The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Category — Music Reviews

Circle Round the Sun

Put salt in my wounds and honey on my lips. Sugar for sugar, I’ll give you salt for salt.

There was no one quite like Leo Kottke. Nor will there ever be again. We went to see him at the Guthrie. No doubt we were high. He probably was as well. He ran his hand over his head and said that some hooligans had cut his hair and then proceeded to play the loveliest 12-string anyone could imagine.

I love this song. It’s played in my head numerous times in the decades following that concert.

August 21, 2012   Comments Off on Circle Round the Sun

Hard Times

Gillian Welch’s new CD The Harrow is largely disappointing. The voice is still there and her buddy with his exquisite guitar and harmony is still here, but the spirit is missing. Gone absent. Not sure what’s happened to her. Guess I don’t want to know. But there is one track on the album which is special. The one called “Hard Times.” Makes me cry. Reminds me of my dad. One is enough, though, isn’t it?

There was a Camptown Man, used to plow and sing
And he loved that mule and the mule loved him
When the day got long as it does about now
I’d hear him singing to his mule cow
Calling, “Come on my sweet old girl, and I’d bet the whole damn world
That we’re gonna make it yet to the end of the road”

Singing hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, Bessie
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more

Said it’s a mean old world, heavy in need
That big machine is just a-picking up speed
They were supping on tears, they were supping on wine
We all get to heaven in our own sweet time
So come all you Asheville boys and turn up your old-time noise
And kick ’til the dust comes up from the cracks in the floor

Singing, hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, brother
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more

But the Camptown Man, he doesn’t plow no more
I seen him walking down to the cigarette store
Guess he lost that knack and he forgot that song
Woke up one morning and the mule was gone
So come on, you ragtime kings, and come on, you dolls, and sing
And pick up the dusty old horn and give it a blow

Playing, hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, honey
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, sugar
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more

August 4, 2011   Comments Off on Hard Times


Last night I put myself to sleep listening to the tunes on the Smithsonian Folkways CD “The Harry Smith Connection.” It had been years since I last heard it. “Minglewood Blues” sung by John Sebastian and the J-Band with Geoff Muldaur is very funny and true, but it doesn’t compare with the tune “Nothing” sung by The Fugs. This version was recorded live and is very humorous–unless, of course, you happen to be in a black period of nihilist nothingness yourself (which I wasn’t). The Yiddish and Spanish are just repetitions of the English. Imagine it being sung by a folksy, Beatniky, knish-stuffed-with-irony klezmer band and you’ll know how it should sound.

Monday, nothing
Tuesday, nothing
Wednesday and Thursday nothing
Friday, for a change
a little more nothing
Saturday once more nothing

Sunday nothing
Monday nothing
Tuesday and Wednesday nothing
Thursday, for a change
a little more nothing
Friday once more nothing

Montik gornisht,
Dinstik Gornisht
Midwoch an Donnerstik gornisht
Fritik, far a noveneh gornisht pikveleh
Shabas nach a mool gornisht

Lunes nada
Martes nada
Miercoles y Jueves nada
Viernes, por cambia
un poco mas nada
Sabado otra vez nada

January nothing
February nothing
March and April nothing
May and June
a lot more nothing
July nothing

’29 nothing
’32 nothing
’39, ’45 nothing
1965 a whole lot of nothing
1966 nothing

reading nothing
writing nothing
even arithmetic nothing
geography, philosophy, history, nothing
social anthropology a lot of nothing

oh, Village Voice nothing
New Yorker nothing
Sing Out and Folkways nothing
Harry Smith and Allen Ginsberg
nothing, nothing, nothing

poetry nothing
music nothing
painting and dancing nothing
The world’s great books
a great set of nothing
Audy and Foudy nothing

fucking nothing
sucking nothing
flesh and sex nothing
Church and Times Square
all a lot of nothing
nothing, nothing, nothing

Stevenson nothing
Humphrey nothing
Averell Harriman nothing
John Stuart Mill nil, nil
Franklin Delano nothing

Karlos Marx nothing
Engels nothing
Bakunin and Kropotkin nothing
Leon Trotsky lots of nothing
Stalin less than nothing

nothing nothing nothing nothing
lots and lots of nothing
nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing
lots of it
Not a God damn thing

March 26, 2011   1 Comment

The Reports of Her Death Were Greatly Exaggerated

Know why Colin Meloy sounds so good on such purely American folk songs as “June Hymn” and “Rise to Me?” Why, Gillian Welch, of course, singing harmony, as she has with the Decemberists since the beginning. Gillian knows folk music and is unselfish about helping to make it.

