Rumor and Sigh opens with a song dealing with matters in a field in which I have some expertise. SEX!
I consider myself an expert practitioner, a minor philosopher and a serious student of erotic behavior. I approach the subject with a mix of intellect, emotion and sensuality, a combination which diminishes my standing as a sexual scholar but accurately reflects the complex dynamics of sexuality. Scientific sexual research bores the crap out of me because it’s so removed from truth-as-experienced. If you can observe sex or interview people about sex and maintain a total commitment to the scientific method, you’re the last person I’d consult on the subject.
Even with all my expertise, extensive research and artistic-erotic accomplishments, sex still presents endless challenges for me because the process of seduction is subject to thousands of unknown variables. The most challenging aspect of finding new sexual partners has always been the bullshit they’ve stored inside their heads.
My upbringing was a bit unusual because my parents (particularly my mother) talked to me openly about sexuality and answered every question I had, no matter how silly it seemed. In my tale of my sexual development (since moved to my erotic blog on Tumblr), I related my reaction after my mother told me that boys released semen through the same hole that they used for the disposal of urine. I told her that I would only have sex with girls because I didn’t want boys peeing inside me. She patiently explained that it was physiologically unlikely that a man would pee inside me, but it’s always been part of my nature to seek verification through a second source.
So I asked my dad, since he had the right plumbing.
Being a contractor, he explained it to me using the vocabulary of plumbing. “You remember when I fixed that water heater at the Divisadero house? Remember how I showed you the cold water lines and the hot water lines? It’s kind of like that.”
“But we can mix cold and hot water at the sink! I can make both come out at the same time,” his smart-ass daughter replied. He frowned, thought for a minute, and said, “Well, in the body, there’s kind of a shutdown switch. When one’s on, the other’s off.”
“But what if the shutdown switch breaks?”
He laughed and said, “Look, I almost flunked physiology, so I don’t know any more than that. All I can tell you is that I’ve been inside your mother thousands of times and I’ve never peed inside her. Do you think I’d be alive today if I had?” he said with a wink.
He had a point. At the very least, my mother would have whacked off his pecker, and rightly so.
He told me to go to the library and look it up, so I did. I found out that the urethra (the pee line) is obstructed when a guy gets an erection, so as long as he stayed hard I would be okay. Once he shot his wad and softened, an unfortunate piss would become a physiological possibility, but by that time the male would have reconnected with the civilized part of his brain and be more likely to exercise proper restraint and decorum. I began to warm to the idea of contact with the male member, despite its peculiar appearance that made me launch into hysterical giggles at inopportune moments.
Because my parents were open and honest with me, I was able to approach sexuality openly and honestly with intended partners at a very early age. Most of them were shocked by my directness, and I had to shift into therapist mode to get them in touch with themselves (and hopefully in touch with me). Much worse were the guys who thought they knew it all because they’d read the experts in those glossy titty mags, and I had to show them that they didn’t know dick, to coin a phrase. The narrator of “Read About Love,” the kick-ass opening track of Rumor and Sigh is one of those poor know-it-alls:
Asked my daddy when I was thirteen
Daddy can you tell me what love really means?
His eyes went glassy, not a word was said
He poured another beer and his face turned red
Asked my mother, she acted the same
She never looked up, she seemed so ashamed
Asked my teacher, he reached for the cane
He said, don’t mention that subject again
So I read about love—read it in a magazine
Read about love—Cosmo and Seventeen
Read about love—In the back of a Hustler, Hustler, Hustler
What a society! I doubt very much if we’d have all the neurotic-but-otherwise-normal horny people we have today if we disconnected embarrassment and shame from sexuality. We could also avoid the humiliating moments of interpersonal disconnection created when guys like this view women as impersonal objects:
Read about love—now I’ve got you
Read about love—where I want you
Read about love—got you on the test-bed, test-bed, test-bed
So why—don’t you moan and sigh?
Why do you sit there and cry?
I do everything I’m supposed to do
If something’s wrong, then it must be you
I know the ways of a woman
I’ve read about love
This is what great songwriters do: they stimulate your intellect and emotions in an aesthetically pleasing and entertaining way. I find that skill to be terribly erotic, and I’d fuck Joni Mitchell, Ray Davies and Richard Thompson in New York minute, regardless of the age difference. Only once, though, because you can’t trust a musician long-term.
