Any Woman’s Blues

9781477313916Woman* Walk The Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives by Holly Gleason (editor), University of Texas Press 2017

It is 1987. Lucinda Williams sits at the bar of the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller are there too, swapping tour stories nearby, while Candeye Kane sets up on stage. What a picture. I feel like I’ve waited years to catch a glimpse like this of Lucinda Williams. No one has ever written a serious biography or a book about her music. The feature articles I’ve read over the years have, predictably, focused on her personal life and her reputation as ‘difficult’ in the studio. If that’s true, I hope she stays difficult because her last few albums have been these remarkably spare but utterly evocative dreamscapes. I can maybe think of three other records in my collection that match Ghosts of Highway 20 for atmosphere. Time Out of Mind, maybe? On The Beach? Kind of Blue?

‘Difficult’ sounds like what happens when a musician who happens to be a woman demands that her record sounds like what she hears in her head. Imagine how ‘difficult’ the three artists behind the albums above were during the recording sessions. The normally arch-mellow Daniel Lanois smashed a dobro in frustration after a day of dealing with Bob Dylan during the Time Out of Mind sessions in New Orleans. Bob really is difficult in the studio and this is well known. But it’s not the important part of the story, is it? Lucinda Williams is, for my money, creating better music than just about anyone on the planet at the moment. She is a gifted writer, a brilliant performer, and her albums get better and better. Why isn’t she on the cover of those rock magazines so beloved of men my age? Look at the credits for Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. Tony Joe White, Bill Frisell, Ian McLagan for heaven’s sake. It’s a MOJO reader’s wet dream!

The answer is pretty clear. A cover story featuring Bob or The Beatles will sell, cover stories about women do not, apparently. It’s depressing but true. Despite the pioneering efforts of writers like Lillian Roxon and Ellen Willis, writing on popular music is still dominated by, if not actual men, a male aesthetic around what is valuable in rock and roll, blues, country, and so on.

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Lucinda Williams

The image of Lucinda in the Palomino comes from a new book called Woman Walk The Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives. It’s a collection of personal essays curated and edited by Holly Gleason, a journalist and songwriter in her own right. I will confess that I only picked it up because I noticed that there was a piece about Lucinda written by Holly herself. But when I scanned the table of contents, I was intrigued. Lil Hardin? Wanda Jackson? Rita Coolidge? Sure, Dolly, Loretta, and Barbara Mandrell are in there but you’ll be surprised by the list. KD Lang but no Patsy Cline? Okay, but wait a minute: What’s Lil Hardin doing in there?

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Louis and Lil

Lil was the second Mrs Louis Armstrong but more significantly, she was an important early jazz piano player and a songwriter who wrote ‘Just For A Thrill’ – a hit for Ray Charles, Louis’s ‘Struttin’ with Some BBQ’, and ‘Bad Boy – recorded by Ringo, Mink Deville and others. She was also a key member of the game-changing Hot Five band led by Louis. Her connection to Country music might seem tenuous though she did play piano on Jimmie Rogers’ Blue Yodel No. 9. The author of the essay, Alice Randall, is a novelist and songwriter who grew up in Detroit in the 60s. She explains why Lil Hardin appealed to her more than the obvious stars of her hometown – Diana Ross et al. Randall was the first African American woman to write a number one country song – Trisha Yearwood’s ‘XXXs and OOOs’. She calls Lil a trailblazer and makes a very convincing case for a musician who should be far better known.

A similar though very different essay later in the book comes from Kandia Crazy Horse, a songwriter and musician, who relates deeply to Rita Coolidge on the basis of their shared Cherokee background. Coolidge is another woman who doesn’t appear in MOJO often enough despite her association with Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Hendrix, and many others, besides her one time husband, Kris Kristofferson. Kandia Crazy Horse’s vision of rock and roll history led her to name her first album Stampede (Buffalo Springfield fans will get this reference) and reconfigure the late 60s story so that Native American musicians are given their due and recognized for their heritage. Jimi Hendrix is well known to have Native ancestry but what about Ronnie Spector? I didn’t know that!

