Gender-flipped, radically reconstituted covers of hoary male narratives is one of my favorite subgenres. I love the idea of finding something intimate, feminine and modern in something tough and masculine from another era. Cat Power didn’t invent that idea, but she was doing it before it became trendy. She really knows how to weave her own narrative out of narratives written by people with wildly different lives and points of view. Her cover of Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man is a classic exercise in finding new truth in old tales. Nothing represents old-school rugged manliness like the Highwaymen: Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, outlaw country’s grand old men. The Highwaymen were formed as a reminder of what outlaw country used to be, before country music became just another bland, pandering, million-dollar pumping mainstream industry. They weren’t shy about leaning on leathery cowboy motifs, a reminder that in their day real men did really manly things, with horses and/or motorcycles, and they did it while day-drunk on whiskey-cocaine highballs. They were broadly implying that being a so-called bad guy living outside the law was some kind of moral high ground because at least they hadn’t sold their souls working for the man or whatever. In practice it just meant a lot of drunk driving, neglected families and money woes, but it’s a nice all-American fantasy of rugged individualism. Those guys probably intended riding off on a silver stallion as a metaphor for refusing to go to rehab (real men don’t go to rehab, real men die of cirrhosis like God intended!) but what does it mean for a woman living in today-times? Obviously it’s still a narrative of personal liberation, of freeing oneself from the woes of mundane life and zooming off, one way or another, into a lonelier, grubbier, but more self-actualized life. Which honestly is still the same message, delivered in sexier tones. Wherever you personal silver stallion takes you, saddle up and ride it as far is it goes.
Well, it’s the new year and already I can’t keep up with the days. It’s the season to set goal and make resolutions, which, if you’re into that sort of thing, let me make a few suggestions. Resolve to listen to more old-school punk rock, and live a more punk rock life, and wear more moldy leather jackets, and maybe invest in some crude tattoos and put some hardware in your face. Or not. When I put on bands like Social Distortion, I feel like I’m not living up to my full potential as a no-fucks-given, in-your-face, shitkicking badass. Because what these guys lack in chord changes, they make up for in attitude, and I’m thinking that attitude might be the vocabulary word for the season. Let’s try to roll with that.
Little ballerinas are the last thing you would expect in a Nick Cave video, and if you have any familiarity with Nick Cave at all, you would expect the little ballerinas to come to some ungodly end. But sometimes a child is just a child. And sometimes a Nick Cave song is just a love song with little to no murder. One way that Cave surprised the world after his heroin-and-Berlin punk rock beginnings – besides not dying and developing a taste for three-piece suits – was establishing himself as a master of the stately piano ballad. He has since produced an enviable body of piano ballads both morbid and perfectly romantic, and it’s obvious that his silky baritone is suited to nothing better than a lone Steinway and a solo spotlight.
I’ve always liked Social Distortion for being a degree or two smarter than the average three-chord punk rock band. Let’s face it, it’s in the nature of punk rock music to either be mindless or to appear so underneath the three-chord simplicity. Its primary function is to be fast and loud. Any cleverness or social consciousness comes behind the aggression. Social D has made a run of clever and relevant songs, without sacrificing the basic formula. And one thing that fuels the basic formula, besides angst towards the world at large, is songs about unattainable hot women. It’s an adolescent view of the world, defined by what you don’t have and what you want. Obviously, that includes matters of lust. I, personally, have a low cutoff point for enjoying other people’s hormonal aggression. But sometimes you gotta enjoy a good ode to a good knockout, because somewhere deep down, your inner teenage misfit still relates to it.
Shane MacGowan makes being a trainwreck and a sod sound appealing. Not from the looks of him, of course, but musically at least. There’s an insouciance and a shamelessness to it that makes you want to say “to hell with it all” and go drown yourself in a bottle. That kind of shameless joie de vivre in the face of disaster is a quality we associate with the Irish in general, which, as broad cultural stereotypes go, is not too terrible. I can think of other cultures whose stereotypical main characteristic is alcoholism, who aren’t seen as happy and lovable. Of course, there’s not much happy and lovable about a guy like Shane MacGowan either. Drinking until your teeth fall out of your skull isn’t cute, but I suppose that it does lend a certain dance-with-the-devil street cred.
This reminds me of when I saw Suzanne Vega play in a lovely church a few years ago. It was probably about four or five years ago, during SXSW. It was a very beautiful and unexpected venue and it was perfect for Suzanne. She’s not religious or even overtly spiritual in her music, but she seems like someone who would go into a church just to sit and think and observe people. Churches offer an interesting intersection of public space and intimate space, which has to be intriguing to a poet. It’s also an interesting juxtaposition for the secular art of pop music, which can’t have been lost on Suzanne Vega. She seems like she thinks about the balance of sacred and profane as it plays out in our daily lives. It’s a poet’s job to think about these things.
I love pulling out the most obscure songs from albums I haven’t listened to in a long time, which you’ve probably listened to never. It’s like opening up a box in the attic. It’s memories and it’s feelings I don’t remember. I also really love it when the artist pulls out their most obscure songs. That’s like them giving us a gift box, from their own attic. I’m almost certain that Suzanne Vega never played this song after releasing it in 1990, until pulling it out for this show in 2000. If you’re familiar with Days of Open Hand, you won’t recognize the arrangement. You’ll notice she’s ditched the prominent woodwinds that made the original so mournful and made the handclaps snappier. Arrangements aren’t something I nerd out on, not being a musician myself, but what interests me is the value artists find in their own work. Certainly, they value the work that makes them the most money, but what about the things that don’t make money and just exist for the memories? Suzanne Vega, for one, has been very interested in reevaluating her own back catalog. She’s rerecorded a series of her old songs, releasing compilations that take songs from different albums and mix them together by theme. This repackaging might seem redundant, since the new recordings don’t sound radically different from the old ones, but it’s about changing the context of the songs to make them play in a different light. I can see how that can be an immensely fun project for the singer, and it’s really aimed at the fans who are deeply invested in the material. I admire that.