This killer opener is followed “I Feel So Good,” which is not Richard Thompson’s version of “The 59th Street Bridge Song.” Instead of a happy tune about “feelin’ groovy,” this is an uptempo dramatic monologue about how good it feels to engage in anti-establishment behavior, especially when you’re a hellion. Our anti-hero is a young (“I’m old enough to sin but I’m too young to vote) ex-con who claims, “They put me in jail for my deviant ways/Two years seven months sixteen days.” He gets his kicks from purple haze, taking people apart and ripping people off. He must be good at it because he is certainly reaping the rewards of his anti-social anger:
Society’s been dragging on the tail of my coat
Now I’ve got a suitcase full of fifty pound notes
And a half-naked woman with her tongue down my throat
And I feel so good, and I feel so good
Oh I feel so good I’m going to break somebody’s heart tonight
They made me pay for the things I’ve done
Now it’s my turn to have all the fun
Well I feel so good I’m going to break somebody’s heart tonight
A question this song raises is one that rarely gets asked in our fear-and-retribution cultures: what is the point of incarceration if all it does is reinforce anger and a desire for revenge? Though this sadistic (in the bad way) loser seems to be expressing exuberant joy, all I hear is the bitterness of a young man who justifies his anti-social behavior by claiming he was simply daring to be different. That’s one possibility; it’s also likely that he is an incurable psychopath, and if that’s the case, society is even less equipped to deal with his kind than it is with the non-psychotic criminal element. When it comes to dealing with criminals, wackos or anyone who dares to be different, modern societies, bound by rule-based bureaucracies and professional dogma, define the word “ill-equipped.”
The challenges of the indirect and ambiguous communication that often accompany near-intimate or intimate relationships is the subject of “I Misunderstood,” a sad but strangely sexy number with a wonderfully crisp, clean arrangement and one of Richard’s best vocals. It’s followed by “Behind Gray Walls,” a song that graphically describes a man’s anguish about the institutionalization of a lover suffering from an unknown, incurable mental illness. The imagery here is relentless, describing self-immolation (“cigarette burns down her arm”), restraint (“Tied her arms in the back/Trussed her up in a sack”) and electroshock therapy (“Tied her down on the bed/Seventy volts through her head).” The narrator never forgets for a minute that this poor girl is a human being deserving our sympathy, if not empathy (“Behind gray walls/Somewhere there’s a soul”). Like June Tabor, Richard Thompson has no qualms about singing songs that deal with difficult subjects that people living comfortable lives in advanced societies would rather avoid.
Richard Thompson does have a lighter side, and in “You Dream Too Much” you see it in the various images he uses to describe imperious women who remain unattainable to the average guy. “She had a chassis like an XJS” is a beautiful line, and the repeated response to the narrator’s attempts to secure a little nookie (“You dream too much”) has the impact of a good punch line. The only problem I have with this song is that the arrangement is a bit busy, a sometimes regrettable feature of Mitchell Froom productions. It’s followed by “Why Must I Plead,” a narrative about a man begging his wayward wife to live up to the dotted line commitment of marriage . . . a pretty weak argument, in my humble opinion.