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‘Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right’. Rita Coolidge stuck in the middle.

The second half of the book deals with more recent artists and will probably appeal more to country fans who are better acquainted with artists like Terri Clark and Kasey Musgraves. That said, none of these pieces is without some interest for the general reader. A collection of essays that simply made the point that the music business is difficult for women would be redundant. It’s pretty clear now that Hollywood is hell on earth for female actors and corporate life probably isn’t any easier. The music business has always been a nasty place generally but always much worse for women. Country music seems like a genre where women have always had more or less equal billing – compared to say, Prog Rock – but it’s complicated. Tyler Mahan Coe’s podcast, Cocaine and Rhinestones, is an excellent corrective here. Listen to the episodes on Loretta Lynn and Jeannie C. Riley. Find out what happened to Garth Brooks when he presented TNT with a music video depicting an abused wife fighting back. Banned! Truly.

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Kandia Crazy Horse

This collection doesn’t shy away from pointing out the hypocrisy and the often blatant sexism at work in the music industry but there is more here than a series of polemics. The real theme of the collection is inspiration. Reading through, I was struck over and over by the impact music can have in people’s lives. Ronni Lundy’s essay on Hazel Dickens outlines Lundy’s own startling journey and the way in which Dickens’ music turned up at key moments. She didn’t find the music, the music found her. It is something that many of these writers come back to in this book. I don’t have much interest in The Judds but I was struck by Courtney E. Smith’s story of how she bought their Greatest Hits cassette on a school visit to New York and fell asleep listening it every night of the trip. I have similar stories and so do you. It’s that sort of book and one well worth reading even if country music isn’t your thing.

Meanwhile, I happened to read yesterday that Lucinda is at work on a memoir. Stay tuned!

*To Grammar Enthusiasts: It is indeed Woman and not Women in the title. At first I thought it was a sly reference to Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘Rights of Woman’ but it is, in fact, the title of an Emmylou Harris song.

Teasers: Taylor Swift’s high school essay about Brenda Lee – more interesting than you might expect! Tanya Tucker as disruptive punk rock force – a convincing case! And some good reasons why Linda Ronstadt is cool.

 

 

Trams pass, out on St Kilda Road…

book-event-mick-thomas-these-days-69These Are The Days: Stories and Songs by Mick Thomas, Melbourne Books, 2017

I’m sure Mick Thomas gets tired of hearing this statement:

‘Weddings Parties Anything changed my life!’

But I might be able to impress him with my story.

“No really, Mick!”

In 1990, I was living in Toronto and had no interest in Australia. I knew that Sydney had the Opera House and Melbourne was the other city. That was about it. Less than four years later, I was living in Carlton, barracking for the Saints, and knocking back pots of VB at Young and Jackson. What happened?

Weddings Parties Anything happened.2891690047_c7eefaea1f_z

My cousin Tim invited me to see them one night at a venue called The Siboney Club in Toronto’s Kensington Market. He promised me that they were like the ‘Australian Pogues’. It wasn’t easy to summon that up but I went along. I remember a furious version of Knockbacks in Halifax and the religious experience that resulted. If you’ve seen enough live shows, you’ve had this happen. Something snaps and you become a fan. A really big fan.

I moved to Japan soon after with a 90 minute cassette of their music. Melbourne had begun to loom large in my imagination. Songs like Under The Clocks, Roaring Days, and Brunswick were calling me in a southerly direction. I took a short vacation there in 1992 and walked up Johnson Street singing Manana, Manana. Back in Japan, I played my 90 minute cassette for a woman from Melbourne. We got married and moved to Carlton.

