Junebug versus Hurricane


World Without Tears: A Devotional, Part 1

World Without Tears: A Devotional, Part 1

Taylor Black

May 2010

    Coda:

    I climbed all the way inside

    Your tragedy

    I got behind

    The majesty

Of the different shapes

In every note

The endless tapes

Of every word you wrote

Preface: Misery Loves Company

Just as that tired, worn out old saying says: misery loves company.  While the remark is normally intended as a kind of passive-aggressive jab directed at the kind of person who tortures their friends, family and really any poor charitable soul who will listen with a never-ending sympathy of complaints and woe-is-me’s, for me, it’s a way of life.  As you plunge your self and your own sympathies into this piece, you will see that my own love of misery’s company is really the motor behind all my thoughts and affections, weepy and strange as they may be.

And another thing, dear reader: whether or not you’ve figured it out by now, the string of ideas, gushes and aphorisms that might otherwise be politely referred to as a “paper” will be largely—and, I hope, wonderfully—self-indulgent. There will be more affection in my writing than analysis, and I will concern myself more with how things feel and sound as I say them than defend them as ground-breaking ideas or concepts—I will be writing about music after all.  At the very least, I hope you read things you want to hear and that the sight of me wallowing in my own wickedness is entertaining.

We are entering dangerous territory, or, rather, I should say I am entering into a project that’s about my absolute favorite album done by my absolute favorite artist.  Why is this dangerous?  Well, as most of my previous “academic” work has been conventionally analytical, I haven’t spent much time or intellectual energy lingering on the things in my life that I love.  I will shamefully admit that for a long while, my interpretation of doing scholarly work has been about making arguments about things or situating myself into theoretical discussions that have been raging on in one form or another for-probably-ever.  In this state of blissful recalcitrance, I found it easiest to make my arguments and my very defensive(?) claims about things I felt a certain detachment from; the idea of responding to and writing about something I love so religiously as music and a figure I identify with so wholly might lead me into embarrassing, confessional territory.

So, with all of that said, I would simply like to emphasize the fact that with this new turn in my work (let’s call it my musical turn for the time being), I am pushing my thoughts and my academic productions away from its defensive, readerly roots towards somewhere and something more celebratory.  The joke I brought up in the first sentence will not be, at the end of all of this, on me; as I ruminate on Lucinda Williams’ World Without Tears I will hold it up as an ode to loneliness and despair, all the while doing my own part to draw out and wallow around in the loooove in “Misery Loves Company.”

In terms of a method, mine will be not be very methodological.  For starters, you will detect a stark lack of citation in what lays ahead of you—this is not because (believe it or not) I don’t care what other people have to say about Lucinda or any of the musical genres her music and my depictions of her engage with, but because I want to resist the rather litigious urge in academic scholarship to prove what’s said critically and creatively by citing, engaging and situating compulsorily.  My thoughts and indeed the sonic space inside my head where they reside and are generated have not come from a vacuum.  In similar ways that songwriters can say that this or that piece is inspired by this or that artist or genre, there is a kind of interplay between this paper and the texts—in this case, Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queens Throat, José Muñoz’ Cruising Utopia, Jimmy McDonough’s new Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen and Hélène Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing— I have been inhabiting during the writing process.  While I engage with these pieces to the extent that their thoughts and modes of writing ring in my mind and my ear while I myself do work, I will not attempt to condense or be totally responsible for them, as I try and work with this model of residual, ghostly intertextuality through my own thoughts and feelings.

Secondly, I will confess that the idea of explicitly explaining, describing or deconstructing Lucinda’s music and the album I am approaching gives me even more angst than attempting to be responsible for the contents of a book.  Music, like literature and academic scholarship alike, is a process of creativity and failure, and its products and productions should not be approached in order to determine what is they represent or explain, but instead honored for what they do, as well as for what sensations, feelings, misgivings and thoughts they create in the hearing of them.  So, just as these authors and these books will be singing their songs in my head while I write, so too while the contents of World Without Tears play while I move from word to word and page to page.  As I move ahead, I will rarely approach a song in any literal way or attempt to take it apart—either lyrically or otherwise.  Instead, I will let my thoughts and feelings flow against the backdrop of particular tracks on the album, which I will dutifully and possibly excruciatingly play on repeat while I construct the different spaces of my piece.  When I have done so, I will list the song and request that my reader try and listen while they read so that they too can sense the rhythm and the affective space with which this piece comes to be.  When I do sense a particularly cogent or uncanny relevance of Lucinda’s lyrics for these songs, I will chop them up and place them—in italics—throughout the piece.

