John Lee Hooker, Black Coffee, and Cigarettes

Something For What Ails You

Another Sunday morning suffering the side effects of Saturday night. I’m no doctor. I have no cure for what ails me, but a healthy dose of the blues does treat the symptoms. My current prescription is John Lee Hooker’s “Never Get Out of These Blues Alive” (I recommend the version Hooker sings with Van Morrison).

The Best of John Lee Hooker (cover)
The Best of John Lee Hooker 1965 to 1974

If you have ever sat up all night drinking black coffee and smoking cigarettes then this song is worth a listen. If you have ever spent your nights pacing the floor then you want to download this song. If you have ever stayed up all night obsessing over a woman (or man or whoever) then this song will speak to you. If you have ever wondered if you will escape the blues then this song should be on your playlist.

John Lee Hooker’s “Never Get Out of These Blues Alive” is quintessential blues (Hell, John Lee Hooker is quintessential blues). Whether you are new to the blues or already have an extensive playlist consider adding this song. There is one important thing to keep in mind when listening to this song (or the blues in general for that matter). The blues isn’t just about how bad things are, the blues is about a hope that things will get better.

-K-

The Best of John Lee Hooker 1965 to 1974 (1992) by John Lee Hooker

When Art Imitates Life

or When You Connect With a Song

Have you ever noticed the wide variety of euphemisms that are used in relationships? Has anyone ever “stepped out” on you or maybe “let you down easy?” If you can answer yes then there is a blues song somewhere out there for you (maybe a couple or few). There is one song from the “Blues at Your Door Mix Tape” post from a couple weeks back that holds an ignominious place in my relationship history.

ZZ Top is one of those bands that you either get or you don’t. I don’t mean that in any sort of critical analysis and deeper meaning sense. I mean you either get where that little old band from Texas is coming from or you don’t. I’ve given up trying to explain it to people so I can only ask that if you haven’t listened to ZZ Top then give their first album, conveniently titled ZZ Top’s First Album, a listen (if you are familiar with it then you probably know where I’m going with this). The last song on the album is “Backdoor Love Affair.” The backdoor man motif, a man having an affair with a married woman, is common to many blues songs. ZZ Top takes this idea and adds their own twist to it (no spoilers), but I will say I’ve experienced what the narrator of the song experiences, and I’m none too proud of it.

ZZ Top's First Albom (cover)
ZZ Top’s First Album by ZZ Top

We tend to use euphemisms in an attempt to minimize the damage of failed relationships. These euphemisms are common in many blues songs, which may be one of the reasons why blues music is timeless. As long as people “step out” and “let you down easy” there will be material for blues musicians. ZZ Top’s song “Backdoor Love Affair” is one such song, a song that this writer has lived through. But knowing there is a song about it gives me comfort that others have lived through it too.

-K-

ZZ Top’s First Album (1971) ZZ Top

The Point of “Pointless Drinking”

Is the Point

Any sort of serious drinking requires some serious thought about drinking. Amy LaVere’s “Pointless Drinking” shows us that drinking without a point is to end up in a world of hurt when you get to the bottom of the bottle. Whether you have a glass in hand or hip flask in pocket be deliberate in both choice of drink and point for drinking.

The narrator of Ms. LaVere’s song stumbles from bar to bar and drink to drink without any point or purpose. Without any point for drinking the narrator has nothing but the thing she doesn’t need (or want) and that is another drink.

Anchors and Anvils Album Cover
Anchors and Anvils by Amy LaVere

So what is LaVere’s eternal barfly, that aged drinker at the end of the bar willing to dispense a bit of 80 proof wisdom, telling us? Is “Pointless Drinking” meant to be some sort of cautionary tale, a prohibitionist’s treatise against the evils of alcohol? No, but there is some sound advice in our narrator’s tale, some choice wisdom that can be gleaned from the bottoms of those empty glasses. It is not alcohol that should be avoided. What should be avoided is poor choices, and alcohol and poor choices (like cheap and Walmart) tend to go together. Have a point to your drinking before the bartender pours that first shot. Make the choice to know what you want from your alcohol and know what you are in for when the bartender makes last call.

I did my share of pointless drinking in years past. I’m older and wiser (more old than wise) nowadays. I make certain there is a point to each pour and pint, but I can’t say it any better that Amy LaVere’s “Pointless Drinking.” Give Anchors and Anvils a listen and you tell me.

-K-

Anchors and Anvils (2007) Amy Lavere.

Two Wars, Same Story

What Patriotism Asks of a Person

What makes a person patriotic? The backgrounds and beliefs of those involved and the context of their actions should be taken into consideration. There are two songs from Old Crow Medicine Show that focus on patriotic individuals and provide context worth a closer look. “Carry Me Back” and “Levi” from the album Carry Me Back may be about the experiences of two patriots in different wars but they tell a similar story.

There is one constant that runs through most wars, the availability and readiness of young soldiers willing to fight for the idea of patriotism. The Civil War is the first to address the idea of patriotism on the album Carry Me Back. The song “Carry Me Back” begins with the clear patriotic motivation of the song’s persona. He is a Confederate soldier willing and happy to fight for the South and his home state of Virginia. In fact, his brother has already left home to fight and the persona is eager to join him. This eagerness and patriotism fades as the war drags on and the persona experiences the horrors of war. The song ends with a young man who left home with the patriotic intentions to fight for Virginia praying that he be buried there. His patriotism has result in the ultimate sacrifice.  This same story arch can be seen in “Levi.”

