There are two music businesses. The one you see in the media and the one that flies under the radar. You know everything about what Is happening with today’s stars, shenanigans are part of the sale, with it so hard to reach anybody these days, they appear everywhere, just so you’ll know their name, even if you’ve never heard their music.
We saw this once before. In the sixties. With AM and FM. FM was adventurous, played extended cuts, the new and different, it was fully alive with players who thought their music was enough. AM was about safety, pleasing all palates.
And when it was all united on FM by Lee Abrams it had a historic run and then cratered, when disco came along and killed it, or at least put a dent in it. Disco was new and different. And the funny thing is today disco has survived more than rock, there are disco beats everywhere.
And then MTV made it a monoculture. You were either on the channel or not. And if you were, you were making more money than anybody in the history of the music business, you could sell and tour all over the world as overpriced CDs flew out of the bins.
Until the internet came along and blew it all apart. Suddenly we had choice. And there were those who adopted the new systems and those who did not. Hip-hop embraced the internet ethos, they saw giving it away for free as a road to success. Rockers still rail at the net, last night Lucinda was singing the praises of albums, after referencing Sheryl Crow’s decision not to make anymore. Sheryl is right. She had a brief moment of sunshine on her new LP, and then it all disappeared, it’s almost like it never came out. The key is to be in the marketplace on a regular basis today.
But not yesterday.
And “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road” was recorded yesterday, released in 1998, when recordings still resulted in revenue, when a hungry audience ate up CDs, when the scene was comprehensible.
It’s not comprehensible anymore.
You can be exposed to the tsunami of media and feel completely out of it and then…
You go to a Lucinda Williams show and feel superior, knowing this is where it’s really at, this is the epicenter, this is the sound, the music that hooked you in the first place.
Not that there were any youngsters there. As a matter of fact, the Orpheum was filled with boomers, who remember when. And these were fans, there was no in-between songs talking, not even many smartphones videoing and taking pictures, they were relishing the experience, being in a hall with nothing but the sound.
Oh, Lucinda had a backdrop, but the show would have been just as effective without it. How long has it been since the music has been enough? When it sounded live, not programmed, when the people on stage were just as alive as you in the audience, no different except they’d taken the road more challenging, with no guarantees.
Lucinda talked a lot about her upbringing. The mentally ill mother. The incessant travel. She was so honest, your eyes bugged out.
Now to be honest, I am not the biggest Lucinda Williams fan. I met her once backstage at a Marc Cohn show back in the early nineties, when she was cruising on the success of her legendary Rough Trade record, and if you listen to it you’ll know why it is, legendary that is, but she was struggling to make another album. She needed to get it right. Steve Earle said it was just a record, but she didn’t agree. Lucinda Williams is not a pushover, she’s got a backbone, she’s stood up to the men blocking her way again and again.
But Lisa is a huge Lucinda fan, and when it was announced Williams was going on the road to perform the entire “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road” on its twentieth anniversary, she sent out an e-mail blast asking all of us if we wanted to go. I told her I could miss it, at this point in my life, I can miss anything, but she got a ticket for me and we went last night and I’m glad I did, it renewed my faith in music, made me feel I was with it as opposed to out of it.
It’s just a small band, like the Beatles, if the songs are good enough you don’t need all the trimmings, they’re superfluous.
Not that Lucinda Williams sounds anything like the Beatles, but there was a guitar, a bass, drums and her on and off strumming.
Now I decided to prepare for this show. Over the weekend I listened to “Car Wheels” over and over again. And the best place is in the car, because suddenly you’re taken away from this news-infested world, you’re just in a cocoon, you and this sound.
So I was ready.
Of course, I knew certain songs well, like the title track and “Joy.” I’ve seen Lucinda multiple times, but she’s always been an opening act, last night she was the headliner.
So the evening opened with a video of her family packing up and moving from the States for a year in Mexico City. You see Lucinda as a teenager, and you instantly remember that era, when our lives were in front of us instead of behind us. Lucinda’s now 66, just like me. You always think of musicians/celebrities as being older than you until they’re suddenly younger than you, but Lucinda saw the world from my exact vantage point.
But we lived different lives.
Yet again, they were similar.
I wandered for two years after college, but I felt the urge to get back on track, even though you could live on minimum wage back then, I certainly did.
Lucinda went to Texas, she played, she had boyfriends, she lived her life, she drank. When she said the late seventies were all about drinking, I howled, I certainly lived that life!
“I take off my watch and earrings
My bracelets and everything
Lie on my back and moan at the ceiling
Oh my baby”
There’s more truth in that verse than anything on the hit parade, it’s honest, it’s real, you can relate.
That’s from the opening cut on the album, “Right In Time.”
But it was my favorite, the title cut, next.
“Sittin’ in the kitchen, a house in Macon Loretta’s singing on the radio Smell of coffee, eggs, and bacon”
It’s about Lucinda’s youth, at least that’s what she told us. All about her father being a poet, apologizing after he heard her sing it at the Bluebird.
Yup, every song had a story.
And they were all told in this laconic southern style, not fast like a New Yorker. This is the speech style the elites consider ignorant, but Lucinda is not. If you hung in there, hooked into her rhythm, she always got to the point. It was like reading a southern novel, not about someone making it, but living her life.
The best story concerned “Metal Firecracker.”
“Once we rode together
In a metal firecracker
You told me I was your queen
You told me I was your biker
You told me I was your everything
Once I was in your blood
And you were obsessed with me
You wanted to paint my picture
You wanted to undress me
You wanted to see me in your future”
That’s a true story. He was a replacement bass player. They fell in love on the metal firecracker, what he called the bus. He was her soulmate. Only one problem, she was living with another guy. Who she told when they hit New York. He promptly destroyed the hotel room, and when the tour was over the bass player told Lucinda she didn’t fit his “agenda.”
WHERE DID THAT LEAVE HER? WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US?
Some people don’t live their lives, they do what they’re told, color inside in the lines, afraid to take a risk. That’s why we look up to artists, they take chances we won’t, they’re truer to life, they come back and tell us what they saw.
Last night Lucinda told us what she saw. Clive, who loved to take road trips, cook, drink…he’s dead now. A lot of them didn’t make it. You see when you test the limits without a net not everybody survives.
And we’ve got all the women telling us what it’s like to work in the office, to be in business, but I can’t relate. That’s a giant game. Which the men play too, but with even less wisdom. But the main show is really the sideshow. You listen to Lucinda Williams and it makes you want to put on your jeans, throw out your razor, get behind the wheel and see what you encounter, not worried about what you left behind.
This was an adoring audience. Giving Lucinda time to stretch out. She evidenced no charisma, the charisma was in the songs. Played in that style of rock blended with Texas, you know with guitars with few treatments, but with tons of wail.
That’s what life is about, wailing. It’s what we all want to do. Which is why we were addicted to this music to begin with. We boomers remember when you didn’t take endorsements, when your credibility was everything, when you were channeling truth.
And just when you think that’s a dead paradigm, you go to see Lucinda Williams. Everybody should buy “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road,” play it three or four times and go to see Lucinda play it and tell her stories. Their ears will be opened, and their eyes. They will see there is hope, that music can regain its title as the most vibrant art form. When rock music is done right, IT’S LIFE ITSELF!