With all of that out of the way, I promise not to defend myself or my feelings anymore throughout this work, which is really more like a religious devotional than any kind of academic prose I can imagine.  I’m sure I will contradict myself here and there, and my love of Lucinda and tragedy may confound or even fatigue my reader, but I do hope you will at least appereciate my earnestness and the purity of whatever feelings I express here. But why?  And shouldn’t I be ashamed at such a disgusting display? Isn’t all of this self-loathing instead of self-loving?  Or am I just being ironic?  One very easy way to get out these pointed, if obvious, slew of accusations and doubts about my so-called love for misery and the truly miserable would be to revert to some kind of psychoanalytic explanation about being from the Bible Belt South and having internalized and maybe even romanticized all of the most terrible components of the melodramatic Fire and Brimstone culture I was brought up in; or worse, I could simply lean on my identity as a homosexual man and sight some well-known, meaningless tropes about queerness and tragedy as a way of placating you and letting me and my work off the hook as “camp.”

Her Wonderful Wickedness

(Listen to) Righteously

          • Think this through
          • I laid it down for you every time
          • Respect me I give you what’s mine
          • You’re entirely way too fine

In all kinds of rather obvious ways, my decision to undertake this Lucinda record is a mistake.  First of all, it’s not her most beloved body of work; 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is the one album critics and journalists love to love.  With its cinematic, narrative songs that weave their ways in and out of moldy, humid corners of the Delta region of the American South, Car Wheels combines just the right amount of folksy realness with meticulously high-brow literaryness to please the kinds of critics who felt invested in roots music but isolated from the explosion of decidedly middling, middlebrow pop music coming out of Nashville.  Here you had something as conceptual and sophomorically intellectual as a Bob Dylan or Neil Young album falling from the heavy, weary lips of a woman who had not only conceived of, but actually lived the very southern stories she sung about, all delivered in her thick, muggy southern drawl. Even more exciting for journalists and critics alike was the gossip surrounding and the drama that weighted down the production of the album; taking over four years, three different incantations, three different producers and countless victims employed along the way, once Car Wheels finally came out, Lucinda had managed to gain a reputation for herself as a bitchy, histrionic perfectionist—and (the mostly male) world of rock criticism and journalism still, to this day, can’t seem to publish anything without using that “perfectionist” word, just like no one had ever said it or thought it before they regurgitated it.  Leave it to them.

    • Arms around my waist
    • You get a taste of how good this can be
    • Be the man you ought to tenderly
    • You’re entirely way too fine

You see, or as you already assume or expect, our Ms. Williams is a bit hard to take.  For one, she is a perfectionist, and, leaving all gendered epithets aside, doesn’t hide her emotions very well.  While most of her fans and critics are both men, their relationship is totally different, and what they see and hear in Lucinda varies completely.  For the detached rock critic, weighed down by their strange mix of irony and corporate professionalism, Lucinda’s story is sort of a joke on her, something to talk about ad nauseam.

When you run your hand

All up and run it back down my leg

Get excited and bite my neck

Get me all worked up like that

You don’t have to prove

        • Your manhood to me constantly
        • I know you’re the man can’t you see
        • I love you Righteously

I

The song “Righteously” that is blaring in my ears while I write this is an anthem to power and glory through abjection.  In some ways related to Tammy Wynette’s epic song of total, devastating and, in the end, failed devotion to her man, Lucinda’s song is, in some ways, a promise of hers to the man she’s got in her life.  However, it’s also a wicked line of flight away from the sentiments expressed in “Stand By Your Man”; beyond and behind her coy promises of righteous love is the real power of this song, which actually, magically stimulates, entices and interpellates her man’s devotion. For the middle aged white men I see at her shows, however, there is a spark in their eyes and a look of abject devotion on their face that lets me know they get it: they don’t look down on Lucinda, they look up at her, and while the sad and sorrowful definitely falls out of her whenever she opens her mouth to sing, it is her fierce, flirtatious and wicked delivery and composure that transforms her tragedies into an elixir that draws her devotees in and brings them down to their grateful knees.