I’ve spent nearly a quarter of a century in Mick Thomas’s city. Weddings Parties Anything ceased trading about 15 years ago but Mick has continued to build on his repertoire as a solo artist. If you stopped at WPA, you’re missing some of his finest moments. Melbourne still figures in his songs and I still see the city through his eyes. That said, my life has begun to drift towards the northern beaches of Sydney of late but the 90 minute cassette will come with me when I finally head up the Hume for good.

NWN Library

Mick Thomas’s book, These Are The Days: Stories and Songs is beautifully presented with sharp photos and reprints of tour flyers and posters. If you leave this book on your coffee table, your guests will pick it up and start reading. They’ll be happy and you won’t have to entertain them. Win win! The photos frame the chapters, each of which is based around a particular song from either WPA or his solo years.

He begins with The Lonely Goth, one of many standout tracks on the Dust on my Shoes album, his first without the band. The song is the kind of story that Mick tells so well. A Goth kid in a small town hangs around the war memorial, shocks his grandmother in the chemist by buying black nail polish, and corresponds with a Goth girl from a nearby town he met at a Marilyn Manson show. If Mick wrote crime novels, he’d be Elmore Leonard. His characters breathe. The listener can not only picture them but can hear them. Recently, I read Jock Serong’s brilliant new novel, The Rules of Backyard Cricket. I kept thinking of Mick Thomas’s mastery of voice. Then I noticed that Serong is thanked at the back of the book. I pictured the two of them sitting together in the Mona Castle Pub in Seddon, not talking but just listening.

7196808-3x2-460x307I was particularly struck by the chapter on Sisters of Mercy. This song from Weddings Parties Anything’s Roaring Days album was written in response to a nurses’ strike in the 1980s. In 2012 he was invited to play it for a large group of nurses at a strike meeting in the Melbourne Convention Centre. This chapter might have been a straightforward story about the song and how things never change. But it wasn’t. Instead, Thomas talks about a critique he’d copped in another setting for overdoing the emotional dimension of a song about asbestos poisoning. He was accused of emphasising the victimhood of the sufferers instead of celebrating their fighting spirit. The charge seemed terribly unfair and few singers would have the courage to revisit such a hardline dressing down. Mick then finds himself playing Sisters of Mercy for the striking nurses and choking back tears so as to avoid a repeat of the asbestos song episode. He manages it but only just. My own eyes grew a bit misty reading this chapter. The idea of a singer at a strike meeting in these cynical times is itself moving!

I was going to say that Weddings Parties Anything is the biggest Australian band to have missed out on the big time but that’s a pretty competitive field. They are a cult band but it’s a big cult. For a different sort of musician, this sense of ‘there but not there’ would be unbearable. The story of their song Monday’s Experts is a case in point. Many years ago now, a sports commentary television show called Talking Footy used the song. For most bands this would have been a lucky break and for Mick it should have been some extra cash in his pocket. But the TV station squirmed around on paying royalties, claiming it wasn’t the show’s ‘theme’ so the rules didn’t apply. I used to watch it occasionally. It was the theme. When Mick asked politely if they might be willing to pay for it, they immediately replaced his song with a similar and wholly inferior one. Don’t be a musician, kids!

Fortunately, Mick isn’t a bitter man or least he doesn’t sound like one here. He seems to have enjoyed the ride and never lost the desire to write songs. This doesn’t always happen when I finish musicians’s memoirs but I wanted more. I particularly would like to hear more about the early days of the band. The chapter on Away Away provides a tantalizing chronology but I need details! I think another book is in order but for the time being this wonderful collection will do just fine.

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Teasers: The lyrics and guitar chords for every song! Jim Dickinson says that no one wants to hear a short song about cannibalism! A frank discussion of dysentery and marital discord in Turkey!

No Wave Goodbye

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Girl in a Band  Kim Gordon, Dey Street, 2015

This is a sad book. Unlike so many rock and roll memoirs, it is not a litany of drug related deaths or missed opportunities. Sonic Youth’s key members, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelly, and the author of Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon, are alive and well. Their now defunct band has an enviable legacy. They never sold out, never released a seriously bad record, and can rightly claim to be one of the most important acts of the last few decades.

