William S. Burroughs once wrote that America is not a new land, but rather is old, cursed, and strange, which resonates with me, given my taste for the old, cursed, and strange. In college, I well remember a lecture by Professor Barbara Mossberg which lodged in my head like a barbed arrow: she put forth that an intrinsic part of the country’s nature is that we’re both blessed and damned: blessed with what we’ve been given (or, in the case of the European Boat People, taken) and what we’ve done with it. That the rich, verdant woods of New England offered game, birds, and new plant foods, but also harbored dark spirits and demons ready to draw us astray: the kind of demons that can, say, lure a Bible-thumping, holier-than-thou Southern politician and suddenly immerse him in a train-wrecking affair with a lonely Argentinian and a public fall from grace so spectacular that it boggles our already over-boggled minds.
Griel Marcus wrote a book on American music that’s steeped in this tradition. Mystery Train, which is ostensibly about The Basement Tapes, a weird and righteous collection of uncategorizable music that Bob Dylan made with The Band in a pink barn in Woodstock when Dylan was recuperating from a near-fatal motorcycle accident, and which simultaneously removed himself from a star-making machinery that was increasingly frenetic, out-of-control, and destined to make Dylan yet another pop culture martyr.
Dylan, one of our most wiley artists, feinted left and cut right, escaping his fate and delving into a deep well of folk/Americana, revamping it with electric instruments and an outlook shaped by what he called “medicine.” (“Drugs are bad for you, but medicine–beer, wine, dope, opium, acid–that’s good for almost everybody.” Subsequently, everybody did get stoned.) Until 1975, the only hints of what happened in Woodstock (which is more or less a sleepy Catskills town, despite its ties to the gigantic Woodstock Festival), emerged in The Band’s magnificent album “Music from Big Pink” and a few stray live Dylan performances where tunes like “Nothing was Delivered” and “Down in the Flood” emerged. There were, however, so many bootleg copies of the music floating around that Columbia Records finally talked Dylan and The Band into releasing “The Basement Tapes,” which still sound pretty damned good on a warm summer night…with a little medicine.
Marcus drew a connection between the strange, antique but forward-looking music that came from that session–which could arguably be seen as the genesis of both country rock and alt rock–and the supremely odd, little known music of Dock Boggs, Charley Patton, and Appalachin murder ballads–a music both blessed and damned.
These themes have stuck with me and, I think, carried through to a number of my plays–“Malaria,” “Farmhouse,” “Bombardment”–but especially to the two “music plays” I’ve written: “Lost Wavelengths” (a piece about outsider musicians done at JAW in 2006 and winner of the Oregon Book Award last year) and “Bluer Than Midnight” (a piece about the Civil Rights Movement, the Blues, and the Afterlife, written last year and yet to have a public reading…I’m waiting to hear back reactions from a number of friends and colleagues who are reading the piece–you know who you are–but an earlier draft was well received in Portland Center Stage’s late, great PlayGroup playwrights workshop). After the JAW reading of “Lost Wavelengths,” a fellow playwright clapped me on the shoulder, laughed, and said, “What are you? An audiophile?” I’ve never thought of myself that way, but I said, “I guess I am now.”
Fast forward to…well, the week before last, when I was browsing at Powell’s on a summery afternoon, and found a neat little book called The Best Music You’ve Never Heard,” which is, pretty much, what the title says: short pieces on terrific bands and musicians who, for a myriad of reasons–from bad business moves, self-destructive tendencies, and abject weirdness–never broke into the mainstream. I was surprised to see some names I was completely familiar with, which either means the book was more inclusive than I would expect or that I’m more of a music nerd than I suspected…probably a bit of both. Nobody, for example, who’s lived in New Orleans considers Professor Longhair obscure. There were, however, a wealth of splendid people I’d never heard of, and the book has been opened a terrific treasure chest of wild sounds.
I haven’t made it though the entire book yet, as a band will catch my attention, and then I track them down on the Internet, but the one band that especially blew my mind was The Handsome Family, a husband-wife duo from New Mexico, who write achingly gorgeous alt.country melodies matched with some of the strangest, most surreal lyrics imaginable, about whispering plants and invisible birds singing on ends of tree limbs. I’ve been trying to come up with some sort of description of their work, and closest I can come up with is “Johnny Cash Sings Edgar Allen Poe’s Greatest Hits.” It’s music that takes you to a strange, head-spinning place and then walks icy fingers up your spine. In a word: sublime.
THE HANDSOME FAMILY STANDING IN A CORNFIELD
So naturally, I had to track down The Handsome Family’s Web site, and, lo and behold, their tour schedule shows they’ll be playing Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge on July 21st. If at all possible, I’ll be there. If you want to hear something remarkable, I suggest you are too.
Now, if you ‘scuse me for a minute, I got to play my guitar.
One thought on “The Best of Old, Weird America”
Been a big fan of Handsome Family for a long time. If I can extract myself from JAW I'll see you there. I have no defense against a woman playing the autoharp, be still my heart!Mike O'Connell