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World Without Tears

by RUSSELL G. BLATCHER

The month of May should be great for Manchester music-lovers with shows coming from Lou Reed, Neil Young, and first up Lucinda Williams. 

In early April Steve Earle played in Sheffield on the Sunday evening before the UK release date of World Without Tears, and sure enough, they were playing Williams’ new album over the PA prior to the show.  The volume was fairly low under the audience hubbub and I don’t know how much had gone before these lines from Those Three Days wrenched my attention to it:

Scorpions crawl across my screen
Make their home beneath my skin
Underneath my dress stick their tongue
Bite through flesh down to the bone
And I have been so fuckin’ alone 

Isn’t that stunning? It’s no surprise that Earle should want to promote Williams’ work. Sadly, she is yet another great artist from the States saddled with a recidivist’s record of under-performing in the charts. Robert Christgau was regretting this way back in his Rolling Stone review of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (July 23 1998):

Yet beyond print media, where she's lionized whenever she sticks her head out of her lair, Lucinda Williams can hardly catch a break. She gets covered in Nashville, even won a songwriting Grammy after Mary-Chapin Carpenter cut the tongue out of "Passionate Kisses," and if Lucinda Williams maintains its steady sales pace, it will go gold around 2038. Smitten bizzers keep giving her advances, too. But she's never charted, and her labels have a terrible way of vaporizing. 

Mercury Records’ Box Set The Complete Hank Williams includes tributes from many country music luminaries, including one from Lucinda Williams:

I first heard Hank Williams’ music at home from as early on as I can remember. Growing up around poets and novelists, there were many evenings spent sitting around the living room with our close family of friends. On any given night, as the hours grew late, someone would ask if I would get my guitar and sing a few songs. I would sing ‘Farther Along’, ‘Malted Milk Blues’, ‘I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You’, or ‘Cold, Cold Heart’. By the time I got around to ‘I Saw The Light’, plenty of handclapping and hollering was going on. Another voice would usually call out to my father, ‘Miller, tell us about the time you met Hank Williams!’ Dad would oblige us by rising from his chair and, in preacher fashion, testifying, he would recall this story with strains of ‘I Saw The Light’ hovering in the background:
      
‘Well, I met Hank after a concert he gave in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and he let me hang around later for a drink in a honky-tonk. Being a struggling poet and a young college instructor, and stupidly wanting to disguise the Arkansas preacher’s boy that I was, I sat there with my tweed coat and pipe and ordered a glass of scotch. After some talk and a few rounds, Hank stood up, looked me square in the face and lamented, “Williams, you don’t need to be drinkin’ Scotch. You oughta be drinkin’ beer, ‘cause you got a beer-drinkin’ soul!”’
      
Hank Williams was talking about being who you are. My father never forgot the lesson.
      
Being the granddaughter of a Methodist minister and the daughter of a poet (I was born in Lake Charles just four months later, the month Hank Williams died), I always related to this story in a way that would help me form my view of the world and the way my music reflected that.
      
Hank Williams was one of us. 

(if this appears garbled towards the end, I’m afraid it is not my fault, the compilers of the booklet appear to have lost a paragraph somewhere) 

In the current odour of the United States around much of the world, it is vital that we still understand what Lucinda Williams means by ‘one of us’. Despite all that has happened in the last month the premier symbol of that nation remains the Statue of Liberty. Consider for a moment the inscription on its base:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land
Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command.
The air bridged harbour that twin cities frame.
"Keep your ancient lands,
your storied pomp!" cries she.
"Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-st to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" 

Is that still the face which the United States presents to the world? Or is the “golden door” to be shut forever in the face of the “huddled masses”? Have they now replaced the “Mother of Exiles” with a new Colossus whose “conquering limbs stride from land to land”? The root of the United States strength is compassion, the compassion for the wretched and homeless represented by the Statue Of Liberty. I believe that compassion is still to be found somewhere in the American people’s hearts. There was a real attempt to forge a new kind of country there. After all, every aggressive Imperialist State there has ever been, regardless of how powerful it became, has eventually crumbled, broken up and disappeared. The unadvertised side to the hawkish persuasion currently in power is their hard heartedness. The more Bush spends on the military, the more he will undermine every piece of welfare expenditure he can. But what he sees as strength is, ultimately, weakness. 