There are times when a songwriter achieves songwriting nirvana, perfectly integrating lyrics, music and theme. These bits of perfection are often characterized by poetic economy, where not a word is wasted and every word brims with power and meaning. “Waterloo Sunset” is one such song, and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is another. An archetypal tale of a young man steeped in carpe diem and his chance encounter with a kindred red-headed spirit, the tale unfolds over the beautifully intricate sound of Richard Thompson’s acoustic guitar. The first verse establishes both the relationship and the symbolism of the motorcycle as an instrument of freedom, rebellion and eroticism:
Said Red Molly to James that’s a fine motorbike
A girl could feel special on any such like
Said James to Red Molly, my hat’s off to you
It’s a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952
And I’ve seen you at the corners and cafes it seems
Red hair and black leather, my favourite colour scheme
And he pulled her on behind
And down to Box Hill they did ride
James gives Molly a wedding ring, but warns her that he’s not long for this world, given his irresistible drive to live life on the edge—a life that includes a career in armed robbery. But he promises her eternal continuity through the powerful symbol of their shared passion:
Now I’m 21 years, I might make 22
And I don’t mind dying, but for the love of you
And if fate should break my stride
Then I’ll give you my Vincent to ride
Tragedy strikes when James is shot in the chest during an attempted robbery. Red Molly runs to his side, but as he predicted, his time is about to run out. Still, the eternal bond of the promise remains, its power strengthened by Richard Thompson’s choice to align the image of the open road with the movement of life:
When she came to the hospital, there wasn’t much left
He was running out of road, he was running out of breath
But he smiled to see her cry
And said I’ll give you my Vincent to ride
James’ dying speech contains equally strong poetry, but what really makes the finale work is Richard Thompson’s vocal performance, especially the passion he brings to the lines, “I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome/Swooping down from heaven to carry me home.” Let’s dispense with the interpretation and let this masterpiece speak for itself:
Richard then disqualifies himself from a place in my sexual fantasies by expressing distaste for the kinky side of life in “Backlash Love Affair.” Okay, the broad in the song doesn’t come close to my level of sophistication, as she’s into crude gothic metal kink, but unfortunately, I can find no evidence of flexibility on Richard’s part. Damn! We’ll move on to “Mystery Wind,” a mood piece marked by the almost complete absence of melody. Not exactly my favorite number. The same is true for “Don’t Sit on My Jimmy Shands,” a boisterous tribute to the late Scottish accordionist that fails to grab me.
“Keep Your Distance” is a definite improvement, with a much stronger melodic line as well as a message I embrace with all my heart and soul. If you’re going to be in a relationship, it’s all or nothing: don’t give me any half-assed maybe-baby bullshit! If I ever find a promising male to complete my cozy little life arrangement, the first thing I’ll let him know is “With us it must be all or none at all.” On the flip side, I do not embrace the message of “Mother Knows Best,” which is either a subtle dig at passive-aggressive female control or a denunciation of mama’s boys . . . the archaic metaphors muddle the picture.
He returns to form with “God Loves a Drunk,” another unflinching look at human reality. Sung with intensity over a background of acoustic guitar with a touch of accordion, the song has a chilling beauty to it, despite the ugliness of the imagery:
But God loves a drunk, although he’s a fool
He wets in his pants and he falls off his stool
He can’t hear the insults and whispers go by him
As he leans in the doorway and sings Sally Racket
Can’t feel the cold rain beat down on his body
And soak through his clothes to the skin
This song is purgative for me, as it recalls my life in San Francisco and multiple encounters with the street alcoholic, the kind of man who “screams at his demons alone in the darkness” while the rich and well-fed scurry across the street to avoid any human contact.
As I’ve mentioned several times, I do love artists who dare to be different, and Richard Thompson certainly smashed fan expectations with the closing song, “Psycho Street.” The closest analogy I can find to this piece is “Rhinocratic Oaths” from the Bonzo Dog Band’s The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse (Urban Spaceman to you yanks). Part spoken word, part music hall, often dissonant and loaded with as many bizarre images as a Dali painting but with more of the bleakness of Edvard Munch, “Psycho Street” is an absurdist look at an absurd society. It’s a very disturbing song, one you might listen to once or twice for the experience, but it’s unlikely to stay on your playlist for long. I end my version of Rumor and Sigh with “God Loves a Drunk,” as I think it makes for a more coherent ending.
“Psycho Street” does fit in a different sense: listening to almost any Richard Thompson album is an intense experience that demands full listener engagement. I find the experience deeply enjoyable on many levels, and I never leave a Richard Thompson album without feeling intellectually and emotionally stimulated. To borrow a phrase from the sporting world, on Rumor and Sigh Richard Thompson left it all on the field at the end of the game, and I deeply cherish his passion and continuing commitment to push artistic boundaries.
I think I’ve already mentioned that any interest I had in country music died before I was born.
What a curious statement! That sentence would imply that either I was between lives in my form as an eternal soul floating around on the astral plane who tuned into the earthly music scene while waiting to reincarnate, or that I was born with a gene that decreed that I loathe the sound of twanging singers. Isn’t syntax fascinating?