I’m in love with the tune “June Hymn.” It’s like the second coming of Simon and Garfunkel with the sweetest folk guitar I’ve heard since Revival, Gillian Welch’s debut album.

March 16, 2011   Comments Off on The Reports of Her Death Were Greatly Exaggerated

Once Famous, Twice Shy

Age and a few added pounds have changed this famous rocker into someone almost unrecognizable. Who is he?

February 11, 2011   1 Comment

Love Minus Zero/No Limit

YouTube is weird and wonderful. Want to hear 100 bad renditions of Bob Dylan’s famous song, “Love Minus Zero?” Check them out. One is as bad as the next. Even by professional musicians.

It only goes to prove that whatever made Dylan great was unalterable, irreducible, and unalloyed. What was this quality? I’m not sure, but one thing I know. Imitation—even when Dylan imitates himself—is the sincerest form of flattery.

I love this song. It describes how I feel about the woman I love with all my heart. But only the young Dylan could really sing it.

My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
People carry roses
Make promises by the hours
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge
Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge

The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring
The wind howls like a hammer
The night blows cold and rainy
My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing

February 10, 2011   Comments Off on Love Minus Zero/No Limit

Did Jimi Die Before He Died?

I watched a biography of Jimi Hendrix the other day and found myself fascinated again by his music, especially the song, “Voodoo Chile,” recorded in May of 1968, which is as complex and moving as a Bach organ piece. By September of 1970 Hendrix was dead, like Moonie suffocating on his own alcoholic vomit, an unlovely way to die. Oddly, I felt he had “died” earlier, around the time that Noel Redding quit the Experience at the end of June in 1969. The group carried on with Billy Cox on bass, but never really sounded the same, Redding’s eerie, spacial bass—which so totally complemented Hendrix’s guitar and voice—was replaced by something tighter and jazzier. Maybe, it’s just my taste—or lack of it—that is to blame, but I had the feeling Hendrix started imitating himself around this period. You know, like someone pretending he was Jimi Hendrix. Because I don’t really understand the man I don’t know if this is true or not, but I do know it happens to artists when inspiration dries up. Sometimes, like Bob Dylan, they become increasing weaker imitations of themselves, images of images of images, until there is nothing left. Most times inspiration strikes only once in a lifetime. Even if it revisits the artist, it is never continuous. Trying to inspire oneself through drugs and sex only leads to dissolution and death. Often it’s best just to walk away.

January 1, 2011   Comments Off on Did Jimi Die Before He Died?


October 1, 2010   Comments Off on Hallelujah

Bright As Yellow

Heard this song on The Current this morning. Amazing voice. Karen Paris. Gives me goose bumps. “Bright As Yellow” from Glow by The Innocence Mission.

And you live life with your arms stretched out.
Eye to eye when speaking.
Enter rooms with great joy shouts,
happy to be meeting.
And bright,
bright, bright as yellow,
warm as yellow.
And I do not want to be a rose.
I do not wish to be pale pink,
but flower scarlet, flower gold.
And have no thorns to distance me,
but be bright,
bright, bright as yellow,
warm as yellow.
Even if I’m shouting, even if I’m shouting here
Even if I’m shouting, do you see that I’m wanting,
that I want to be so so
bright, bright as yellow,
warm as yellow.

September 8, 2010   Comments Off on Bright As Yellow

Nick Drake

On 25 November 1974, Nick Drake died from an overdose of amitriptyline when he was 26 years old. He had suffered from depression and insomnia throughout his life, and after the completion of Pink Moon, his third album, he retired to his parents’ home in rural Warwickshire. The amitriptyline had been prescribed for his depression.

My older son—musician, architect, and artist—turned me onto Drake many years ago. I must confess I didn’t like him at first because his music seemed like “bossa nova meets Donovan”—that awful blend of folk, jazz, pop, psychedelia, and world music that makes you want to scream—but, unlike Donovan, Drake grows on you.

Maybe it’s because in his voice, flute, and guitar, one senses the fragility of a life lived to the edge of endurance. Of course, in modern society one is expected to tough it out until the end, regardless of the pain and suffering one endures. The methods available for killing oneself are crude at best. Our leaders believe that if humane methods of suicide were available, everyone would go out and kill themselves. This is ridiculous, of course, but society always errs on the side of the conservative.

In any case, Nick Drake’s music lives on in the millions of people he has charmed and influenced. Death did not stop his voice. It could not.

February 9, 2010   Comments Off on Nick Drake