Tuesday, April 14, 2009

An Experiment Part III (Songs 11-14)

Final installment of my The Dirty South blog

Song: "Daddy's Cup"

I feel that, for better or for worse, Mike Cooley tells the most down-home stories of all the songwriters in The Drive-By Truckers. A lot of the characters in his stories have done some rough things, but you sense no pretension in their motives. "Daddy's Cup" is a great example. The narrator is not a bad man, at all, but he's the definitive prototype of the "Southern man". He's a stock car racer and the story is built around being the son of a failed practitioner of the same trade. The father actually had to quit the sport because of a wreck that hurt his eyesight, but the way the narrator speaks about him, you sense that the father still blames himself.

In the span of this song, which has quite a lot of words, the narrator learns everything from his father, begins his small-time racing career, and eventually makes it to the top of the racing world. It's one of the more linear narratives that the Truckers tell. Another thing that I really enjoy about Cooley's writing is that he never spares words. He fits all of the lyrics he possibly can into one line, ensuring that everything he wants to get said, gets said. This, to me, is very reminiscent of Dylan. Anyway, the story wraps itself up nicely and, in typical Cooley fashion, we're not given the end-all-be-all of happy endings: the narrator's father has since passed away and the narrator has lost more races than he's won, but still, he will not rest until his father's name, in which he bears, is on that Championship trophy, hence the name "Daddy's Cup". Once again, very simplistic and very well-told.

Director: Nicholas Ray (1911-1979); a great actor's director of such films as Rebel Without A Cause and Johnny Guitar

Song: "Never Gonna Change"

I find it strange that out of all the songs in the Drive-By Truckers catalog that deal with the "set in our ways" nature of many Southerners, a lot of those being from Alabama, that the most blatant of them was written by the romantic of the band, Jason Isbell. Isbell is a crafty writer with different tastes, but I never once took him for a guy to write an anthemic story about the South. A story with words that call for concert-goers to shout in unison its message. Yet, here it is, clear as crystal. I'm making this introduction sound negative, but I mean quite the opposite. I think it shows great poise on Isbell's part to take a simpler route and write a straight-edged rock tune. I mean, the guy's gotta take a break once in a while...he did write "Danko/Manuel".

In all honesty, this is a very well-told story, from the perspective of an Isbell alter-ego. Either that, or Isbell is voicing an old friend of his, perhaps. A low-down, mean sumbitch who don't take a damn thang off no one. My guess is that it's the latter.

What is the main thing that drives a true Southerner? What makes a real good ol' boy tick? Pride. This is completely a story about pride...if you didn't guess that by the title alone. It seems like the most fun movies deal with very proud characters. Isbell nails it down perfectly, because I've met some twangy individuals in my life and the one common denominator between all of them is their daddies. They love to regale you with some stories about Poppa. This particular father liked to fill his shotgun with black-eyed peas instead of the shells and he'd shoot at the ones he didn't much care for. "He'd aim real low and tear out your ankles or rip right through your knees." It almost seems to be a sort of warning. The apple doesn't fall too far from the tree kinda thing. These boys are so tough that they won't even receive visits from the local law enforcement. Characters like these usually end up sadder, though. They don't always live alone, but you get the impression that they'd be better off that way. And that, to me, is the true message of this story. Isbell does search for the deeper meaning and damned if he didn't reach it with his most cliched song.

Director: The way Paul Thomas Anderson has taken his career with There Will Be Blood, I'd really be intrigued by him tackling a character study set in the South.

Song: "Lookout Mountain"

I've never read a description about this story, but I hope it's not described as DBT's suicide song. This last entry by Patterson Hood is about a hypothetical and nothing else. Each verse begins with the word "If". "If I throw myself off Lookout Mountain..." is used for this character who has driven himself to the brink of an unspeakable act. Once again, though, this album is a Steinbeck-esque tribute to the South, so why not include some popular Southern geography to give some scale to somebody's flat-lining emotional state. It seems that Hood is saying that if someone were to commit the ultimate act of suicide, they would, indeed, hurl themselves off one of the great Southern landmarks.

This particular individual merely toys with the notion, though. One of those cries for help that you hear about. Throughout the entire story he is filled to the brim with doubt about carrying through with it. He wanders many things about what would happen if he did indeed throw himself off Lookout Mountain. Who would mow the cemetery, pay his bills, be with his parents during their time of grief, etc. The main point of it, though, is something we all think about if we happened to die tomorrow: will people even remember me? The worst thing in the world is to think you wouldn't be mourned for your loss, but right there Hood is delivering his final blow to the audience. We Southerners are as guilty as any one else in this country of the type of ego maniacal emotions that drive us to thoughts of self-mutilation or even suicide. We'll do something completely irrational just to see if anyone cares. I'm not sure if Hood has harbored these thoughts before but he sings with the type of authority that makes me think he might have.

Director: Recently, I've watched the first two films of the Iranian-American filmmaker, Ramin Bahrani, whose films deal with alienated protagonists searching for something bigger on the horizon. I think I'd choose him for this. Plus, he's from Winston-Salem, N.C., so it all works out.

Song: "Goddamn Lonely Love"

It's going to be very difficult for me to not describe this in the way of being simply a song. It is a song. It's a great song. It makes me want to weep uncontrollably. It's Jason Isbell at his most desperate and what songwriter worth his or her salt doesn't write their best material when they're desperate? It doesn't really contain much of a linear story. I see this as a series of vignettes played out for the audience by a man too hurt to even cry. It's not that he doesn't want to. He just can't. The character wants to numb the pain he feels from a relationship that seems admittedly cheap. "You could come to me by plane, but that wouldn't be the same as that ol' motel room in Texarkana was." I guess we all feel love in different ways and this particular type did quite a number on him.

The chorus reads, "So, I'll take two of what you're having and I'll take all of what you got, to kill this goddamn lonely, goddamn lonely love." He doesn't want to just numb the pain. He will do anything to make sure he purges all feelings he's ever had towards this particular person. There's no doubt that Isbell is taking the autobiographical route, here. Once again, what songwriter worth his or her salt...

He goes on to try and convince himself that it was all a crazy dream and that meeting this person never occurred, but he has to face the reality that he did. So what's left? Try to find whatever therapeutic means are given to him to make the pain disappear. The coda of this story gets to me every time, because he just repeats the line "All I've got is this goddamn lonely, goddamn lonely love" over and over again. Are we, the audience, to believe that this man is doomed to fester in his own thoughts of lost love? That's how it ends. It doesn't even seem hopeful. This song is a dirge. An elegy for a man never to feel that initial joy of falling for someone. It seems appropriate for an album that is filled to the brim with stories of depression, angst, debauchery, historical periods, and general loss. It's a perfect way to exit. It reminds me of something Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and the rest of The Band would do.

Director: I, initially, thought Cameron Crowe, but after seeing Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, I wouldn't give this film to anyone else.

The end

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