How I Found Myself in a Forest of Bare Trees At the End of My Vacation
I guess I had a nice vacation in the sense that it gave me some relief from my pandemically-driven claustrophobia, but the Europe I traveled through felt more a peaceful version of the Wild West where everyone is dressed like bandits but nobody’s stupid enough to carry a gun. Basically, I froze my ass off in the Pyrenees, burned my delicate skin in Oporto (“just like San Francisco” my ass) but was relieved to find almost everyone in three countries wearing masks and generally respecting the two-meter personal space guideline.
But this virus is a nasty piece of work, and as soon as we made it back home, we heard that the French authorities were considering closing the border with Spain due to another surge in cases in the northeast. As our route back to Nice included a brief stop in Barcelona, we decided it was best to self-quarantine for a couple of weeks. As much as I loathed the thought of being cooped up in the house again, I’d rather drive myself nuts than run the risk of infecting other people.
The combination of a spur-of-the-moment trip and the effort required by The Third Wave Series left me with no reviews in the hopper and little in the way of background research on any of the albums on my list. My first choice was Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, but his unexpected passing closed that door, at least for a while. The emotions I feel about the loss of a truly gifted and under-appreciated musician would likely muddle the narrative. I went back and re-read my review of Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever (which I wrote the week shortly after hearing the awful news) and . . . well, let’s just say it’s not one of my best efforts.
As nothing on my to-do list seemed to demand my attention, I looked at my stats and was surprised and delighted to find that since the start of the pandemic, the review with the greatest number of hits was Fleetwood Mac’s Future Games. Interestingly enough, some of my readers’ comments compared and contrasted that album with Bare Trees. “Forsooth, I no longer toil in vain!” I cried to the heavens, quoting young teen author Cassandra Clare, a woman I’d never heard of until I googled “quotes containing forsooth.”
So, here I am, delighted to find myself in forest of bare trees—delighted because this last hurrah of the Kirwan-Welch lineup is a strange and wondrous tale . . . forsooth.
To appreciate Bare Trees, it’s best to forget about its last hurrah status and instead consider it from the perspective of the developmental trajectory from Future Games. With that in mind, I’m going to pop into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine again and place my adult self entering the local record store on a rainy day in March 1972.
As I twirl my umbrella dry, the wannabe-rock-star-clerk stuffs a stack of Bare Trees into the NEW RELEASES! rack at the store’s entrance. “What’s this?” I cry in surprise. “It’s only been six months since Future Games came out!” The clerk gives me a “whatever” look and sidles off for his third break in the last hour. I grab a copy, gaze at the wintry cover, verify it’s legit, take it to the counter, wait for the clerk to return from break number four, plunk down $5.98 plus tax (in cash) and rush home to my beloved Dual 1219 to give it a spin.
My first reaction is, “Hey! This Kirwan-Welch thing is really working!” Though Danny’s compositions take up a bulk of the recording space, Bob Welch has upped his game with one credible and one exceptional composition, giving the finished product greater balance. The stylistic contrast between the two guitarists is complementary, with Welch generally leaning towards R&B stylings with a tinge of jazz influence and Kirwan supplying a more melodic, progressive approach heightened by his superb command of vibrato and grounding in the blues. In spots, the two distinct styles seem to gravitate towards a merger of sorts, resulting in tuneful, melodic rock that keeps things moving. My perception that Kirwan and Welch have their shit together is heightened by my firm belief that Christine McVie was often out to lunch on Bare Trees, as I will demonstrate in due time.
The album also feels more cohesive than Future Games, in part due to the wintry theme, but primarily because of Danny Kirwan’s palpable sense of melancholy. In the highly informative Penguin Q&A Sessions with Bob Welch, Welch was asked about the “feel” of Bare Trees: “There was no overall plan to make Bare Trees sound bleak, it just happened. I think a lot of that mood comes from Danny’s angst in his writing. His songs always had a kind of loneliness and forlornness about them. He was not exactly a happy-go-lucky guy.”
