Archive for January, 2009

Lucinda Williams, Sweet Old World

January 23, 2009

sweet-old-worldI did write about Sweet Old World some years ago, when I realized what a warm and extraordinary collection of songs it was.  I loved how pure, how simple a song like “Something About What Happens When We Talk” could be – exploring the loneliness that lurks between two people who think so fondly of each other.  I loved that she made tire irons and casseroles sound sexy in the rollicking yodel classic “Hot Blood.”  Now, I hear something else also – it’s 17 years later into Williams’s career, where she first indulged her country muse to great perfection in Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and then remade our understanding of desire and loneliness in aging from Essence even through her “happy” 2008 release Little HoneySweet Old World is as much of an evocation of her consciousness at the time as any of those records are.

This is where the country songs were more simple and lovely, opening with “Six Blocks Away,” which could have been a jaunty, great country single.  This record, though, is a happy record marked by great grief and disappointment.  She sings of her brother’s death, gorgeously, in “Little Angel, Little Brother,” and a friend’s suicide with tremendous mystery and excitement in “Pineola.”  She tells, with stark, elevating simplicity, the story of a woman compromising her ideals in “Memphis Pearl.”  She even closes the record with a deeply naked, 3 a.m. cover of Nick Drake’s “Which Will,” which sounds, actually, like the themes Williams wants to approach.

I do now think there are themes on Sweet Old World, and I mostly feel that way from the two songs that stand out to me the most, although all are great songs here.  The first is the title track, “Sweet Old World,” in which Williams, presumably to her brother, asks someone to notice all the wonderful elements of the world that were so extraordinary, and lost when that person killed himself.  This could be a song of great sadness, but it isn’t – it’s a song of strength and wonder.  That’s even truer for “Sidewalks of the City,” which is as simple as it sounds – a sweet, quiet walk at 3 a.m. down a city street, bars closing, bums sleeping in doorways.  Yet she sings to a lover, “Hold me, baby, give me some strength… give me good things, tell me that my world is safe.”  Again, this could be a song of loneliness, of sadness, of fear.  Instead, it’s a plea of appreciation, of loving the world around, of begging, as she does, for grace.  I’ve loved the Williams who later in life got lonely and sang so precisely about it.  This is the Williams I love for wanting, so gorgeously, to truly be in the world.

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“The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey” Joni Mitchell

January 23, 2009

joni-mitchell-260Even Joni Mitchell had to find the right words to explain her 1979 album Mingus, a jazz collaboration with the great jazz bassist Charles Mingus, and an album whose greatest ambition was to be… well, “sketchy,” was what one Rolling Stone article described it as.  The songs sort of ramble laconically, melodies buried when present at all.  Mitchell later called the record a “work in progress,” proud of its structural looseness.  I think it’s hard not to reach a similar conclusion while listening to the record, but at the same time, all looseness has the ability to turn into form over time.  Lucinda Williams has an unreleased song called “Sundays” at the end of the special edition to Lucinda Williams and swears it’s unfinished – I don’t think the song could be more perfect.

“The Wolf That Lives in Lindsay” is a battle between furious plucks of a bass, playing at a different tune of the acoustic guitar that plays high and low at once, and the hand drums that beat, well, to their own drum, appropriately.  Mitchell, though past the age in which a listener could tell her voice was going, soars to old vocal heights – “Of the darkness in men’s minds/ what can you say/ that wasn’t marked by history,” she ponders and sort of tells a story of the men and their darknesses, wandering the streets, as well as of Lindsey, who finds her own darkness expressed within.  There is one more instrument combining here as well – howles of wolves, used as a composition that actually complements all the desultory elements.  “The Wolf” isn’t the sort of song that you can pull out of a jazz record and turn into a standard, but it is one that takes hold reflecting the uncertainty and mystery of the world and wanders gorgeously with its consciousness into the dark.  The guitar, the howls, the voice, the deep pluck of that bass awaken something – fear and sadness living simultaneously with sensuality.

“The Ant of the Self” by ZZ Packer

January 11, 2009

drinking20coffee20elsewhere“Freedom is attained only when the ant of the self – that small, blind, crumb-seeking part of ourselves – casts off slavery and its legacy, becoming a huge brave ox.”  A small, black teenage narrator named Spurgeon hears this bit of wisdom, as if in passing, at the Million Man March in “The Ant of the Self.”  He notes with boredom and anger that the preacher speaking is repeating a message heard earlier, and reading from a letter read earlier, about ways to keep slaves down – by pitting dark ones against light ones, big plantations vs. small plantations, etc.

