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Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Unfaithful Servant


It is of note to me that the character actor George Grizzard has died. He is known for a lot of characters, mostly second fiddle, in lots of (mostly) television, though he did once play John Adams. Lately, it had been lots of 'Law and Order' for him, and I don't really know what he died of, but his role, generally, was that of 'asshole'.

He is known to me, for the most part, since he was on several 'Twilight Zone' episodes, and I love that show. In the episode "In His Image", he plays the dual role of both an artificial life form as well as the man who created it. When the not-exactly-robot character finally meets a man who looks just like him, he is deeply confused and angry. The man that ultimately turns out to be his creator is drunk ("A little!") and amused.
Before long, it becomes clear that the creator is mostly a failure, a pathetic fuckup who has decided to make new life largely because his own has been such a colossal bummer. He is unable to achieve anything in his own flawed form, and decided that he should instead live vicariously through his creations, who unfortunately turn out to be psychopaths.

A better metaphor for the creation myth, I don't believe I've seen. Funny thing is, I often play host to those on their way to the afterlife, in my dream world. My dreams are, many have noted, very well appointed with lots of rich detail and weird allegories. Plenty of just random shit, too.
This morning, a man who strongly resembled George Grizzard was sitting beside me on a hillside. Also with us was this weirdo co-worker of mine who is actually a composite of several different people.
I believe it was either a song or a movie that we were discussing. "I think I loved that one," the man said. My co-worker, producing a small box with writing on it, immediately launched into an explanation that that very phrase proved that the Grizzard figure was one of two types in the universe, one of the enchanted ones.

The printed material on the box confirmed this. Those who held the phrase 'I think I loved that one' were actually of extraterrestrial origin, as opposed to those boring people like me, who channel their energy into things like...Well, the rest of the dream was a message for me, and I don't really wanna get into it.
But; the reason I have been thinking about him so much lately is due to what he says to his creation when it finally comes back to him. He speaks at length of all his hopes for his alter-image, but concludes sadly, a little drunk, "But then, nothin' ever goes right for me," with this air of what oddly feels like menace.


The Band by The Band, may very well be my favorite album. It could have very easily been titled Nothing Ever Goes Right For Me, but that would have been the title had this been released thirty years later, and The Band had called itself by one of the proposed names for this band: The Honkies.
It is, I think, the greatest American rock n' roll album of all, despite the fact that all but their drummer were Canadian. It dares to deal with aging, of all things, as a theme, which is pretty much verboten in the retarded world of The Popular Music There. It might very well be the closest thing to a personal statement made by a bunch of dudes who truly were born to fail and/or die by their own hands.
Many rockers wish to make that sort of statement. It is entirely another to have that statement be entirely honest. It calls for a stunning amount of both innocence and cunning on the part of the artist.

"Standin' by your window, in pain...Pistol in your hand..." begins the first tune, "Across the Great Divide". Even within the first minute of this damn album, your girlfriend is already threatening to shoot you. But you can pull it out, right? You're a scammer from way back, and clearly you've been here before: "And I beg you, dear Mollie, girl...Try and understand your man, the best you can..."
Which is to say; please don't shoot me, on one hand, but also: we men folk are damaged and stupid and we just don't fucking know what we're doing. Please be nice to me.
This forms an interesting theme that runs throughout the album, by the by: the idea that all this bravado that we menfolk run around with all the time is, we know, what we use to attract, as well as to cover up the pain that we suspect we're not allowed to share. The whole album, in fact, goes back and forth between what would be known as 'boasters', were we Jamaican and from the 1930's, and heart-rendingly honest songs where it's-if anything-a little too damn honest.
"I had a goal in my younger days...I nearly wrote my will..." That sums up the mood of the entire album, by the way. A joke. A weird joke, and you're not sure why it's a joke. Yup: I'm boasting, here! A Big Man! However, also a smart man- though also a self-destructive man, which is where smart men go when they realize that there's no real place for them in the overarching power structure of menfolk: "But I changed my mind for the better...I'm at the still, had my fill, and I'm fit to kill..."
Now, does that mean that you are only good for killing, or that you are done with it all, and are bent on murder? No answers? Well, let's talk about gittin' laid.