Arms around my waist

You get a taste of how good this can be

Be the man you ought to tenderly

Stand up for me

Approaching Lucinda, Our Beautiful Loser

(Listen to) Sweet Side

      • So you don’t always show your sweet side…

Just this side of strange in comparison with the other men at Lucinda’s concerts, I will admit that the main reason I enjoy myself at her shows, though, is mitigated through my sense as well as my perception of her anxiety that is normally—almost ritually—played out each evening she performs in a certain chronology.  When she finally makes her way on stage (always very belatedly, in my notable experience), she brings with her an unsettling sort of presence.  Lucinda’s affect and disposition is weighed down by a stony, stoic, silent stage fright for the first third of the set, as she moves her way through a handful of amazingly slow, overwrought, plodding, pitiful old songs (the kinds anyone else would tell you to not perform in concert, much less for the first part of the damn set!) allthewhile averting the gaze of the audience and dissociating her from the stage she is performing on.

        • You run yourself ragged tryin’ to be strong

You feel bad when you done nothin’ wrong

Love got all confused with anger and pride

So much abuse on such a little child

Someone you trusted told you to shut up

Now there’s a pain in your gut that you can’t get rid of

After this, thanks to nerves and/or whatever liquor she’s got in her cup up there on stage (she says she drinks Grand Marnier to coat her throat, so there’s at least that…), our once sheepish heroine warms up a bit, maintaining her anxieties and displeasures about her surroundings.  Peppering—or, if you’re not into such tenuous forms of spectatorship, cluttering—her performance with false starts and vulgar outbursts, Lucinda has come out of her shell a bit (the last example that comes to mind is her, very seriously and angrily, stopping mid-song to say “Who do I have to fuck to get a fucking fan up here? It’s fucking hot!” Other times I’ve heard her scold people for talking during her set, asking them if they’d like to “fucking do it” themselves)—finally opening herself up to the crowd, only to turn, venomously and breathtakingly, against them.

You were screamed at and kicked over and over

Now you always feel sick and you can’t keep a lover

        • You get defensive at every turn
        • You’re overly sensitive and overly concerned

Few precious memories no lullabies

Hollowed out centuries of lies

A Lucinda Williams concert then, and finally, comes to an end in a flurry of hard-rocking, loud songs that are as frayed at the edges, but orgasmically so.  By the time you’re ready to leave, Lucinda has certainly done what a good showman is supposed to do, which is give you your money’s worth by keeping you on the edge of your seat and the tips of your toes.  The angst and constant fear of total disaster that guides both Lucinda and her audience through the evening come full circle by the final bows, as she drags out the blaring, cathartic portion of the evening until everyone is drunk and damn well spent.  Bill Buford, in his—confused, rather patronizing—depiction of Lucinda published in The New Yorker not long after the release of Car Wheels summed up one of her shows in this way:

    “. . .it’s still possible to see a live show in which she gets a little carried away-and she always seems to be on the verge of getting a little carried away-and hear almost the entire oeuvre, as was the case about eighteen months ago at New York’s Irving Plaza, when Williams’s [sic] encores went on longer than the act, and the audience emerged, after nearly two and a half hours, thoroughly spent, not only by the duration of the program but also by the unforgiving rawness of the songs.”1

