Mrs. Archaeopteryx gave me an I-pod Nano for Christmas last year, and I spent several months wondering how I had lived fifty years without one. Then I spent the next several months wondering why she had bought something with only 14 gigs of memory—the damned thing would only hold about 1500 songs. Lo and behold, after enough wailing and gnashing of teeth, an I-pod Classic with ten times as much memory appeared next to my laptop. I love it so much better—it looks and feels substantial. It’s too big to tuck into a shirt pocket, but I don’t care—I get to spend the next couple of months loading a significant portion of my CD collection into it, and I so look forward to listening to obscure tracks off of decades-old pirated discs.
Anyway, with the advent of the Thanksgiving Break, I’m trapped in my office for a day without classes, and only my new toy as company. It’s a perfect opportunity to play the game invented by Rundeep and Claude Scales—put the I-pod on shuffle and list the first ten songs that come up. So here’s the annotated list for this morning:
1. Carmelita—Warren Zevon. One of my favorite songs, and the impetus for today’s list. The song is sung from the point of view of a heroin-addicted artist who contemplates suicide (“I’m sitting here playing solitaire, with my pearl-handled deck.”) I’ve always assumed the song was at least partly autobiographical—Zevon had a life that was interesting in just about every sense. He was an obsessive-compulsive genius who counted Billy Bob Thornton and David Letterman among his closest friends, and who died at age 56 of mesothelioma.
2. I Still Miss Someone—Rosanne Cash. Rosanne recorded this version of her father’s song of broken love for the Kindred Spirits tribute album which was released a year before Johnny’s death in 2003. Apparently, everyone around the elder Cash understood that he wasn’t long for this world. It’s a sad song to begin with, but seems even more desolate when cast as the story of a girl singing about her missing father.
3. The Blues—Randy Newman. My friends are entertained by how much I love Randy Newman—“He’s got the Randy Newman boxed set” is how they make fun of my musical tastes. But I suspect that Newman’s the greatest American songwriter, and his songs of idiots who don’t know they’re idiots make me want to laugh and cry at the same time. This song is from his Trouble in Paradise album—Newman at the height of his powers. The lyrics are about a songwriter (anyone we know?) whose mother died in a factory fire, whose brother is a male prostitute, whose best friend was killed in a bar fight, and whose father abandoned the family for a woman he met on a train. Paul Simon sings the chorus.
4. Highway Patrol—Junior Brown. Country music at its finest. Brown plays a double-necked guitar with built-in steel, and his lyrics are usually funny. This song is just a straight-up paean to a state trooper, sung from the trooper’s point of view, funny only in that somebody wrote a paean to a state trooper.
5. 22—Richard Buckner. Oh boy. A lovelorn kid commits suicide when his girlfriend never calls to talk about their break-up. Sample lyric: “I didn’t leave a letter, I just wrote my baby’s name, on the mirror all steamed over, with water, heat, and shame.” The phone rings just as he loses consciousness. I still get chill bumps each time I hear this song. Why isn’t Buckner rich and famous?
6. Rehab—Amy Winehouse. Go ahead. Make fun if you like. I heard the song by mistake, and then picked up the disc Back to Black. It’s the album the Supremes would have made in 1962 if Holland-Dozier-Holland had used the word “fuck” in their lyrics a lot more than they did. Everyone knows Winehouse’s story, and it’s clear from this album that she knows it, too; she’s killing herself and kidding herself. How can you not feel bad for a kid who sings “I don’t ever wanna drink again, I just need a friend?”
7. The Wig He Made Her Wear—Drive-by Truckers. This band is my favorite discovery from this year. Think Lynyrd Skynyrd, but with funnier, smarter lyrics, and a rawer sound. This song recounts the true story of Mary Winkler of Selmer, Tennessee, who killed her pastor husband Matthew because he “made her dress up slutty before they had sex.” Her defense attorneys caused an “audible gasp in the courtroom that day,” when they exhibited “them high-heeled shoes and that wig he made her wear.” The jury reduced her charges to involuntary manslaughter, which the singer finds perplexing: “I ain’t judging either way, but she’s already out of jail.”
8. My Head’s in Mississippi—ZZ Top. Here’s a band that helped me enjoy a lot of weed back in the 1970s. These guys seemed to play flat-out rock and roll, and only later did I figure out that they had tricked me into liking the blues. This song is about a confused, drugged-out young man who doesn’t seem to remember if his encounter with a naked cowgirl was real or not. “Stumbling through the parking lot of an invisible Seven-Eleven,” may sound like fun to you, but it just seems scary to me. Maybe a trip to rehab is in order.
9. Hell—Squirrel Nut Zippers. Jimbo Mathus is a demented genius, and the music of this band is Jimbo at his most demented and most genius-y. Who would have thought up a calypso song about Hell? Apparently it’s not a pleasant locale: “This is a place where eternally / fire is applied to the body / teeth are extruded and bones are ground / then baked into cakes which are passed around.”
10. Daniel and the Sacred Harp—The Band. The Band was around for a long time, but only in the last several years has it become one of my favorites. Robbie Robertson wrote this song of a man who sells his soul in exchange for a beautiful harp and the ability to play it. Robertson said that he was inspired by the story of Robert Johnson, the Mississippi blues legend who claimed that he sold his soul for the ability to play the guitar. A high price, but still in all, a good trade.