"Rag Mama Rag" begins with what is probably the best fiddle line in rock n' roll history. It also propels us headlong into the 1969 study of American popular and folk music that this album really is. It drags us past several references that show up in numerous other songs by artists long forgotten, at least in name:
"I'm goin' to the railroa' tracks, let the 4:19 scratcha mah baaaack..." Again with the suicide. These guys just won't quit.
Well, and Richard Manuel, who wrote that/stole it from much older songs, did indeed hang himself in some shitty hotel room shower in...'89 or so I believe. But here, he is young, dumb, fulla cum, and aware of all the above. Still human, and needing what humans need, making his case in the only way he knows how:
"Hailstones beatin' on the roof...The bourbon is a hundred proof...It's you and me and the telephone...Our destiny is quite well known..."

And for such a strange album, being equal parts barnburner rock and quiet bluegrass-y, it did have two giant hits, and the third song is one of them.
"Virgil Caine is my name, and I served on the Danville train..." It's just too damn familiar. Too many other people have done it...And it's still such a fucking wonderful song. Like I said...Oh, what did I say, not all that long ago?

"Regardless of where you are, the Fourth of July is an endless reminder that to be American is to be complicated, when not merely being vindictive and childish. The local radio station in Remote Mountain Village spent much of the day playing the music of true rebellion: Sixties shit.
I love them for it: they played "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", by that greatest of all American bands (though all but one of them was from Canada): The Band. A reminder, again: nothing but conflict, and things to talk about. There are people who view The Brother's War (my favorite name for it yet: 'Deadwood' again) as a personal matter to this day."


Yeah, we just can't get over it. But most of your personal Civil War narratives don't swerve to the entirely personal as much as this one does. Robbie Robertson wrote it specifically for Levon Helm to sing, and it sounds just like a true son of Dixie is speaking.
And again, most of the song concerns the life of Virgil Caine, with the war only occasionally seeping in around the edges. It is, after all, just another aspect of his life, which is pretty shitty anyway. There's loss, and things that will never be resolved, but above all else: nothing ever goes right for this guy.
The song is part hymn, part anthem, part dirge, all quite beautiful.

Then the song "When You Awake": perhaps the only truly mystical moment of the album. The wonderfully beat-to-shit voice of Rick Danko (another one who died by his own hand/stupidity, only a couple years ago) begins a little tale of how someone named Ole (in the Scandahoovian pronunciation; O-lee) told him he was a fool, and how it made him feel so bad that he walked on down to his Grampa's place, where he is sung this evil little nursery rhyme:

"When you awake, you will remember everything
you will be hangin' on a string, though no wind, you believe
you will relieve your only soul
that you were born but to grow old and never know..."


He receives further pieces of not exactly fantastic advice from Ole ("Careful where you step and watch what you eat. Sleep with the light and you got it beat."), returning to the creepy refrain again and again. It becomes clear that a comment is being made on the subject of folk wisdom, and conventional belief.
Like what? Well, maybe that the homilies that people hold dearest are the worst, though easiest, and that's why they persist. Also that the ultimate truth, whenever we catch even an edge of it, doesn't seem especially rosy, but whatcha gonna do?
The song ends in a long bridge, mostly populated by cliches from old blues and folk tunes. It fades out.

"Up On Cripple Creek" is the other big hit, and I've found that whenever I go sing the damn thing in karaoke, people just love it. It's a song of celebration, but early in my experience with this band, a friend stopped me and pointed out exactly how sad this song really is.
Or is it? I mean, yeah, it's a song from the viewpoint of an alcoholic who has made up his mind that this is just the way it's going to be, and at very least he's lucky that he found someone else who sees his point of view. "A drunkard's dream if I ever did see one," indeed.
There's also plenty of that random shit one finds in The Band's songs...The line about Spike Jones...I dunno. You've probably heard this song millions of times.