The song which really began Hank Williams’ career (by bringing him, however indirectly, to the attention of Fred Rose – see Hank Williams The Biography by Colin Escott) was Tramp On The Street. This was written  by Grady and Hazel Cole and recorded by them in August 1939. Although, in their version “like a parody of a hillbilly record” (Escott, page 49), the power of the song lay in it’s compassion for the perennial underdog, of which there were so many in the thirties when it was written. Hank Williams reshaped it into a heart-wrenching plea for sympathy for the victims of America’s dark side. The only surviving recording of Hank Williams’ version dates from 1949 (Health and Happiness acetates, The Complete Hank Williams Disc 10 Track 19). He introduces it as a hymn, “one of the best that anyone ever wrote”:

Only a tramp was Lazarus sad fate
He who lay down at the rich man's gate
He begged for the crumbs from the rich man to eat
He was only a tramp found dead on the street
He was some mother's darlin', he was some mother's son
Once he was fair and once he was young
And some mother once rocked him, her darlin' to sleep
But they left him to die like a tramp on the street.
Jesus, Who died on Calvary's tree
He shed His life's blood for you and for me
They pierced His side, His hands and His feet
And they left Him to die like a tramp on the street.
He was Mary's own darlin', he was God's chosen Son
Once He was fair and once He was young
Mary, she rocked Him, her darlin' to sleep
But they left Him to die like a tramp on the street.
If Jesus should come and knock on your door
For a place to come in, or bread from your store
Would you welcome Him in, or turn Him away
Then the God would deny you on the Great Judgement Day. 

Williams recorded a number of religious songs as Luke The Drifter. Here, however, although he compares the tramp to Christ, the appeal of “some mother’s darlin’[…] some mother’s son” is essentially secular. If society cannot care for such as these it’s whole basis is undermined, or replaced by that which will destroy it from within. 

Fifty years later Lucinda Williams addresses the same issue on her new album on the track American Dream

Much has been made of her use of “rap” on some tracks. At it’s crudest the New Zealand Herald on 19th of April heads their review with “Madonna isn’t the only sexy veteran who’s decided to start rapping late in her career”, a comparison and description which no doubt would delight Williams. What some of these reviewers may have missed is that Williams’ co-producer on World Without Tears, Mark Howard was an associate of Daniel Lanois, and engineered the Dylan albums Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind. The atmosphere and ambience of the 3 albums are very similar at several points, and the vocal delivery on American Dream is reminiscent of Dylan’s especially on Highlands. If you want further proof of a connection there compare Dylan’s line in Highlands: “I’m listening to Neil Young, I got to turn up the sound” and Williams in Ventura: “Put Neil Young on and turn up the sound”. 

Part of the reason for the half “spoken” style of American Dream, is it’s intention to give a platform to the real voices of the underprivileged, testifying to the conclusion “Everything Is Wrong”, which is the only “sung” part of the track:

Last time I saw you had dirt under your nails
Your eyes were glassy and you looked so pale
You said “My life has become a livin’ hell
Ain’t got enough money to pay my bills”
Everything is wrong
Everything is wrong

Got a friend with a needle stuck in his arm
He got hooked on heroin in Vietnam
“It used to help kill the pain some of the time
Now I can’t sleep at all since I got back home”
Everything is wrong
Everything is wrong

“I worked in the strip mines off and on
Now I can’t seem to get rid of this cough
Ain’t been many jobs these last few months
And the last one I had I got laid off”
Everything is wrong
Everything is wrong

“They ain’t got no hot water and they shut off the heat
Can you loan me some money for something to eat
Been out here on this corner for about a week
Tryin’ hard to stay under my own two feet”
Everything is wrong
Everything is wrong

“They wanna try and tell me where I can live
They kicked me off my land and told me they’d give me
A nice little tract house with running water
But how’m I goin’ to explain that to my Navaho mother”
Everything is wrong
Everything is wrong

“My American dream almost came true
But the things they promised me never came through
I believe in the American Dream, but things are never quite what they seem”
Everything is wrong
Everything is wrong
Everything is wrong
Everything is wrong. 