What I really mean is that my studies of popular musical history have led to me to conclude that the quality of country music plummeted some time in the late 60’s or early 70’s. My research uncovered several clues that could explain this phenomenon. The first was the appearance of a dreadful variety show called Hee Haw in 1969, a show that celebrated stupidity, cornpone humor and superfluous airhead broads with ratings-positive big jugs. Another is the appearance of counter-revolution songs like Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” (1968) and Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” (1969). These songs celebrated female oppression and blind patriotism, two features that automatically come to mind whenever I hear the twang of a Baptist preacher. The third clue takes us to the same source that is always present during the decline of any form of music: big money. All three seemed to converge at about the same time, leading me to conclude that the true source of the decline in the quality of country music began with deep resistance to change. Once the backlash against those filthy, flag-burning, bra-burning hippies gained momentum and people started looking for traditional sources of comfort and entertainment, country music began to grow in popularity. When the fat cats saw that, they did what they always do: remove any signs of life from the music and produce precisely packaged pap for the dumb fucks who never developed a sense of aesthetics that would enable them to distinguish between good music and bad. Country music has never been a particularly imaginative art form, and given its existence within a culture that looks backwards instead of forwards and cherishes old-fashioned values (just like Al Qaeda!), it’s highly unlikely you’re going to see much in the way of development. There really isn’t anything substantial that distinguishes country music of the 70’s between country music today except that it’s louder, slicker and bathed in all the debilitating recording effects that suck the life out of most forms of music today.
I have a lifelong gay male friend who still lives in The City and keeps me in touch with happenings in my old stomping grounds. I generally look forward to his emails because he’s full of wit and tells great stories about what’s happening with the people I left behind. I say “generally” because he is also a rabid modern country music fan and he is forever sending me links to YouTube videos and MP3’s of people like Shania Twain, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, George Strait, Miranda Lambert and a host of others whose music I find despicably dreadful. Country music today, like what’s left of rock music, is seriously overhyped and seriously overproduced. The best country music, which you hear in artists like Patsy Cline, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Chet Atkins and pre-70’s Johnny Cash, has a sincerity that is completely missing from what I hear today. The opportunities for more depth and richness in country music vanished when Nashville chose to ignore those who tried to offer it, most notably Townes Van Zandt.
Today’s Nashville doesn’t have any songwriters who come within light years of approaching Townes Van Zandt . . . or the subject of this essay, Hank Williams.
This collection of twenty of his songs is a superb compilation of many of his best tunes and a couple of covers. There are one or two misses, but serious students of Hank Williams can grab a copy of the 40 Greatest Hits collection if the omissions are too troublesome. The primary problem I have is with the cover, because the bust makes him seem like an old fart. Due to a combination of alcoholism and serious back problems that led to drug abuse, Hank Williams, like Ronnie Van Zant, didn’t live to see thirty. He was another young musician who died way too young.
He started his musical career in his early teens, after learning guitar at the hands of Rufus Payne, a black street musician who taught him the blues. More than anything else, the blues influence added a depth, texture and rhythmic quality to his work that makes it unique and accessible to a larger audience . . . as I hope to demonstrate to the skeptics in the reading audience.
“Your Cheatin’ Heart”: Written about his first wife, Hank dictated the lyrics to his about-to-be second wife as they drove to Shreveport to meet her parents. Man, I’d love to see a full transcript of that conversation! Considered one of the great songs of country music, Hank gives a heartfelt performance backed up by exquisite steel guitar and fiddle from his backup band, The Drifting Cowboys. The tone is more sadness than bitterness, and what I love about the lyrics is that the suffering he predicts for his ex is the same suffering he experienced as the victim of her cheating: sleepless nights, pacing the floor, plenty of tears and that curiously-expressed emotion called “pining.” There’s a certain karmic justice working here that gives the song an artistic wholeness.