"Whispering Pines" is the one song on the album I don't one hundred per cent love, and therefore haven't studied its lyrics very closely. It's one of the openly sad ones; dirgy piano, and...The two dead ones duetting about what sort of sounds to me like being in love with someone who is dead.
I'm still not sure. I'm making dinner right now (pork chops done in apple cider vinegar and beer), and only sorta caught the words. But the overwhelming impression I'm left with is that these guys were far too young to be singing with such an amazing amount of not just world-weariness but a palpable sense of defeat.

Side two kicks off with "Jemima Surrender". This is another boaster, the fragile male ego on display for all to see. It has one of the best damn guitar solos in classic rock.
This is good time music. The whole album encapsulates the lives of many people I've known and loved: brawlers, drinkers, hard-luck types and above all else; people who were lonely as hell and just wanted to be loved.
"You can change your name, you can find a new walk
you can change your lock, it's all the same.
You don't have to give out, if you only give in.
You can jump and shout, but can't you see girl
that I'm bound to win?"

He don't mean it. He knows he's bound to lose, and that she can see through all that swagger as well as anyone.

"Rocking Chair" is a song about knowing that you're done. You've sailed the seas, and it was all worth it, but on the other hand, be realistic, man...
"Hear the sound, Willy boy
the Flyin' Dutchman's on the reef
It's my belief we've used up all of our time
this hill's too steep to climb
and the days that remain ain't worth a dime...
"
Time to grow up, just in time to confront the reality of mortality and age.

The same friend who really walked me around this band also had this to say about "Look Out Cleveland", the next song, "What is that song actually about?"
For the life of me, I don't know. It bears a great deal in common with many songs like it in the idiom, in which you are asked to be afraid of/prepare for some unnamed something that is coming your way. It could be viewed as rock n' roll in its ascendancy, telling mainstream America that it won't be going away. Maybe that's it.

"Jawbone" is another sad song with a lazy, relaxed boogie beat that just might distract you from the desperation inherent in the story. It mostly concerns the observations of the community about why you-Jawbone-might just want to quit the criminal life. And what do you have as your rejoinder?
"I'm a thief, and I dig it", sounding increasingly desperate each time you say it, almost whining. Knowing that you should change, and you can't. Knowing that the odds are against anyone growing old as a professional thief, and it sucks...

That damn mournful piano again. "The Unfaithful Servant" begins.
"Unfaithful servant, I hear you're leaving soon in the morning
what did you do to the lady that she says she's gonna have to send you away?"

The human cost of all your runnin' and thievin' and a-drinkin' surrounds you finally, as people who genuinely love you nonetheless must let you go. Everybody knows you still for the essentially good person you are, but your presence here is poisonous.
"Like a stranger, you turned your back
left your key, and gone to pack
Bear in mind who's to blame for all the shame
She really cared, the time she spared
and the home you shared...
"
Matter of fact, people are kind of glad to see you go:
"Let us not bow our heads
for we won't be complainin'
life has been good to us all
even when that sky is rainin'"


At this point, it's not the community talking, it's You:
"To take it with a grain of salt
is all I can do; it's no one's fault
Makes no difference if we fade away
It's just as it was;
much too cold for me to stay..."

It's not like you didn't try, but your true nature did indeed rear its head:
"Goodbye to that country home
so long, lady I have known
farewell to my other side
I guess I'll just take it in stride...
"

Curiously, the narrative goes back to the unforgiving folks in your town, who have had a strange turn of tone:
"Unfaithful servant, you will learn to find your place
I can see it in your smile, and yes I can see it in your face
The memories will linger on
The good old days; they're all gone
Oh lonesome servant, can't you see
We're still one in the same, just you and me?
"
I challenge you to be the only dry eye left in the room as the guitar plays us out, accompanied by mournful horns.