(If you want to pursue the Dylan connections further, the repeated refrain is very like Oh Mercy’s Everything Is Broken.) 

The sequences of witnesses to what is wrong with the American Dream is unequivocal. There is the war veteran used up and left to struggle with his demons. The manual worker whose health is destroyed by his working environment, then discarded when the economy turns. The native American cast out from his homelands. And of course there is Hank Williams’ Tramp on the Street (“Can you loan me some money for somethin’ to eat/Been out here on this corner for about a week”). As a group, they define the ‘us’ in ‘one of us’. This is not strictly a class issue nowadays (whiskey versus beer drinkers), though it was much more so in Hank Williams’ lifetime. The essential split is between those who care for their fellow man, and those who don’t. 

Lucinda Williams father, Miller Williams wrote and read a poem at Bill Clinton’s 2nd Inauguration in 1997. He had been a long-time friend of his fellow Arkansan, after working on his unsuccessful run for Congress in 1975. The poem, from a time when such hopes were perhaps more likely to be fulfilled, emphasised the need for America to not just remember the objectives for which it was created: 

OF HISTORY AND HOPE 

We have memorized America,
How it was born and who we have been and when.
In ceremonies and silences, we say the words,
Telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us, mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sounds of all the songs we brought.
The rich taste of it is in our tongues. The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
To keep on going where we meant to go.


But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how,
Except in the minds of those who call it Now?
The children. The children, and how does our garden grow?
With waving hands - - oh, rarely in a row - -
And flowering faces, and brambles, that we can no longer allow.


Who were many people coming together
Cannot be one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an equal chance
cannot let luck alone turn door knobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by small degree,
delivering ourselves toward all we have tried to become - -
Just and compassionate, equal, able and free.


All this in eyes of children, eyes already set
on a land we can never visit - - it isn't there yet - -
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.

Like his daughter, Miller Williams suggests (subtly enough for it not to be controversial on such an occasion) that the outer forms of allegiance to the founding fathers ideals and aspirations are not being matched in reality. He too hopes for compassion and togetherness (“Who were many people coming together/Cannot be one people falling apart”). 

If I have mislead you into expecting a review of World Without Tears, then I’ll just say that I would rate it even higher than Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. The songs were apparently recorded ‘live’ in an L.A. mansion and have all the advantage in atmosphere which that can bestow, with none of the usual concomitant sloppiness. The range of dynamics and styles is wide indeed, from ‘rap’ (!) to (another commonplace of the reviews to date) Exile On Main Street style guitar raunch to gentle traditional country ballads. But as always with Lucinda Williams her great strength is personal relationships. Sample the second verse (I quoted the first near the beginning) and chorus from Those Three Days:

You built a mist inside my soul
You rest your head on leaves of gold
You managed to crawl inside my brain
You found a hole and in you came
You sleep like a baby breathing
Comfortably between truth and pain
But the truth is nothin’, been the same, since those three days,

Did you only want me for those three days
Did you only need me for those three days
Did you love me for ever
Just for those three days
For those three days 

When this is delivered in Williams’ unmistakable voice the effect is electrifying. Robert Christgau described that voice far better than I can:

Williams's big voice has always thrived on contained emotion--soul strengthened by its refusal of overkill. But not since the openhearted Happy Woman Blues has she gotten so much feeling on tape. This she accomplishes without belting--although the music rocks like guitar-bass-drums-plus should, she's never as loud or fast as someone dumber might be. She skillfully deploys the usual roughness tricks, from sandpaper shadings to full-scale cracks, but her main techniques are the drawl, emphasized to camouflage or escape her own sophistication, and the sigh, a breathy song-speech that lets her moan or croon or muse or coo or yearn or just feel pretty as the lyric permits and the mood of the moment demands. (RS July 23 1998) 

Sadly today’s Rolling Stone reviewer does not share Christgau’s percipience. Karen Schoemer (RS 920) is the guilty party, particularly so for her cavalier dismissal of American Dream. Believe me, despite Ms Schoemer’s view, this album is no disappointment. I’ve played it at least once daily since I got it, and the anticipation of seeing Williams in person is now immense.

 

 

 

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