitchell, like the rest of the obstinate rock and roll community, was on the way to satisfying herself, and she made no bones about it. 

I note that this excerpt, from the 1988 book Rock Lives, by Timothy White, appears on Mitchell’s personal website, and probably wouldn’t be there if Joni thought it was hogwash. And it is clear that Mitchell’s love life was quite varied. This 2017 Washington Post review of David Yaffe’s biography of Mitchell, Reckless Daughter, which also appears on Mitchell’s website, points out:

Mitchell's list of lovers boggles not because of its quantity but its quality: Leonard Cohen, David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, John Guerin, Sam Shepard, Jaco Pastorius, Don Alias and Larry Klein, among others. Many of her songs reference those lovers - "A Case of You" is about Cohen; "Coyote" about Shepard - and seldom in flattering ways. 

But the question to me is Mitchell really asking for help? The song’s first line, “Help me, I think I'm falling in love again” doesn’t register as a true plea for assistance, but instead a recognition of “here we go again.” She knows that the love affair is doomed—he’s “a rambler and a gambler and a sweet-taIking-ladies man.” But, she acknowledges that as much as she loves their “lovin’” they both love their freedom more:

I think I'm falling
In love with you 

Are you going to let me go there by myself 
That's such a lonely thing to do 
Both of us flirting around 
Flirting and flirting 

Hurting too 
We love our lovin' 
But not like we love our freedom 

True, long lasting, relationships require, I think, giving up some of your freedom in exchange for the other stuff—the “lovin’” the “sitting there talking/Or lying there not talking.” Which Mitchell, assuming that this song was at least in part autobiographical, wasn’t willing to do.

Somehow, this makes me think of how these days we have to give up some of our freedom—to get haircuts, see friends and family, eat in restaurants, see concerts, and wear masks—in exchange for the other stuff—like not infecting people with a potentially deadly disease.

Sunday, May 10, 2020


Wreck of the Carlos Rey

Mayday always seems to me the cipher for maritime disasters, despite it being anything but exclusive thereto. But it has therefore be to sea I stare for my first post under this theme. There are quite a few shipwreck songs, often in the broadsheets of trad. arr., but I bet there aren't many that arise from the mean streets of East Los Angeles.

Los Lobos have a rightly celebrated reputation across their tranche of multi-faceted modern american music, embracing many genres from rock (and roll) through to traditional mexican ballads, via country, blues and polka. I love 'em. This song comes from their 2004 release, The Ride. Part of the early vogue for the now commonplace vanity of cramming in as many guests as you can, this has a stellar cast across the areas they inhabit and invoke. So we get Mavis Staples, we get Elvis Costello, we get Rueben Blades, we get Tom blimmin' Waits and more. But, insofar as this song and piece is concerned, we get fellow (then) L.A. resident, Richard Thompson. It is his trademark guitar that creeps around that of Divid Hidalgo, and he gets to sing a verse or two.

Not an old folk song, it is nonetheless the oft told tale of the long distanced sweetheart, toiling far away, finally returning home for the anticipated reunion. But the ship, the Carlos Rey (King Charles) went down. Was there such a ship? If so, I can't find reference to one online, although there was a galleon that plied the seas of the Gulf of Mexico of that name. However, the lyrics suggest this a far smaller vessel, with fifteen migrant workers going down as they left their Californian work camps for their bodegas back home.

But how/why Richard Thompson? (And, yes, of course the earlier linked song, in the opening paragraph, is no accidental coincidence.) The casual listener might see little connection between the anglo-scots ex-Fairport "folkie" and the Angeleno conjunto and tex-mex fusions. Probably the same listeners with no ear to the 40 plus years post Fairport career this unassuming guitar maverick has had. His blistering lead guitar segues seamlessly alongside that of Hidalgo. Plus, the band have made no secret of their admiration for Thompson, with and without his old bandmates. They appeared on his 1995 tribute, Beat the Retreat with plaintive Down Where the Drunkards Roll.

 Down Where the Drunkards Roll

For something a tad livelier (aka louder), on the EP that later followed The Ride, Ride This, here's another Lobos do Thompson. Sadly, I can find no evidence of the compliment returned, but I wouldn't put it past him. Maybe someone should submit a request to his fabled all request shows?

Shoot Out the Lights

Finally, by way of a palate cleanser, and returning to the Carlos Rey and its watery demise, here's a bluegrass cover from the hallowed Pickin' On stable....

Wreck of the Carlos Rey

Risk a Ride on the Carlo Rey?