What I cannot grasp here—and indeed what I intend to turn on its head, is this very expected, boring depiction of Lucinda as merely a crazy bitch who happens to have written some amazing songs—that being a fan of hers or even being in the presence of her is a thoroughly harrowing thing for someone to be put through—is the lack of empathy that Mr. Buford carries in his self-confessed appreciation of Lucinda’s music.  And, of course, he’s not the only person or journalist to put Lucinda and her concert performances in such a glib light (incidentally, a Time Out New York blurb that hinted at possible trainwrecks and meltdowns at one of her concerts was the cause of a night of drama and bitching from Lucinda, who did not get over or stop mentioning it for the entire evening); perhaps this condescending sketch of Lucinda-the-crazy-person is their backhanded, backwards way of complimenting the strength of her music, which they appreciate and understand through very staid tropes of the beautiful loser: the outsider/tortured artist whose brilliance shines in spite and at the expense of themselves (think: Townes Van Zandt, Janis Joplin, Billie Holliday, Tammy Wynette, and on and on).  You see, for these folks, Lucinda and her music alike are only fascinating because she’s a train wreck; all descriptions of her, in turn, quickly become cautionary tales.

        • You’re tough as steel and you keep your chin up
        • You don’t ever feel like you’re good enough

Well, as I’ve said and will say again and again, this tale about our Miss Williams will not be a cautionary, ironic or detached one.  In order to love her music, you’ve got to appreciate the angst, romance in the disaster and wallow along with her as she moves through her songs and makes them work.  True listening is an act faith on the part of the listener—and when the image of the singer/songwriter is just as present in the song as the notes and the lyrics that guide them through, a determined empathy and, dare I say, a religious affection are both completely necessary.

    • I’ll stick by you baby through thick and thin
      • No matter what kind of shape you’re in

Cause I’ve seen your sweet side…



Sweet Sad Songs (sung by lonely girls)

Taylor Black

03/31/10

lonely girls

lonely girls

Forgive me, for, try as I might, I cannot let the hag thing rest.  It’s like a song that won’t ever get out of your head.

With this entry, I would like to think about/clarify my own romantic inclinations towards ruined femininity and all the sweet silent solitude awaiting me and all the other lonely girls of the world who live their lives at the end of the bar—living a whole life like it was the end of the night, dancing alone and pretending like we’ve got somewhere to go.

Even as I write this entry, I feel guilty, in part, because I feel I’m just repeating exactly what I said about myself last week—that I longed for the hag’s life; that I have always imagined myself waiting my life out alone at the end of some bar, always there at closing time cloaked in false hope and averting glares behind false eyelashes.

lonely girls

lonely girls

But, sometimes there’s nothing to do but repeat yourself.  More staggering than whatever hesitations I have about blogging and, to put it kindly, doing critical analysis about myself the music I listen to, is the image that’s glaring back at me off the computer screen: the image of a lonely girl nursing a gin and tonic that she wishes she could weep into (for dramatic and literary effect, of course) who doesn’t even know how to cry, who can’t even think of something worth getting that upset about.

heavy blankets

While it might be easy to assume that my attraction to failed femininity might have something to do with being a white, gay male, that stock narrative doesn’t work for me…try as I might.  You see, my taste tends less toward what you are imagining in your stock narrative of gay masculinity than it is actually, legitimately and tragically aligned not with icons of tragic femininity—Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Whitney Houston, Hillary Clinton—than it is with the actual nameless ruined and destitute women that are, as I speak, sitting by themselves, waiting for something good to happen and singing all the sweet, sad songs that lonely girls do sing.  You see, believe it or not, there’s not much irony in what I’ve been trying to convey lately.  Forlorn and busted are not qualities that I appreciate, they’re what I am, what I will become.

So, if you’ll allow me one last siren song to close out this hag’s trilogy I promise to be less personal and less overbearing in entries to come.  But, with my apologies and defenses out of the way, I’d like to riff off of this song that wrote me long before I tried to comprehend it, that sings the song not only of my life but also of the whole constellation of down and out ladies who are joined with and adhered to me.  Their lives rhyme with mine, and together we make up one great big song that never ever ends.

heavy blankets

heavy blankets cover lonely girls

Like the song that I’m burying these thoughts in, the story my face tells and the song that I’ve got to sing about myself doesn’t really go anywhere, even though it probably ought to.  Lucinda’s “Lonely Girls” is the first song on Essence, the album immediately following her hugely successful, career-changing Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—a foundational record in the annals of what’s referred to as alt-country, but also simply a whole collection of brilliant narrative-driven songs.

