Various Artists

Soundtrack to “The American Dreamer”

A soundtrack to a 1971 documentary centered around Dennis Hopper during the making of The Last Movie, a film whose title was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy regarding his career. The Last Movie was a project near and dear to Hopper’s heart and he bankrolled his success and notoriety from Easy Rider to get a million dollars in funding for a disjointed, and sometimes fascinating skewering of Westerns and Hollywood in general. Centered around Hopper’s role as Kansas, a stunt coordinator who quits the movie business after a tragic accident during a shoot in Peru and falls in love with the culture. Somehow, he gets roped into a bizarre scenario where lines between reality and fiction have blurred and he tries to navigate his way through a surreal situation where some Peruvians are shooting their own homage to the American Western, but the violence is very real and they are shooting the film with “cameras” made out of sticks. Needless to say, it’s reception upon release was hostile and it caused him to take a step back from the industry for years.

If that wasn’t enough, he was the centerpiece and subject of The Last American Dreamer, a documentary that captured him at his most delusional, addicted and hedonistic moments as he rambles about the nature of art, sex, filmmaking and politics. It’s an utterly fascinating portrait of a man walking on the edge of his own sanity while remaining lucid enough to remind you why there were aspects of brilliance about the man. However, the viewer must wade through clumsy hookups with groupies in bathtubs and an impromptu nudist strut through a Los Angeles suburb. I wouldn’t exactly recommend either movie, but they are interesting since you don’t really see stars toss fame aside in such a surreal fashion these days.

You wouldn’t expect such an introspective, lost and forlorn soundtrack to accompany such orchestrated chaos, but then again it is kind of the perfect canvas for a tale of a man clutching at the end of his rope. I am totally unfamiliar with any of the artists besides Gene Clark, but each and every song on here captures that existential hangover that occurred when the Woodstock era of peace and love began to decay and folks began to spiritually prioritize their lives when the party was over and the drugs and excess began to take its toll as it always does in any era. Each song is an examination of the collective psyche of the time and each artist sings a paean to the search for something to replace what was once fulfilling, but now seems increasingly empty. In that regard, it might be one of the most fitting soundtracks I’ve every heard.

Gene Clark kicks things off with “American Dreamer” and it echoes Hopper’s rejection of success and its trappings as he crafts a narrative of a man who once thought money would solve all his woes until he realizes dollar bills will never purchase true love or contentment in one’s soul. There’s something optimistic about how it lionizes the search for meaning, but utterly depressing in how it paints the American dream as a farce that has tainted an entire generation.

Hello People follow it up with “Pass Me By” which another soul crushing sentiment as they sing “Sitting on a high fence watching time pass me by, hoping for an answer before its time to die, which side is a side to bring a man a piece of mind, the longer I sit, the harder it is to find, Pass me by, this is my price to pay, so pass me by.” They go onto some convoluted, but sad metaphor where they compare life to a birthday cake where everyone just wants to stick their fingers in your icing and tear you down. It’s a pretty nihilistic song about desperate moments where life loses its luster and your foundation slowly crumbles in slow-motion.

John Buck Wilkin contributes “Screaming Metaphysical Blues”,  a somewhat schizophrenic song that starts out as a tribute to Dennis Hopper’s hoodwinking of Hollywood via their funding of The Last Movie and eventually devolves into an invitation to take his hand as we travel beyond space and time and espouses the ideology that we can only be free when we die and “reach the universal mind.” It’s a weird juxtaposition of sentiments, but I can only imagine that Hopper would approve of such a jumbled, but occasionally eloquent summation of the path to the afterlife.

If you heard only one track from this soundtrack, you would just pleasantly nod in appreciation of the mellow country/folk emanating from your speaker. Taken as a whole, it is a complex chorus of troubled voices trying to make sense of their individual ideologies as an era comes to close and the old comforts no longer alleviate your woes. It’s an album about the search for something meaningful when the lexicon has suddenly shifted and you have no way to make sense of it all when the highs no longer lift you off the ground and all that’s left is an endless low.

Dillard and Clark

The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark (1969, reissued in 2000 by Demon)

I love all posted here, but occasionally I must pull you aside and state the absolute brilliance of a particular album. The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark is one of those albums that reinforce the idealistic attitude twoards music and its ability to make the world so much more colorful by its very presence. To be honest, if you lack love for the Byrds, bluegrass, country and the richness of a well-told tale, then my hyperbole is a mere shout into a deaf ear. It may not be my favorite album in the entire world, but I’ve always felt it walked in lock step with my guardedly optimistic and relaxed personality. It’s a bruised, but hopeful collection of tunes that always nudge me in the right direction while reminded me that all is not sunshine in this dour world.

This Dillard slot in this duo is filled by Doug Dillard, one-half of the 60s most talented purveyors of bluegrass, while the Clark portion is taken up by Gene Clark, one of my favorite songwriters and engine behind the Byrds’ earliest classics. It is a perfect product of the late 60s when folk, country, bluegrass and rock all became a fountainhead for a bunch of long-hairs who crafted it into their own grubby visage. It may not reinvent a well-worn wheel, but it is a respectful nod to their heroes that could’ve only been recorded during this era. God knows that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were on the top of their game during this period, but these two leave the social commentary at the door and just focus on personal woes involving the meaning of life, love and the potential for happiness. It’s a humble, respectful album that breaks my heart only to slap a shit-eating grin on it during the next song. Although it may aim for simplicity, there is a grace and complexity to their songwriting that place it far beyond the others who drew from the same pond.