Hmm. There’s really only one song on the album I would describe as bleak, so I have to disagree with Bob here. As he was born in Hollywood and spent a good chunk of his youth in winterless Southern California, it’s possible his conclusion was informed by seasonal ignorance. The closing poem describes winter as quite beautiful and intensely comforting if you’re wrapped in your favorite blankie with your feet to the fire and your honey at your side. And though winter can serve as a symbol of death (on Bare Trees and in the works of numerous literary figures), the more cyclical view informs us that winter is a period of rest that leads to regeneration. The moods in Bare Trees vary from eerie to tender to wistful to forlorn; the most intense expression of loss on the album involves the simple truth that we are all mortal and wish like hell we weren’t. In the end, I have to agree with Mick Fleetwood, who called Bare Trees “a well-rounded album.”
Confirming the Hamburg Theory that if you play yourself to exhaustion every night you’ll eventually become as tight as a nun’s twat, the band is firing on all cylinders for “Child of Mine.” Fleetwood Mac had been on the road for months, escaping from the grind for a brief period to catch a few Z’s in the communal pad known as “Benifold” and commuting to London to record Bare Trees. They sure don’t sound like they’re too pooped to pop here, with the trio of John McVie, Fleetwood and Kirwan in perfect sync from the get-go, allowing Christine McVie to ride the wave few bars into the mix with some tasty electric piano fills. Unlike the majestic beauty of “Woman of 1000 Years,” Danny Kirwan created an ironically sexy ass-kicker here—ironic because the song deals with Kirwan missing his very young son, a situation complicated by the fact that Danny’s father abandoned the family when Danny was just a lad:
Little child of mine
You’ll be lovin’ like your little Mother did
Heard it somewhere before
I won’t leave you no not like my Father did
That bittersweet dynamic is reflected in the ripping blues-oriented rock riffs that appear throughout the song.
The frequent reversion to blues scales is sweetened by a key change between stanzas one and two (the song structure is non-standard, something along the lines of chorus-bridge-denouement, so to simplify things, let’s just call them stanzas one, two and three). Stanza one is in good old E major, with a chord structure supporting a blues scale: E-G-B-A. The band then makes a surprising shift to a C-Bb-A pattern in stanza two (the “heavy country blues” segment) that may break the rules but sounds fabulously uplifting. When they’ve finished the stanza, the band gives us five and a half rounds of the transition pattern (G-A-B), the G “permitted” by the C major scale and the B chord crucial to the eventual resolution back to E major. That G-A-B pattern is rhythmically imbalanced, with the A chord earning a dotted note to extend it a bit. The “half-round” dispenses with the B chord altogether, making for a softer landing on the root E chord. The band jams on the E chord for a while, and when Danny returns to deliver the third stanza (“I miss you again”), Mick Fleetwood shifts from snare to toms in a move that clearly separates the tone of the third stanza from the first. Danny strengthens that distinction by mirroring the vocal melody on his electric guitar . . . leaving us to conclude that “Child of Mine” is really a suite of sorts, with three distinct movements melded together beautifully by Kirwan’s remarkable gift with chord patterns, a talent he displayed on that polar opposite creation, “Woman of a 1000 Years.”
Shorter version: Danny Kirwan had amazing compositional instincts in multiple genres. Even shorter version: “Child of Mine” is a great piece of work.
Bob Welch moved up to the second slot with a song that could have only been written by an American, “The Ghost.” Whether it’s due to a long history of periodic religious revivals led by hellfire preachers or to a strange fear of looming disaster in the midst of plenty, Americans tend to be more apocalyptic than the rest of the world. Here Bob describes an environmental (likely nuclear) disaster where “the fire comes scorching down” followed by “strange winds coming from the sky” that force everyone into underground (likely nuclear) shelters. The music is a pretty straightforward albeit truncated minor-key blues with enough variation to forestall boredom. Welch’s thin and vulnerable voice works well in this context and the only gripe I have about the arrangement is the fake flute conjured up by Christine McVie on the Mellotron. I know Ian Anderson was unavailable due to the Thick as a Brick tour, but maybe Chris Wood or Mike Vickers could have dropped by for a few minutes to save us from that cheesy sound.
Yes, I’m a flute player, and yes, I’m a fucking snob about it.
Speaking of bad ideas and Christine McVie, the next track finds her entering the long list of rock stars bitching about life on the road and adding nothing of consequence to the discussion. Her whining is entirely unconvincing, for if she was truly serious when she sang “I want to sit at home in my rockin’ chair/I don’t want to travel the world,” she wouldn’t have IMMEDIATELY GONE OUT ON TOUR TO PROMOTE BARE TREES. Not only is the song a crashing bore, but geez, Chrissie, couldn’t you have given the song a few more minutes of your precious time and come up with a title other than “Homeward Bound?” You know, the PAUL SIMON song?