“Lonely Girls,” as you can see, doesn’t have a story to tell…at least that’s not what it’s content is focused on doing…the song really doesn’t even have much content to it in the first place.  Like the lonely, ruined women I have been conjuring up the past few weeks as I have attempted to characterize my own romantic image of myself, this song stands alone.  There are no metaphors in the song you see before you either, not really even what we think of as artistic expression.

The things that make and cover over lovely girls are not things at all…not descriptions or literary devices but productions, connections, events, stains and always-echoing echoes.  You sing the song long enough that you become it.

Rocking back and forth both melodically and rhythmically and not moving beyond the kinds of lyrical descriptions and musical associations normally destined for the first verse of a song, “Lonely Girls” doesn’t go anywhere.  However, because of the way the song moves and repeats itself it becomes more like an echo even before you’re a minute in—and when it’s over it’s hard to know how long you’ve been listening; you ask yourself if, perhaps, the song has accidentally gone on repeat.

So goes the life of a lonely girl: destined to repetition and bound to always be too late.  I should know.

sweet sad songs

sweet sad songs

sweet sad songs sung by lonely girls

This last verse, I’ll admit, has sunk into my bucket of regularly used phrases—and, if you’ll notice, my blogging—without my even knowing I was doing it.  “What a wonderful way to put things, Lucinda,” is the phrase I must have looked over the first minute I uttered the phrase “sweet, sad songs,” assuming it was something I’d come up with myself.  But, to her credit as a songwriter and as an alibi for my “creative” plagiarisms, I’d like point out that this is what function a song should play: it sings the story of your life that knew you before you knew it; it makes you a part of the world it creates—fixing you into its lyrics, its cracks, its seams, itself.

Lonely girls may be coming apart at the seams, busted to the gills, broken down and made fragile by their place in the world, but they’ll always have each other; even if they only know themselves through their own personal, languid, remote locations, they know they’re not the only ones out there waiting for their last-call, partner-dancing all by themselves and picking up the pieces that were fractured before the start.

lonely girls

lonely girls

lonely girls

lonely girls

pretty hairdos

pretty hairdos

pretty hairdos worn by lonely girls

sparkly rhinestones

sparkly rhinesstones

sparkly rhinestones shine on lonely girls

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

I oughta know

I oughta know

I oughta know about lonely girls

An hour and a half in and I can’t remember where I began.  The song’s been playing on repeat for twice as long as that.  Filling my glass with one last gin and tonic before bed, I’m getting used to the idea of leaving this piece unbalanced and unfinished…how in the world am I supposed to close a piece up neatly that didn’t really even ever properly begin?

I oughta know.

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

Lonely girls



Elegy for the Living

Subiaco Cemetery Blues

Pineola

Taylor Black

02/03/10

Last week, I dealt with Emmylou Harris’ eulogy to a red dirt girl named Lillian and ended with the line: “We don’t sing to die, we sing because we’re not dead.”  While I can’t exactly say what I meant by this line, or why—aside from the strain of melodrama that weighs heavily on my personal style—I decided to end my piece with it, I can say it was intended in part as a sort of hopeful way out of this particular eulogy to failure.  Can singing ever really fall on deaf—or more pointedly—dead ears?  What sorts of spells do funeral songs cast over the living?

Magically, “the rare haunting power” of funeral songs surfaced again during my reading of Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe’s Typography, causing me to consider the ways in which singing in the name of the dead, or about death, casts a spell over life as it’s being lived.  Here, in one of his various readings of Theodor Reik’s autobiography, he asks: “What exactly links music to mourning?  What links it to the work or play of mourning—to the Trauerspiel, to tragedy?”   So, to continue my ruminations on death and sadness, I would like to ask why, if we sing to live, do we sing so much about death?  What are the residual effects of our mournful cries, our wailings, our keenings about the deceased for those that remain?