“Move It on Over”: A tune later repurposed by Bill Haley and the Comets into “Rock Around the Clock,” “Move It on Over” was a monster hit way back in 1947, in no small part due to the playfulness of the lyrics and the mythical eternal conflict between rule-making, civilizing women and those wild and crazy guys. In this case, the guy has stayed out too late, no doubt cheatin’ or drinkin’ or both, and is literally sent to the dog house to sleep with the mutt. A lazy songwriter wouldn’t have bothered, but Hank Williams felt the need to vary his instructions to his canine roommate in each chorus: move it, get it, scoot it, ease it, drag it, pack it, tote it, scratch it, shake it, slide it, sneak it, shove it, sweep it on over. He does the same with the last line in the chorus several times (“Move over ____ because the _____’s comin’ in.”): little dog/big dog, skinny dog/fat dog, old dog/new dog, nice dog/mad dog, short dog/tall dog, good dog/mad dog, cold dog/hot dog. In addition to the language play and overall good fun, the first lead solo is honky-tonk hot, and my detective work led me to an old-time rockabilly picker with a stage name of Zeke Turner aka James Cecil Grinshaw. Then again, it could have been his brother Zeb, who was really William Grinshaw. Shee-it! Whoever it was, I’ll bet it made a lot of southern boys want to pick up the gee-tar . . . it is one hot piece of guitar work.
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”: As close to a poetic masterpiece as you will find in modern popular music, this is my #1 favorite Hank Williams song. I was amazed to find that he had originally intended this to be a spoken word song, which would have been one of the worst mistakes in musical history. His vocal here is so deeply expressive that it achieves a symbiosis with the melody and lyrics like few vocals I’ve ever heard, and the only cover of this song I will abide is Bill Frisell’s instrumental version. The lyrics, full of crisp images from nature and colors that evoke both personal and universal isolation, are a masterpiece of poetic economy, and deserve to be quoted in full.
Did you hear that lonesome whippoorwill?
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome, I could cry
I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide its face and cry
Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die?
That means he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome, I could cry
The silence of a falling star
Light’s up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome, I could cry
“Ramblin’ Man”: This song stands out because it’s in a minor key, something you don’t hear too often from Hank Williams. Similar in theme to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” Hank takes the theme a step further by painting the rambler as a social outcast (“Some folks might say that I’m no good/That I wouldn’t settle down if I could”). Also in contrast to “Free Bird,” where the choice of freedom over the structure of civilized life is an existential choice, Hank’s excuse is “that’s the way god made me,” as if he’s trying to deflect blame. The minor key paints the narrator of “Ramblin’ Man” in dark colors, like he is a condemned man rather than one with a passion for the open road, emphasizing the reach of the social oppression he longs to escape.
“My Heart Would Know”: The steel guitar is best used in establishing the motif for a song and providing counterpoint fills. The introduction here is classic steel guitar, just a few bars based on the final line of the chorus, which is the line people most remember in a popular song. I like Hank’s honesty here: he could hate the broad who’s putting him through hell, but putting his machismo aside, he croons, “My lips could tell a lie but my heart would know.” Way to own up to emotions, dude!
“Kaw Liga”: This novelty piece is a fanciful tale of a wooden statue of an Indian who remains “wooden” and cold though he is facing another lifeless statue of a beautiful squaw perched outside an antiques dealer’s shop. The brave remains stolid and impassive even when the squaw is sold off. Although it does confirm his active imagination, this is not one of Hank’s strongest pieces, falling in the same sad class as The Big Bopper’s “Running Bear,” which somehow became a #1 hit for Johnny Preston during the peak years of the American fascination with Wild West barbarism in the early 60’s. Prior to the development of any sense of responsibility for the destruction of Native American culture, Americans spent hours in movie theaters and in front of their televisions watching macho white guys like John Wayne and Clint Walker ride to the rescue of settlers and damsels threatened by the country’s legitimate inhabitants. Going in this direction really isn’t a stretch for Hank; after all, the genre used to be known as “country and western” to include the many popular songs about gunfights, saloons and Indians. Marty Robbins is a good example of the “western” half of the equation. Don’t expect a review of Marty Robbins any time soon.
