Friday, July 10, 2020


Ron's sweet voice and vulnerable innocent persona has most observers having him better not waiting for anything. Or at least not for anything better, his songs always redolent of disappointment and deprecation. And that's the cheerful ones. So is this lyric a sense of realisation or an acceptance of the inevitable let-down? A bit of both, that sinking realisation that love has gone sour, perhaps just as you were thinking about something else for a moment. As in, take your eye off the ball for a second and, pfff, it's gone, his hope being that, if you wait long enough, somehow it will come back into view. Hmmm, we know that outcome, don't we?

I'm a big fan of ol' Ron, always have been, through the thin and thin of his career. No, that's a tad harsh, but he's never seemed able to get that great big breakthrough, despite the acclaim of many of his peers, on the arrival of theirs. Elvis Costello has always been his biggest yay-sayer, but others have been not slow to sing his praises. Fellow Canadian k.d. lang included him on her tribute to canadian songwriters, Hymns of the 37th Parallel, and how many others ever got to sing with Leonard Cohen? Critics often tumble praise his way but the public have never followed to make him much more than a niche favourite. With his big hangdog face, like a lovelorn potato, his looks may never have catapulted him into stardom, but Elvis C is hardly any oil painting either. He has made no secret of his struggles maintaining a career and the effects on his mood, life and relationships: in the  wonderful documentary, Love Shines, made in 2010, this aspect is certainly not brushed away.

His songs have a delightful charm. Deceptively simple, they carry largely on guitar or piano, and often little more, with his yearning voice always shimmering above, sometimes redolent of Roy Orbison, tragedy closer to triumph in minor chord lamentations of love's labours lost. You sense, whatever else, he just has to sing, to keep on singing. If his near twenty recordings aren't enough and, like me, are a covers lover, you could do a whole lot worse than check out his youtube channel. Did I say Roy Orbison?

I first caught him, last century, in a special showcase at Ronnie Scott's Club in Birmingham, UK, now long gone. Part of a tour to promote his first full release, the eponymous Ron Sexsmith, it was a double header with the similarly "new" Dar Williams, taking turns as to who would play first. It was marvellous, each nailing a place in my tastes and on my shelves, each lasting to this day. Like Costello, I would rave about him to friends and family, but to little shared enthusiasm. I think I bought his first few releases until a change of producer skewed his style, to my ears any way. Thereafter I kept an ear out, spotting him mingling with the stars: Chris Martin, Ray Davies, if never quite joining their leagues. Round about the aforementioned doco, made during the making of Long Player Late Bloomer, a then mooted last ditch for world domination, helmed by big money producer Bob Rock, I formally rejoined team Ron. And it was/is a superlative record, if surprisingly using added autotune: surely the point of Ron's famously wobbly voice is that it is famously wobbly? It didn't go platinum, but it did sell a fair few, enabling him to keep going, with another album dropping every other year or so, right up until this years Hermitage. I had been due to revisit my acquaintance with his live show back in April, but, yep, like everything else, C-19 killed that until November. All willing.

So, I'm Still Waiting.

All the Rons.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Wait/Don’t Wait: Desperados Waiting For A Train

Nanci Griffith: Desperados Waiting For A Train

No personal story, no long history lesson, no political discussion today. Just a short discussion about a fine song, Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting For A Train.” (I mentioned this song a few years ago in a piece on Clark’s “Homegrown Tomatoes," but it’s worth its own post.)

As someone who backed into “country” music through alt-country/Americana/roots/folk music, I first became aware of the great songwriter Guy Clark from covers, particularly this version on Nanci Griffith’s 1998 release, Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back To Bountiful). On that album, Griffith performed the song with Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Eric Taylor. In fact, before Clark released a version, on 1975’s Old No.1, it had already been covered by Walker, Rita Coolidge, David Allan Coe and Tom Rush. And before Griffith’s version was released, it had been covered by Slim Pickens and probably most famously, The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, some pretty fine songwriters in their own right). And there have been many other covers released and performed, including by Earle, on his recent tribute to Clark, and Jason Isbell, who performed the song at Guy Clark's induction into the 2015 Austin City Limits hall of fame ceremony. Which is just to say that many, many great musicians and songwriters have felt the song worthy of recognition.

Clark had the ability that some great writers, and not only songwriters, have of being able to economically create an entire world, and entire characters, with no wasted words. (On the same album, Griffith also covered Richard Thompson and Woody Guthrie, who have that same talent.) I’m jealous as hell. In less than five minutes, the song tells the story of the relationship between a boy and an old man, and you can feel the love they felt for each other, and the respect that the boy had for the man, an old school oil worker, who seemed to the boy like he was from an old western. And one day, the boy realizes that the man is old, and dying, and the metaphorical train comes to take him away. Two lives in about four and a half minutes of brilliance. I don’t know if the song is studied in songwriting classes, but it should be.

It’s a true story. Clark wrote it about his grandmother’s boyfriend, who stayed at the hotel that she ran in a small Texas town. You can read more about it here.

In 1998, when Griffith released her album, she appeared with all of the guys (including Guy) who sang with her on David Letterman’s show. And since readers of my work here know I’m a huge Letterman fan, and a huge fan of the song, here’s a video:

Monday, July 6, 2020

Wait/Don't Wait: Waiting for the Sun

purchase [ Waiting for the Sun - the album]

It seems fitting that I follow up <Follow the Sun> with <Waiting for the Sun>. Enough of the Beatles for now, and this isn't really about the song of that name, but rather the album. There's so much on the Doors' third album to cover that I'm going for a full album this time around. The song appeared on a later album.

I grew up on the Doors's albums - they were heavy rotation at the pre-teen parties I attended (that would be 7th and 8th grade). Strange Days was a little too strange. More than one critic has noted that Strange Days leaves the impression that it is populated with the leftovers of Morrision's lyrics writings that weren't used on the first album. True. Critics also note that is has more continuity that the first album. Not sure I agree.

But 1968's Waiting for the Sun, much like the first Doors album seems to me to have a lot of organizational continuity to it: for me and my friends, it was easy and natural to let the album play one track after the next without having to pick up the needle and move the arm over an inch or so. (Needle? Arm? Track?  We're talking about 33 1/3 RPMs on a turntable at a Junior High dance - not the stuff that did Morrison in at age 27 although the parallels bear some interest.)

You may not take the approach that Morrison's father is said to have done, advising his son to drop aspirations of making a living as a[n untalented] musician. By this third album, the Doors had become mostly all about their lead *singer, although there are several pieces/places where it's more recitation than singing (My Wild Love is knee slapping and Morrison-style poetry chant; Five to One is only slightly more "musical" and The Unknown Soldier starts off with similar style)

Hello, I Love You was the main chart topper, and Spanish Caravan showcases the guitar talents of Robbie Krieger. Being, as I said, an album that I tended to listen to without lifting the tone arm, the rest of the songs are tight displays of the Doors at their studio finest (although it couldn't have been easy work with Morrison in whatever condition he had devolved to). My picks for a song typical of this work:

*yeah, it's not the real thing, but it's pretty good (doors alive)