Lucinda Williams’ song “Pineola” was written in the immediate aftermath of the suicide of southern gothic poet Frank Stanford.    One afternoon in June 1978, Stanford got into an argument with his wife regarding some of the affairs he had been engaging in with some of the women—Lucinda herself one of them—in and around Fayetteville, Arkansas.  He then proceeded to go up into his bedroom and shoot himself three times in the chest.  The first lines of the song themselves do more than set the stage for this messy, confusing death—they emote and embody Lucinda’s feelings of shock and discombobulation upon learning of Stanford’s act.  In “Pineola,” silence itself is a sound, a spooky reverberation:

“When Daddy told me what happened//I couldn’t believe what he just said//Sonny shot himself with a 44//And they found him lyin’ on his bed.”  The whole song is one long response, a kind of primitive mourning.  It sounds something like the way you feel when you get punched in the throat or the stomach, like the moment just before you can cry when you feel like the wind’s been knocked out of you: “I could not speak a single word//No tears streamed down my face//I just sat there on the living room couch//Starin’ off into space.”

So many things about this song, and the way Stanford took his life confound me.  For one, while performed in its earliest incantations in a sweeter voice, more recent incantations of “Pineola” are more brash and anthemic:  it scares the hell of me.  In terms of the content of the story, I’m also staggered: How—not to mention why—in the world could someone fire three gunshots into their own heart? What is it about this song that’s so commanding when the only story it tells is of a singer’s lack-of-response to news of death?  The answer, it seems, is that it carries power in the noises it creates, and in the echoes of grief it produces.  There’s not much to “Pineola.”  It’s a simple song, really, but the ways in which it performs Lucinda’s loss of breath and response are heavy and clamorous.

The melody itself is a disembodied record as of Stanford’s death, but also of Lucinda’s feelings surrounding it.  As it is performed again and again, all of these things get brought back to life, as Lucinda conjures up the sound of her grief, in her characteristic affectless nasality.  Rhythmically, the song lurches back and forth in an a manic, speedy sort of way.  Listening to the song, I am haunted by both the image and the feeling of Lucinda sitting, dumfounded, on her family’s living room couch as she heard the news of her lover’s suicide.  The emotional direction of “Pineola” results in a eulogy, sure, but it’s also an aural record, a trace, of Lucinda’s spooky wailings – all that we can ever know of “Sonny.”
From red dirt to red dirt in Emmylou’s piece, “Pin-e-ola” drawls out the place of mourning and drops each rhythmic syllables like ashes all over her lover’s grave.  As the story closes inside Subiaco Cemetery, to the funeral proceedings for this man who made himself unfit for heaven, you can feel Lucinda’s emptied-out, hopeless presence standing like a ghost in the midst of Stanford’s grieving family members.   His mother who, as Lucinda tells us, “got the preacher to say a few words//So his soul wouldn’t be lost,” mourns only in order to absolve herself of any guilt regarding her child’s most unholy death.

Meanwhile, just as everyone around her mourns in unison, Lucinda begins to evaporate and then disappear.  The image I have of her at this moment is ghostly, vacant, abject and frightening—not so much because I can imagine it, but because I can feel and hear it too.  You see, this eulogy isn’t sung in the name of the dead, it’s sung by the spirit of the living.  It is Lucinda—not Stanford—that haunts me.  Every time I hear “Pineola,” my sense of Lucinda’s total numbness becomes more intense. Through my idea of her disembodiment I imagine what it must feel like to be a ghost among the living—sort of what it feels like to have someone touch a part of the body that’s fallen asleep.  You feel dead.  It’s all so wonderfully nauseating to consider.
In the end, Lucinda sings to sing.  She mourns to mourn.  The last lines of the song, on the other hand, echo Lucinda’s sadness lyrically—as well as thematically, as a casting off all the noises of her own silent sorrow, of her haunting us with them.

“I think I must’ve picked up a handful of dust//And let it fall over his grave//I think I must’ve picked up a handful of dust//And let it fall over his grave”