“Levi” is not as explicit in its presentation of patriotism, it is also one step removed in narration. “Levi” is told from a third person point of view, as opposed to the first person point of view of “Carry Me Back.” This third person point of view allows the listener to interject his/her own history and knowledge concerning the war in Iraq. Contemporary listeners know that there was a surge in feelings of patriotism after the events of 9-11. Although Levi’s motivation for enlisting isn’t clearly stated, feelings of patriotism and a desire to defend his country are likely reasons. The realities of war set in quickly for Levi, much like those for the persona of “Carry Me Back.” And like his counterpart (who is actually referenced in “Levi”) Levi dies in battle and will be buried in his home state.

“Carry Me Back” and “Levi” are about young men who decide to defend their country in a time of war. Their motivations for doing so are patriotic, but we should look at the songs in a larger context. The persona of “Carry Me Back” and Levi are patriots but were they fully aware of the horrors of war when they volunteered and what their patriotism may require? The evidence suggests they did not. A country needs its patriots, but a country should do all it can to educate its young soldiers on what sacrifices may be required of those patriots.

-K-

from Carry Me Back by Old Crow Medicine Show

When Rain is More than Rain

Let’s Talk About Joe Cocker and Metaphors

One of my favorite scenes from Saturday Night Live is John Belushi’s impression of Joe Cocker. My Pops had a bunch of Joe Cocker albums, but I didn’t start listening to them until I saw Cocker and Belushi sing “Feelin’ Alright” on SNL (check it out on the YouTube if you want to see a couple great artists at work).  I Can Stand a Little Rain is my favorite Joe Cocker album and the song of the same name is makes for an interesting study of metaphor.

“I Can Stand a Little Rain” isn’t unique in its use of metaphor; more songs incorporate metaphor than don’t. What I find interesting about this song is the turn half way through. Rain serves as a metaphor for the many hardships life forces upon us, but there is a shift in the third verse of the song. It is here that the song moves away from the pains of life and toward the possibility of a happy ending. Joe Cocker’s sorrowful voice takes us from pain to hope in four verses that span of three and half minutes.

The first verse establishes the metaphor. We get Cocker’s sorrowful repetition of, “I can stand a little rain,” three times followed by a line about pain.  The imagery of water coming up through the floorboards, the rising water, portrays impending doom. The verse ends with a desire for some rest from all this rain, which serves as a metaphor for pain and hardship. The second verse continues the metaphor. It is a testament to how much pain we can stand and for how long we can stand it. This verse reinforces the idea that this is all just part of life. It is here, at this low point, that the song takes a turn.

The third verse moves away from a focus on the rain as a metaphor for the pains and hardships of life and toward a desire for love. At first listen it sounds as if it is a plea for love, anything to get away from the pain. But as the verse progresses we realize that the singer is willing to take any “test” that life may present regarding love. This willingness to take any “test” is carried into the fourth, and final, verse of the song. The singer has weathered the rain and the hardships of life and knows that any test of love will be easy in comparison. This is shown not only in the lyrics but also in the change in Cocker’s voice and chorus. We see that the singer will “make it” in the end.

When I first saw Joe Cocker perform with John Belushi all those years ago I knew these were two artists I would follow. Joe Cocker’s voice and his passion make any song he sings uniquely his. “I Can Stand a Little Rain” is more than an example of Joe Cocker at his best. It is a song that shows us that if we dig deep down we can endure the pains and hardships of life, and in so doing we are better prepared when the rain breaks and the sun comes out.

-K-

I Can Stand a Little Rain (1974) by Joe Cocker. Produced by Jim Price.

One Murder After Dark and Four Stories

Cowboy Junkies, Money, and Murder in a Trailer Park

Songs make for interesting story telling devices. The best songs tell great stories, and great stories always deserve a closer look. These closer looks (criticisms if you want to sound literary) can serve to inform, to entertain, and to persuade. “Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park” by the Cowboy Junkies is one such great story. There are multiple approaches and interpretations of this song, but I want to focus on how money plays a role in the lives of the characters in this song.

The central plot of “Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park” is the murder of Mrs. Annabelle Evans. She is murdered some time after sunset. Annabelle’s body is identified by a neighbor, Peg. Nearby an unidentified character is prompting someone by the name of Ann Marie to pack her bags and leave with him. Meanwhile, across town, George Evans is at a bar getting drunk, buying rounds for the regulars, and bragging about how he won big at a game of craps. Later this same night, we see a “faceless man” in a hotel room counting out crumpled bills and waiting for the sports results on TV to see if his wagers have come in. These four scenes occur on the same night, and it is money that connects them.

The apparent motive for Mrs. Annabelle Evans’ murder is robbery. She is killed for what amounts to not much more than pocket-money. The central action of this scene revolves around money, and money plays an important role in each subsequent scene. We aren’t made fully aware of the motive for the unidentified character’s desire to move and to what extent Annabelle Evans’ death may have in that decision, but this character has “been saving pennies” in preparation for the move. He tells Ann Marie that they will head west and make a new start (and money is always needed for new starts). George Evans, who we can presume is Annabelle’s husband, is getting drunk at a local bar and is oblivious to the fact that his wife has been murdered. One can’t help but wonder how things may be different if George had gone home instead of spending his winnings at a local bar. Finally, there is the “faceless man” in a hotel room. Annabelle Evans’ murder has made the late night news. This “faceless man” turns down the sound on the TV and waits for the sports. He isn’t as concerned with the murder of Annabelle Evans as he is with whether or not he has won his wagers. These scenes show that money is more valuable to these characters than the life of Annabelle Evans.

Songs are just one of many ways to tell a great story, and great stories are worth criticizing.  “Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park” by the Cowboy Junkies tells the story of a murder after dark, and how money is more important than a human life.

-K-

“Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park” from Black Eyed Man by Cowboy Junkies

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