“Cold, Cold Heart”: Anticipating Bill Withers’ “Let Me in Your Life” by a couple of decades, this is one of those rare B-sides that kicked up a disk jockey revolt and proved to be a more durable tune than the A-side, “Dear John,” a cliché-ridden number that didn’t even make the cut for this album. “Cold, Cold Heart” is far superior, for after the steel guitar intro, we hear some positively brilliant musical decisions. Hank’s choice to hold the note the length of a dotted half note on the third line of the verse heightens the emotional build tenfold. The abbreviated steel guitar fills add a sweetness to the mix without wasting time better spent on the powerful emotional narrative. That narrative, dealing with Hank’s attempts to help a woman he loves overcome her bitterness about her last romance, is told in simple rhyming couplets consisting of carefully chosen images depicting the enslavement of overwhelming passion and the paradox that love often pushes the person we want in the opposite direction:
There was a time when I believed that you belonged to me
But now I know your heart is shackled to a memory
The more I learn to care for you the more we drift apart
Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart?
“Lovesick Blues”: Okay—y’all know me, right? Y’all know me as a sophisticated, educated, literate, erudite, fashionable and reasonably attractive young woman with discriminating taste, right? Y’all know in the matter of sexuality that I am “inclined to acts refined,” to borrow a phrase from Ian Anderson, indulging in a form of pleasure-seeking that evokes images of secluded chateaus where adults gather to engage in erotic pursuits beyond the comprehension of the average Joe and Jane. And given the previous two sentences, you have probably (and somewhat accurately) identified a streak of snobbishness that is often part of the package in a woman of French descent. Y’all think I think I’m pretty hot shit, right?
Okay, I’m going to blow your image of me to smithereens. I love the fuck out of yodeling!
Personally, I don’t care that Hank Williams, in the fashion of Slick Willie Shakespeare, “borrowed” this song from an old 1920’s musical. Hank Williams could yodel “100 Bottles of Beer” and I’d scream in ecstasy as each bottle was pulled from the wall. My only regret here is that Hank doesn’t do a full yodel that lasts the length of a verse like Jimmie Rodgers . . . only “spot yodeling.” Hank Williams, you insufferable tease! You’re killing me! Cigarette!
“Honky Tonk Blues”: Country blues at its best! Po’ boy’s all tuckered out from all-nighters at the honky-tonk and headed back to his daddy’s farm! Hank sings this sucker with hard-edged confidence, showing just how much he learned about bending the blue notes from Rufus Payne. The steel guitar and fiddle respond to his voice with some fire of their own, making this one goddamn hot song that deserved its spot at the top of the hit parade. And how can you not love that phrasing, “I got the haw-aw-wonky-tonk blue-oohs?” Shee-it!
“Honky Tonkin'”: Recorded in 1948 before Hank abandoned that honky-tonk scene, this is a lively little number that his kid took to #1 over three decades later. Hank’s version is more suited to allowing The Drifting Cowboys show their stuff, and the highlight is the blue-note fiddling in the second solo.
“There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight”: Recorded in the old Herzog studios in Cincinnati around the time of “Lovesick Blues,” the highlight is hearing Hank deliver some unexpected and extended blue notes in the mini-bridge . . . it’s like he wanted to let loose more than the song’s structure permitted. Well, just wait a spell and I think good ol’ Hank will get his mojo workin’ faster than a knife fight in a phone booth . . .
“Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”: Un air du français cadien! Hank borrowed the melody from a Cajun French song called “Grand Texas,” and All Music (among others) claims that Moon Mullican, an old C&W singer and piano player, should receive half-credit. I won’t dispute that, but let’s be honest: there’s no way you can identify “Jambalaya” with anyone else but Hank Williams. A wedding celebration song full of likker in old fruit jars, crawdads and gumbo, it’s a hoot to hear Hank croon this tune about “ma chaz ami-o,” a phrase that would explode the language centers in the brains of present-day Parisians. This is one of his most varied vocals, combining free release of sheer joy with tender tones of bayou romance.
“Hey, Good Lookin'”: This was the first Hank Williams song I ever heard, the song that ended Ray Charles’ masterpiece, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Ray also covered Hank’s “You Win Again” on the same album, and that is what led curious little me to find out more about Hank Williams at the ripe old age of twelve. My father, much to his everlasting discredit as a music collector, had NO Hank Williams albums in his vast library, so I had to cough up the bucks for the CD from the hard-won income earned through babysitting (one experience that helped turn me into a card-carrying member of the Never Have a Kid League). Another “borrowed” tune (this time from Cole Porter), Hank has good, clean fun (if there is such a thing) with romance, drinking “sody pop” instead of hooch. I’ll take “Jambalaya” and party with those Cajuns any day, but I have to admit this is a fun song to sing. The long instrumental passage with the steel guitar and fiddle is one of the best in Hank’s catalog.
