I figured I’d write about George Jones for First Song of the Month, and I figured I’d jump the gun and put it up today instead of on Wednesday. He was one of my very favorite singers of all time, someone I would think about on a daily basis. When an artist like that passes away, suddenly the whole world feels cheaper. I can’t think of a country singer better than him, past, present, or future. Country music has its towering, legendary writers, and its icons, and its total-package musicians, but it only had one George Jones and everybody pretty much knew no one else could touch him when it came to that voice. Like Johnny Cash, I imagine that as time goes on it will get harder and harder to believe there really even was a real George Jones, that the legend is going to devour the man, because those records are just going to grow and grow in stature until they loom above all the puny contemporary efforts of everyone who is still somewhat sincerely trying to make country music.
No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, the album this song is from, was released in 1986, when Van was 41. Rarely-mentioned and underappreciated, the record is in many ways a perfect rock album for grown-ups. The production is professional and slick – at times, almost overly slick. The tempos are slow and relaxed. There are no fast songs, no moments of urgency, no rock and roll franticness. The instruments – keyboards, pianos, backup singers – all float in a glassy kind of haze. Fans of a rawer Van Morrison – from his earliest albums and his work with Them – would be excused for thinking of this album as soft. It is soft. This is the work of a middle-aged rock and roller who is fully, openly copping to and embracing his middle-agedness. As such, the general inoffensive prettiness of the music is a perfect extension of the theme. Under the musical haze, though, all the big themes of middle age are pondered. Looming death. Bodily “defects.” The temptation to sell out. Lost childhood. This last theme is most poignantly handled by Van’s frequent overt references to Astral Weeks, which this record is trying in some way to respond. On “In the Garden,” Van takes us to “that garden, we with rain.” It’s the same garden from “Sweet Thing.” Or at least it’s the same words.
I’m starting a new feature for this site called “First Song of the Month.” It’s just what it sounds like – a monthly feature on songs that have struck me recently, and why.
I was on tour in 2009 when McSweeney’s contacted me about contributing something for an issue they were doing on extinct literary forms and said they wondered if I might be interested in writing something in the style of a Norse “Fornaldarsaga.” The Norse sagas represent some of the earliest written fiction and they’re pretty incredible. Purporting to document true events in Scandinavian history, they’re actually breathtakingly violent, quirky and fast-moving adventure tales that are still fun to read today.
Last year, I was asked to arrange and produce an album by cult legend Roky Erickson. The project was a massive undertaking, the often-troubled singer’s album first in 15 years. I culled 60 songs down to 11, and it took me about a year of my life to complete. Once it was finished, I thought, “What the hell, I guess I’ll write up some liner notes for this thing too.”
One morning months later, I was woken up by a chorus of text message alerts. All my friends were writing to tell me I’d been nominated for a Grammy – for liner notes.
I have seen Woodstock and I have seen The Last Waltz. I have seen Don’t Look Back, Eat the Document, and No Direction Home. I have seen the Maysles Brothers’ documentary about the Rolling Stones, as well as Jean-Luc Godard’s semi-documentary about the Rolling Stones and Robert Frank’s notoriously unreleased documentary about the Rolling Stones, which legend has it you’re only legally allowed to watch in the presence of both Jagger and Richards. I have seen The Great Rock and Roll Swindle as well as The Filth and the Fury, Julien Temple’s two different documentaries about the Sex Pistols. I have seen that double-DVD Tom Petty documentary. I have seen the special features. I have seen the movie where Chris Holmes from W.A.S.P. slowly drinks himself nearly to death in a darkened swimming pool enclosure and Ozzy pours the orange juice all over the counter. To varying degrees, I enjoyed all these films, but if you asked me to tell you my very-favorite-ever cinematic document of a rock and roll band, I would have to break down and admit that it’s a 10-dollar import DVD of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show doing a live-for-German-TV performance sometime in 1974. I have seen it at least 30 times. No other cinematic musical document has so consistently reminded me what playing rock and roll onstage should, at its very highest point, feel like.
My last entry in this Top Ten Experiences With Music In 2012 series happened on Thursday night. I had a whole other entry planned, but Thursday topped that, which is nice. It’s nice when music can come out of nowhere and change your plans and change how you feel about the world going forward.
My father studied film at the Film School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and he launched into grownup life with the goal of being a filmmaker, starting out with usually-silent short films in a more experimental style influenced by the European auteurist directors of the 1960s and 70s. But after a long and frustrating string of disappointments, rejections and setbacks, he set filmmaking aside and pursue another goal he had, to become a teacher. He and my mother moved to Meriden, New Hampshire and joined the faculty at Kimball Union Academy, a college preparatory boarding school.
One thing that happens to you when you grow up is you get more relaxed about your tastes. You were close-minded about something before; now you decide to give it a chance. You always secretly liked something, now you openly like it and don’t care who knows. With a certain kind of music fan, this can manifest itself as an almost puritanical teenage obsession with what band is or isn’t cool, slowly loosening as the fan gets older until the 15-year-old who listened to Black Flag becomes the 35-year-old who listens to John Coltrane, or the boy who listened to Slayer becomes the man who listens to Leonard Cohen (and sometimes Slayer). There are moments when you find yourself mildly shocked at what you just put on the stereo, and you picture your teenage self, turning away from you in disgust. Once upon a time I thought of Fleetwood Mac as unspeakably cheesy, a soft-rock embarrassment whose name I could barely stand to hear mentioned. Now they’re one of my favorite bands and seemingly universally beloved by listeners my age, all the kids who grew up on pissed-off noisy Nirvana songs.
But there are limits.
I first met Carl Newman in 2007, both of us slightly delirious at some festival somewhere. We went out on tour with his band The New Pornographers a year later. We had a fantastic time – I’m not sure any other band we ever toured with fit in quite so well with our own personalities, although maybe that’s just them being Canadian and (so the cliché goes) unerringly nice whether they like it or not.