We know by this point, about midway through “Ant,” that Spurgeon is completely justified in his anger.  He has taken a road trip with his father – always referred to in the full, ingratiating name of Ray Bivens Jr. – who is a drunk, abusive, self-deluded, avoiding a DUI conviction, owing Spurgeon bail money, and certain that selling a group of exotic birds to the Afro-centric attendees of the March will get him rich.  Spurgeon is smart, he debates for his mostly white high school, and has a loving mother who is as baffled by her ex as her son is, but whose obsessive religion makes her nearly as blind to her son’s potential and good nature as Ray Bivens Jr. is – although, at least his mother would never steal her ex’s car, fill it with smoke, and drive it across the country full of birds.

That speech advising how freedom is attained speaks for the situation of race in America, and also speaks to the freedom Spurgeon needs to find from his father.  Does Spurgeon recognize this?  “At first it sounds like what everyone else has been saying,” Spurgeon says.  That “At first” is telling.  Perhaps the blithe, angry, casually dismissive voice guiding us through this story with much analysis, insight, and sadness, finds something more to take out of this part of the speech.  He doesn’t act on it though – he instead proceeds to get in a fight with the inspired, angry men around him who mistake Spurgeon’s anger at his father for dismissal of the triumph of black rights.

Writing about race is tricky, as is writing about any “important subject.”  In order to do so in a short story context, you have to especially believe the prose discussing it – and a simple discussion will not do.  “The Ant of the Self” is the fourth story in Packer’s 2003 collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, and I believe that no other form and no other collection could discuss race as well as this book does.  Its stories range from decade to decade, place to place, male to female, young to old, and chronicle, in each one, someone else facing the enormity of what it is to comprehend race in society.  The book closes with an astonishing story, “Brownies,” in which a group of young black girls accidentally stumbles onto the cruelty that defines minority interactions.  It ends with “Doris Is Coming,” a gripping story that concludes with a black girl sitting at a white ice cream parlor during the civil rights movement.

But “The Ant of the Self” is the story that has stuck with me the most since I read Drinking Coffee Elsewhere years ago.  It is a fascinating, beyond unpredictable narrative – you don’t even realize, for ten pages or so, that it is even about the Million Man March.  And even when it is, it’s not.  The true meat of the story is afterwards, at a bar full of black men who did not attend the march.  Spurgeon, who was indifferent to the march anyway, states it was like a vacation for him to be among black men for once.

A man with a goiter responds to him, “Back in the day, before you were born, couldn’t that type of shit happen… We the ones fought for you to be in school with the white folks.  We sent you to go spy on them.  See how the hell those white folks make all that money!  Now you talking ’bout a vacation!”  Spurgeon’s life is far from great.  Because of his father, Spurgeon’s connect to alcoholism, disillusion, money problems, jail time, and having to figure out how to tell his mother he doesn’t know where in DC her car wound up.  But it’s also something akin to progress.

Not that Packer wants us to get too hopeful.  “The Ant of the Self” soars – and works – because the racial and family dynamics simply follow the trajectory of the narrative.  Something happens between Spurgeon and his father, and it doesn’t end well.  Most of the stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere don’t exactly “end well” for their characters.  But the all reach a certain point of progress and understanding.  The final scene of “Ant” involves Spurgeon in an Amtrak station realizing he can’t go east anymore, and seeing a father and his young child, who had attended the march, acting warm and happy with one another.

The racial and family dynamics here tend to symbolize one another, jumping back and forth.  Spurgeon is trying to reconcile the disdain he has for his father while not being willing to reject him entirely – like the ant of the title, he seeks crumbs of affection from a man incapable of giving them.  Much like the black identity in this country, there is much to learn to live with, and much progress has been made.  Similarly, Spurgeon seeks an understanding amongst the throng of black men he cannot find – he is not large, or athletic, and thinks of thing in quiet, introspective ways, quite distinct from the men who will not listen to him.  His family dynamic is mirrored by the racial dynamic, and vice versa.

Short story writers learn to be economical with their writing, giving you just what you need.  Packer has the skill to tell a story about race, and not quite tell a story about race.  People talk about race in it, like people do on occasion, and they do it from their own perspective.  The mass of perspectives – generations of perspectives, from the men in bars with goiters, the jesus-loving women on the phone, the drunks selling birds, and the happy young children in train stations – proves that experience is varied and ongoing, and that anything is possible.  “The Ant of the Self” doesn’t quite end in a hopeful place, but ends where you know hope is very much possible.