“Window Shopping”: This was written by someone by Michael Joseph, who had the nerve to berate a woman for “window shopping” for a male partner. Well, fuck you, Michael Joseph! If Smokey Robinson can shop around, so can the ladies! Hank really should have let this one slide.
“I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)”: Hank had a hard time letting go of lost love, but though his heart broke a hundred times, we did get some fine music from the experience. I prefer Patsy Cline’s version from a musical perspective, as her silky voice has always been irresistible to me. Then again, there’s nothing I love more than a man who knows when he’s licked, so I’ll pass along some kudos to Hank as well.
“Half as Much”: Most famously covered by Rosemary Clooney, this time I have to go with Hank’s version as more sincere and a lot less over-the-top. Rosemary runs every syllable through the wringer and is backed up by those sickeningly sweet strings that scream melodrama. I also love men who show vulnerability, and Hank had no qualms there. The fiddle is a little more rough-sounding here, reminiscent of the Roy Wood form of attack on ELO’s first album. The song features a great melody that could have been greatly enhanced by simple harmony, but I guess Hank just wasn’t into that sort of thing.
“Why Don’t You Love Me”: A lot of folks have covered this one: Jerry Lee Lewis, Van Morrison, even My Morning Jacket. The most offensive of the bunch was the cover by my hero Little Richard, and believe me, it’s not Little Richard at fault here. Vee-Jay Records (remember them, Beatle fans?) released a total ripoff compilation album called Friends from the Beginning: Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix, using the fact that Hendrix had been a session man on some of Little Richard’s recording sessions in 1964-1965 to justify exploiting a dead rock star. One of the most ghoulish acts in an industry given to ghoulishness, they managed to tarnish Hendrix, Little Richard and Hank Williams in one shot.
Getting back to the song, although Hank is struggling again with female rejection, this is a paradoxically cheery little number that he sings with great verve and plenty of octave leaps. I get a kick out of the line, “What makes you treat me like a piece of clay?” to which I always respond, “Because that’s how women are supposed to treat men, silly! Everyone knows men are for molding! Sheesh!”
“You Win Again”: Up to this point, I’m willing to believe that Hank had serious potential as a submissive male, with the proper training. After listening to this tune, I’m afraid I’d have to reject him as being far too masochistic for my tastes. A heartless, shameless woman is cheating on him with abandon and all he can say is “I love you still, you win again.” That’s not the way it’s supposed to work, Hank! I need that self-esteem to rise, baby, or what’s the fucking point? What’s remarkable here is that I think this is one of Hank’s best vocals, one loaded with emotion and character. By the way, what’s with all this sneaky, behind-the-back sex in The Bible Belt? I thought Southerners actually obeyed the seventh and tenth commandments, but there sure seems to be a lot of cheatin’ and covetin’ goin’ on down there!
“Baby We’re Really in Love”: Hank’s finally in love, and boy, is he one cheerful dude! One of the features of Hank Williams’ music is that his songs are so singable. This one is perfect for the morning shower when you’re in a gay and silly frame of mind.
“Take These Chains from My Heart”: Hank’s last #1 hit was written in part by Fred Rose, who wrote “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” I love the way Hank pronounces the word “care”: kyeer. No one delivered these broken-hearted ballads as well as Hank Williams. Released posthumously, it’s easy to interpret this in the context of Hank’s often painful existence as a liberation song, in the sense of breaking free of the mortal chains. True artists like Hank often find it difficult to reconcile their sensitive natures with a cold, cruel world, so I think the interpretation has solid biographical validity.
With barely five years of recording to his credit, Hank Williams had an enormous impact on music in multiple genres. His songs have been covered by artists identified with rock, R&B, soul, pop and easy listening in addition to the endless covers by country artists. When you have the talent to write so many songs that cross boundaries to reach so many people, you’ve found the key to the universal language of music. Hank Williams is one of the few to do just that.