Danny Kirwan steps in to save the day with the absolutely lovely instrumental, “Sunny Side of Heaven.” In the Penguin Q&A Sessions noted above, Bob Welch observed, “Danny was a very meticulous guitar player. The notes had to be exactly right. He didn’t play any twiddly licks just to fill time. Danny’s style, which he modeled after Pete Green’s, was a ‘make every note count emotionally’ style. No wasted notes, no flash fooling around just to impress. This was actually a very mature style to have at [that] young age … I learned a lot from Danny about economy of notes, and really trying to say something in a guitar lead.” Others have noted that Danny sometimes played with tears in his eyes as he marveled at the beauty of the notes. Though he and Peter Green didn’t get along all that well (welcome to the club), he couldn’t have learned from a better teacher. His performance on “Sunny Side of Heaven” is dazzling, a combination of perfect tone, bend command and a delightful melodic line. I don’t have a single gripe about this track, but I will admit that I tend to avoid picking up a guitar after I listen to a Danny Kirwan performance. I hate embarrassing myself.
The title track opens side two, its title lifted from the poem that appears at the end of the album. If the spare lyrics and extended space for guitar solos found in “Bare Trees” give the impression that the piece originated from a jam, that would hardly come as a surprise. Unlike the pop group of worldwide fame with its tightly crafted, hook-heavy offerings, early Fleetwood Mac specialized in improvisational jamming. “An abiding memory of playing with the Mac would be me and Mick really ‘getting into it’ (in a GOOD way) on stage, jamming the end of a song and making up things as we went along, not knowing how it was going to come out, or how it was going to end.” The legacy comes from Peter Green, who became quite the legend for his lengthy explorations of “Black Magic Woman” (alas, the alleged four-hour version is likely a myth). Though the sparse lyrics describe a “bleak” atmosphere, the rhythms and riffs are rather jaunty and upbeat. What the song lacks in depth is more than balanced by the delight that comes from listening to a damned good band.
We now arrive at what would eventually become Bob Welch’s signature tune, “Sentimental Lady.” The version on Bare Trees isn’t as well-known as the mega-hit from Bob’s first solo effort, French Kiss, and I’m sure that fans have their opinions as to which version is the best.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that neither version is best and that “Sentimental Lady” has never been properly recorded.
The French Kiss version was specifically redesigned for the pop market, targeting that segment of the audience consisting of late-stage Fleetwood Mac fans who bought Rumours in droves a few months before Bob made his solo début. Produced by sanitation specialist Lindsey Buckingham in collaboration with the sterilized version of Christine McVie, the song loses a crucial verse to keep the song within radio-friendly dimensions. McVie further degrades the song with her passion for fake instrumentation, this time in the form of a ludicrous attempt to evoke a mood of “sentimentality” via a faux harpsichord.
If Bob Welch were alive today and tried to give “Sentimental Lady” another shot, he would be well-advised to obtain a restraining order preventing Christine McVie from coming within a thousand miles of the studio, for McVie also ruined the original. The Bare Trees version opens with a perfectly lovely duet consisting of Bob’s acoustic guitar and McVie’s piano (credit where credit is due). Bob enters with a voice characterized by heartfelt melancholy, nailing both melody and mood. The transitional lines are executed perfectly, the rhythm picking up a bit and building nicely to resolution in the chorus when . . . WHAT THE FUCK? Is she drunk? What the hell kind of background vocal is that? Sounds like Christine woke up five minutes before the red light came on and couldn’t remember if she was supposed to do counterpoint or harmony and wound up with neither. She also has a helluva struggle trying to stay within the key, sealing this contribution as one of the worst supporting vocal performances in history.
Cut McVie out of the mix and I’d have a strong preference for the original, largely due to the sincerity of Bob Welch’s vocal and the two couplets that brilliantly place intimate relationships within the larger context of modern life:
You are here and warm,
But I could look away and you’d be gone.
‘Cause we live in a time,
When meaning falls in splinters from our minds.
Now you are here today,
But easily you might just slip away.
‘Cause we live in a time,
When paintings have no color, words don’t rhyme.