I view this as an autumnal album, above all else. It's brown; how 'bout that? And it claims ambiguity as its central theme, which is Fall, if you ask me. It is fitting that the final song is "King Harvest Has Surely Come".
It's yet another song that sounds celebratory, but if the narrarator was a friend of yours, you'd be trying to talk him out of his enthusiasm. The song is actually a little confusing, as the protagonist is both a farmer and a union laborer. It's unclear what it is, exactly, that he does.
His hope is so touching and infectious, and yet, especially after all the other stories you've heard on this album, you just can't trust it. Especially at the end, where he says,
"And here comes a man with a paper in his hand
tellin' us our hard times are about to end
and if they don't give us what we like
he says, 'Men, that's when we gotta go on strike'.
"

With the basically 1800's slant of the entire album, I think we know where this is going to end.

No summary paragraph. This took a long time to finally write about, and even so I only scraped the surface. Back soon with silly observations about popular cultch.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Ladron de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

I feel older just reading this, if only because I remember most of those songs. The Band always made me think I actually lived through the Civil War. Every Canadian I have known is more obsessed by the Civil War more than those of us in the U.S. are. Do keep posting more popular cultch posts like this. I can stare into them for hours and think I'm high even though it's just cold medicine.

2:40 PM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

I thank you for saying so. To be truthful, what you wrote about that Nina Simone video a couple months back was something along those lines.

I can go on and on about why I like what I like, and why I hate what I hate, and feel silly always for doing so, and strongly suspect that no one else wants to hear about it.

But my mom would like me to send it to Rolling Stone (though I suspect that they've already said everything on this album that they're planning on saying), and...Well, let's go find that book contract, shall we?

8:31 PM  
Blogger George Popham said...

Interesting that you are having heavy dream activity too these days. There's a bit on my recent drean weirdness over at the chuck.

The post is fantastic. You captured one thing that has always struck me, not to say haunted me about this album, it is boyant and ebullient in many places, but the grimness never stops.

But my question is why, at the height of the bubble optimistic hippydom does this gothic level of morbidity show up?

They are an unusual band though. What I like about the music part is that it is always perfectly untidy, there is a rattle in it, but a regular rattle, like an old cart.

I know it isn't on this album but the weight always makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Oddly the only sone by these guys I don't like is The Night...Dixie Down, weird idiocyncratic reasons for that though. Hits me like opera, and I've never liked opera. However, I still yodel bits of Cripple Creek to myself even though the basic idea disturbs me, no it's not just the idea, it's something else. Something having to do with just giving up that bothers me, but in an instrutive way.

Well, I'm in one of those haven't eaten in too long stream of consciousness rambles so I'm gonna go eat some din.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Ladron de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Oh, submit it, I say. I think they never tire of publishing articles on this album. I'm probably more drawn to The Basement Tapes, but that's another story.

10:45 PM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

Mmmm...I think 'The Basement Tapes' might be my second favorite album. I have long threatened to start another blog called "Periodic Table of My Favorite Albums", and perhaps that's where I should deal with such things.

6:34 PM  
Blogger George Popham said...

"Hit that drummer with a pie that smells!" Bobby D. Somehwere on the basment tapes. Reaching my ears as I lay on the floor many years ago trying not to puke. Can I get some exigesis, friends!?

THis line actually did in fact push me over the edge. Something about the thought of smelly pies and drummers kicked in the reverse peristalsis mechanism. I made it outside, fortunately. Despite this, I still love the songs from this album that I had on a mixed tape now lost somewhere in the misty sands of history. I should listen to the whole thing some time.

BTW, inspired by your critical treatise. I did give a full listen to The Band yesterday, probably the first time I've ever listened to the whole thing end to end. Great fall album, goes good with driving through New England graveyards.

11:30 AM  

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