I’ve been pondering the posting of lists. This will be the first in a series of thematic collections relating to floats my boat. Today’s list was inspired by a humid drive into the barren heart of Delaware County where Peter Jefferies’ depressing Electricity album placed me in one of those pensive moods that went perfectly with the blur of chain restaurants dominating my horizons. Therefore, this led to this list of songs that always make me feel like a maudlin chump. Sorry that these are individual tracks, but I broke it up so you may pick and choose. There will probably be a sequel since I gave up at twenty.

1. Skip Spence-“Broken Heart” from the Oar LP

-he sounds broken down before his life even began. There are many worthy choices on this album, but this captures the weight of love gone wrong.

2. Beck-“Lost Cause” from the Sea Change Lp

-he has devoted so much time to being the most wiggity-wack Scientologist in the club that you forget how great he can be without the fixins’. A vivid snapshot of regret, lost friendships and the worry that goes along with new beginnings.

3. Bread-“Look What You’ve Done” from the On the Waters LP

-a soft-rock classic where the protagonist is pitiful and pissed at the same time. Who knew Bread had such issues with passive aggressive behavior?

4. Camper Van Beethoven-“All Her Favorite Fruit” from Key Lime Pie LP

-domesticity gone awry.

5. Codeine-“3 Angels” from the Frigid Stars LP

-I could probably pick any of their songs, but this one crushes you more than the others.

6. Galaxie 500-When Will You Come Home” from Peel Sessions

An old chestnut that deals with those times you miss the company of other humans.

7. Gary Stewart-“She’s Acting Single(I’m Drinking Doubles) from The Essential Gary Stewart

-Oh Gary, lemme give you a big old hug. Nevermind, let’s finish the bottle.

8. Gene Clark-“Life’s Greatest Fool” from the No Other Lp

-an exploration of powerlessness, then hope. Actually, this is kind of uplifting in its own way.

9. Go-Betweens-“Dive For Your Memory” from 16 lovers Lane LP

-A man willing to do anything to regain the past. Kind of romantic, but tragic.

10. Graham Nash-“Military Madness” from the Songs For Beginners LP

-Sad only because its Vietnam era warnings seem relevant again.

11. The Jayhawks-“Take Me With You When You Go” from Hollywood Town Hall

-I always imagined this to be about Mark Olson’s worries about his wife’s struggle with Multiple Sclerosis.

12. Kristin Hersh-“Beestung” from Hips and Makers Lp

-I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about, but it seems to deal with her struggles with mental illness and her pleas for a lover to assist her.

13. Lisa Gerrard-“Sanvean” from Live in Dusseldorf bootleg.

-I hope these are the sounds I hear as my life enters its last minutes.

14. The Magick Heads-“Before We Go Under” from Before We Go Under Lp

-A song about drowning from a side project of Robert Scott of The Bats.

15. Michael Hurley-“Sweedeedee” from Armchair Boogie(the best album ever made)

-another tale of lost love and the attempts to regain it.

16. Mickey Newbury-“The Future’s Not What It Used To Be” from ‘Frisco Mabel Joy

-a man discovers that travel and booze won’t solve his problems. Go figure.

17. Peter Jefferies-“Scattered Logic” from the Electricity lp

– my favorite song at the moment. A heart-wrenching three minutes.

18. John Cale-“I Keep a Close Watch on My Heart at Night” from Music for a New Society

-somebody not only broke this dude’s heart, but squashed it into a pulp.

19. Peter Hammill-“Been Alone So Long” from the Nadir’s Big Chance Lp

-This is a close second to the John Cale song in terms of crushing hopelessness. A song about a man who has been isolated so long that he’s forgotten how to relate to humanity.

20. Marc Ribot-“Saints” from the Saints Lp

-let’s end on a wordless note. His cover of Albert Ayler’s “Saints” is a dark, moody end to this self-indulgence.

Guy Clark-Old No. 1

July 14, 2008

Guy Clark

Old No. 1 (RCA 1975)

There are certain eras and places which are forever associated with the heyday or a particular genre. From the 60s British Invasion to the NYC and British punk scenes of 77-82, there are certain times in which there was an electricity and excitement that a new day was coming. In my opinion, country music has seen a few heydays from the Appalachian folk of the Carter Family to the heartbreaking schmaltz of the 60s, country assimilated Americana and cast itself in a new image. Sadly, Americana ain’t what it used to be and we are stuck with country’s assimilation of Bon Jovi and American Idol. Things ain’t what they used to be.

However, my favorite era of country is the outlaw mystique of the 70s where country artists soaked up all of the weed, LSD, psychedelia and rebellious attitudes of the 60s and spat it back out. You can hear the echoes of the Grateful Dead, Haight-Ashbury and psychedelic soul of the era and married to the past and it resulted in a period which I hold dear. Just off the top of my head I can name David Allen Coe, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Michael Hurley, Jerry jeff Walker, Emmylou Harris, Joe Ely, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Gene Clark as individuals who pushed the enveloped of country music.

Guy Clark wrote “L.A. Freeway” for Jerry Jeff Walker and it was a hit that led to RCA signing him up to the label for his debut Old No. 1. He assembled a band that included Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and David Briggs. They provide a gorgeous canvas for Guy Clark to paint tales of leaving town for good, honkytonk hoochie mamas, intrepid hitchhikers and the perils of nostalgia. The album has little to do with outlaw imagery. This album is almost pathologically obsessed with loss and new beginnings. What makes it so sad is that he puts up this front that these new directions will be positive, but you get the inkling that he knows it will end in failure again. There is even one track “Old Time Feeling” that reminds me of Cat Stevens tacking a country tune for the Harold and Maude soundtrack. There is a fear of the future which permeates the album and it echoes a desire for things to remain the same. Lost opportunities and bad luck abound in Guy Clark’s lyrical world and it bums me out to no end. However, it is so damn gorgeous that it always ends in a draw.