I don’t know if Bob Welch read Yeats, but his description echoes the famous lines in “The Second Coming” (“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold”). The question Bob poses is valid: how can I be certain of a relationship in an uncertain world? And if you don’t think socio-cultural events have an impact on how we relate to each other, I offer this piece of contemporary data from the Brookings Institution: “The COVID-19 episode will likely lead to a large, lasting baby bust. The pandemic has thrust the country into an economic recession. Economic reasoning and past evidence suggest that this will lead people to have fewer children.” Even before the pandemic, many of my co-generationists decided that children were out of the question due to concerns about climate change and economic uncertainty. Thankfully, Bob does manage to get past the inherent cultural uncertainty by recognizing love as the antidote: “‘Cause I come so together where you are.” “Sentimental Lady” is a brilliant piece of poetry that really deserves another go-round.
“Danny’s Chant,” a wordless tribute to the wah-wah pedal, works up to a point, but the lyric-free melody is so strong that it makes one wish that Kirwan would have put some effort into crafting a proper set of lyrics. It’s followed by Christine McVie’s one rock-solid contribution to Bare Trees, “Spare Me a Little of Your Love.” She hooks me with the rising melody of the opening line and gives what feels like an exceptionally strong performance in the context of several earlier misfires. Danny Kirwan’s counterpoint and solo are appropriately restrained to support the core musical themes.
We now arrive at the best supporting evidence for the Welch theory that Bare Trees is “bleak” in the most curious composition of the lot, Danny Kirwan’s “Dust.” The melody is exceptionally beautiful, gliding nicely over the complex yet coherent chord patterns that mark the composition as classic Danny Kirwan. As for the words, well, all I can say is that Danny seemed to be obsessed with the ugly, physical aspects of death where we “stiffen in darkness/left alone/to crumble in our separate light.” Yes, yes, yes, “In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone,” as Jackson Browne noted, and that sucks, but why dwell on one possibly shitty moment out of all the moments in one’s lifetime? Apparently, Danny Kirwan never read Slaughterhouse-Five, for had he done so, he would have learned from the Trafalmadorians that the healthiest response to stumbling across a stiff is “So it goes.”
I am bloody thankful that Bare Trees didn’t end on such a morbid note but with the poetry of a charming, elderly British lady of unknown origin who went by the probably fictional name of Mrs. Scarrott. I love the genuine enthusiasm of her reading, as she clearly delights in the joys of phonetics and meter. The poem turns the “bleak” argument completely on its head as we realize that “Thoughts on a Grey Day” isn’t a meditation on depression but a celebration of all forms of beauty and the joys of love:
Our sun complete.
God bless our perfect, perfect grey day
With trees so bare, so bare!
But O so beautiful, so beautiful!
The grey and blue sky
The world is here
Ours, just, justing, just ours
After reading that passage, I’m convinced that that “Sentimental Lady” should have preceded “Thoughts on a Grey Day,” as both are linked to the theme of finding security in love in less-than-optimal circumstances.
With the help of my boy Sherman, I’ll close this essay by cranking up the Wayback Machine and traveling to a spot in the timeline about five or so months after I picked up a copy of Bare Trees in the record shop. By this time, Fleetwood Mac is on the road again in support of the new album, and I bought my ticket the second they were available, highly desirous to see the Kirwan-Welch team in action. I squeeze my lithe but stacked frame between the sea of elbows to navigate to a spot close to the stage, refusing to allow the usual tit grabs and ass slaps to deter me from my mission. “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, FLEETWOOD MAC” booms the deep voice as I finally make it to the front.
Huh? Why is Bob Welch singing “Bare Trees?” Hey! Where’s Danny Kirwan? A few songs later, Christine McVie mumbles something about Danny being sick. Fuck! The rest of the set is dominated by the sight of Bob Welch looking perfectly miserable. I leave a bit early, and as I navigate my way toward the exit, this time I respond to acts of male entitlement with a few swift kicks to the balls.
I decide to stay in the past a little longer and eventually learn that Danny Kirwan had been fired from the band after the hissy fit to end all hissy fits, a rage-filled, alcohol-fueled tantrum par excellence that resulted in the death of one beautiful Les Paul.
Having now returned to the present forty-eight years after the fact, I can now understand the use of the word “bleak” in relation to Bare Trees. In a more perfect world, Danny Kirwan would have found immediate and effective help for his illness and would have lived a long and fruitful life . . . and made nice with Bob Welch so they could have transformed their differences into strengths.