So why is it such a sad book? If you have ever been through a divorce, you will recognize a lot of familiar stuff here. If you haven’t been, well, this is what it’s like.

Throughout the band’s existence, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were one of the great couples in rock and roll. They were also the coolest. Kim was intelligent, beautiful, and she played bass, for god’s sake! Thurston was tall, friendly in a shy sort of way, and played guitar like a man possessed by punk rock demons. They shared a loft in New York and were as well connected in the art world as in the music one.http://assets.rollingstone.com/assets/1994/article/are-you-xperienced-19941006/183398/large_rect/1422321104/1401x788-85841396.jpg

But ultimately the marriage didn’t last. After nearly 30 years, he met someone else and it all ended in an uncool, tawdry fashion. Kim Gordon is not angry. It’s not that kind of book. She’s just sad. Okay, maybe she’s a little angry.

Fortunately, the entire book is not about this sad event. It’s a memoir and a really good one. I read it in two sittings. I had to go to work!

Kim Gordon was born in 1953 which puts her in that interesting demographic of people who were teenagers at the end of the sixties. They were there but not like someone like Neil Young who was born in 1945 was there. On the other hand, they are still boomers with all of that generation’s manic energy and fearlessness.

In 1969, Kim Gordon was going to high school in LA. The Manson Murders would have been discussed over egg salad sandwiches in the school cafeteria. She knew someone who was friends with Bruce Berry, later Neil Young’s roadie and the subject of Tonight’s the Night. What comes through in her story is that Sonic Youth’s groove owes something to their shared understanding of that period. She and Thurston are old enough to have caught the whole ‘break on through’ vibe but young enough to recognize how quickly it could turn into ‘take it easy’. For them the sixties isn’t a nostalgic past but the beginning of something. She mentions Thurston’s love for The Stooges and acknowledges, like everyone else, the importance of the Velvet Underground. As Victoria Williams once put it, they ‘were too young to be hippies, missed out on the love’. Their sixties was not mop tops and flower power but rather Manson girls, riots, and bands like the MC5. She notes that the song, ‘Death Valley ’69’, a collaboration with Lydia Lunch from their early days, is about her own experience of the time.

The No Wave movement in New York also made a significant impression on her. Sonic Youth, in her estimation, are closer to this genre than punk or grunge, which, of course, they, in part, inspired. The deconstructive ethic of the mid seventies New York art scene remained an influence on Sonic Youth to the end.

The story of her teenage years in LA, her move to New York, and her relationship with Thurston, make Girl in a Band a natural companion to Patti Smith’s Just Kids. I hope now she writes another one in the M Train mode. Finishing the book makes you feel like calling her up for a chat. As with Patti, her voice gets in your head and you miss it when you are finished.

File:Sonic Youth live 20050707.jpg I am not a hardcore Sonic Youth fan. I saw them once, opening for Neil Young, and I have two or three of their albums. The wonderful thing about this book is that it doesn’t matter. She has so many interesting things to say about art, about her friendships with people like Kurt Cobain, her experiences as a woman in the blokey world of alternative rock, motherhood, and her brief time as a fashion designer. I suspect that even readers who had never heard of Sonic Youth would be charmed by her story. That said, fans will relish the detail with which she outlines how certain songs came to be written. She is clearly inspired by the books she reads and she mentions many of them. Keep a pen handy.

Girl in a Band, like Patti’s books, is a breath of fresh air for readers of rock and roll memoirs. In a genre too often dominated by score settling, windy claims of glory, and adolescent self justification, Kim Gordon’s book is, yes, a little sad, but it is also intelligent, readable, and much more than simply a recount of a band’s progress.

Teasers: Her take on Courtney Love. The tour with Neil Young. Kim on The Carpenters.