Because sometimes everyone needs a little hair metal.
I was channel flipping the other morning, and I came across Gillian Welch on AXStv, a pretty good cable channel for music (and movie trailers); they play a lot of concert recordings, interviews, etc. That morning it was an episode of Soundstage, I think, that featured Dar Williams and Gillian Welch. I missed Dar but got Gillian. And everything just kind of stopped.
There is something about this woman–her voice, her phrasing, her songs–that stops me in my tracks every single time. I don’t know what it is; I don’t care. I don’t want to name why she affects me so deeply. That would take some of the wonder out of it. And she is a wonder. Along with her frequent collaborator David Rawlings, Welch weaves a web of sorrow, mystery, fear, and frustration that ensnares you with not just the sheer power of the ambiguous and mixed emotions, but in their utter inevitability. There is no other way for the characters in her songs to see the world. It is out of their control, and they are careening and caroming through their lives without a single clue as to what any of it means.
There is a distinct lack of context in her songs. Like the stunning “Elvis Presley Blues,” (from the same album) this song drops you into a place where time simply doesn’t exist. The story, as much as there is one, is of a woman who is profoundly disconnected from her lover, from herself, from the world. There is no stated reason for the disconnect, no way to place her profound solitude in a world of action and reaction. It simply is. The only constant she sees is the fact that eventually time reveals everything. There’s an irony there: that time is the one thing that moves and makes sense in this song that is in almost every other way essentially timeless.
The song ends on what I’d call an open note. The last few seconds seem to be leading toward a concluding riff, but then it just stops. There is no conclusion, not really. And that’s about as good a metaphor for life and death as I think you’re ever going to get in art.
I first posted about this song way back in 2013 (click here for that post). And while what I wrote nearly five years ago still holds true, there’s more. There’s always more with “Ode to Billie Joe.”
For example: the body of Emmett Till was found in the Tallahatchie river in Mississippi in 1955. Till was the fourteen-year-old black child murdered by white men because he essentially sassed a white woman. (I just finished reading the terrific but horribly depressing The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson. Be forwarned: It is a beautifully written and researched book, but you will want to scream at how little things have changed.) Now I haven’t been able to find any direct connection between the composition and the murder, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Emmett Till was one of the ghosts haunting Gentry’s song.
There are a lot of ghosts in “Ode to Billie Joe.”
There are so many ghosts in this song, it’s impossible to name them all. The myth of Southern gentility and propriety. The way the people we are closest to are sometimes the ones that know the least about us. The willful lack of empathy for anyone considered “other.” Sex, race, class. And, most obviously, the ghost of Billie Joe McAllister.
When the movie based on the song was made in the mid-70s, the answer to the question of why Billy Joe jumped was that he’d had a (possibly coerced) homosexual encounter with his older boss. (Note that the spelling is different. Apparently the character’s name was always supposed to be spelled that way, but there were a lot of mistakes made when the single and album were rushed into production in 1967; see Tara Murtha’s excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series Ode to Billie Joe for more information.) Gay sex was still taboo back then, and during the 50s when the movie is set, so of course he’d want to commit suicide. If the movie were made today using the same plot device, hopefully Billy Joe would embrace his queerness and move to San Francisco instead.
I don’t really think the movie provided the correct answer. As Gentry herself has stated in the past, the motives behind Billie Joe’s suicide (or just precisely what the hell he and the protagonist of the song were throwing off the Tallahatchie bridge) aren’t really the point of the song. The point is that this huge thing happens, has a huge effect on one of the people sitting around that kitchen table, and no one notices. They treat the death of a human being they all knew and presumably liked (some of them more than others, granted) as if it’s no more important than the 40 acres left to plow or a preacher coming round to court the girl singing the song. The question we should ask is why is everyone so unconcerned? Why are these people so disconnected from a tragedy like this? What the fuck is going on here?
The sad truth is there isn’t any answer to any of the real questions the song is asking. Just like we will never know what was thrown off the bridge or why a young man threw himself off it shortly after, we will never know why “Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge” is met with no more emotion than “Looks like it might rain today.”
There’s another element to the song that makes it interesting, and that’s the singer/songwriter herself: Bobbie Gentry. While “Ode to Billie Joe” is Gentry’s biggest hit, she had a lengthy and successful career including a series of hit shows on the Las Vegas strip. And Gentry is still alive, somewhere in her 70s now. But she hasn’t made a public appearance or spoken to the media since 1983. She just dropped out of sight. Close friends and even some members of her family have completely lost touch with her. Wikipedia states that as of 2016 she lives near the Tallahatchie river, but of course she isn’t confirming anything. In a weird way, she has disappeared as effectively as whatever was thrown into that infernal river. She has become another one of the ghosts haunting her song.
I discovered this song/video a couple weeks ago. I know there are a number of young Country music artists who are more inclusive of LGBTQ people and issues, but this is the first time I’ve heard a performer talk about their music being explicitly about a same-sex couple. (Here’s a link to the interview with Billboard.) It reminds me just how important representation in media and popular culture really is. If you never see people who look/feel/think/behave like you in the culture you consume, the subliminal message is that you are both inferior and invisible. If you do see people who look/feel/think/behave like you, then you have role models and the subliminal message is that you are both seen and worthy of being seen. That you are normal and not some kind of a freak. I’m sure “Burn That Bridge” is going to matter in that way for some young gay dude in the middle of cowboy country who thinks he’s the only guy who ever felt this way. Representation matters.
But issues of representation aside, here’s what I really like about Donovan Woods’ song and video: 1) It’s a pretty damn good song–nice emotion, good slow build; 2) Those young men are fantastic dancers. Yeah, representation in media and popular culture matters, but it helps if that representation is attached to culture that refuses to stereotype the people it portrays and is quality entertainment. This one scores on all counts.
Some weeks ago, I went and saw Richard Thompson at my local indie record store, Fingerprints, and the highlight of the all-too-brief show was his cover of this Britney Spears hit.
Thompson originally recorded this song for his 1000 Years of Popular Music, where he examined a bunch of songs that were the tops of the pops in their day. Thompson proves that his talent is wide-ranging and prodigious by making what is an atrocity Britney Spears’ hands (or at least in the hands of her production team at the time) a truly entertaining tune.
Have I mentioned that I really dig Richard Thompson? I might be just a wee bit biased.
But actually, he does demonstrate that this overproduced, pretentious piece of fluff is actually a fairly well-written and structurally sound pop tune. The sight of cute little Brit in her red catsuit is there to distract us from the fact that her vocals are autotuned to the point of nonexistence and the music seems to be all played by computer. The fact that there seems to be almost zero human input into the making of this song is disturbing, but we shouldn’t blame the song itself. To be fair, it’s not a great pop song; it’s average at best. But to see what appears to be a perfectly serviceable if rather sexist song turned into what amounts to a pre-programmed tune on an 80s-era Casio keyboard is kind of sad. (It is a pretty sexist song: She basically admits that she’s nothing but a nasty whore, and he really should’ve known better.)
This kind of pop music continues to be produced with ever-greater frequency. Solution? Just send everything to Richard Thompson to cover. He’ll reveal at least the competence of the songs, if not their true greatness.
I really don’t have a lot to say about David Cassidy, except that he made a lot of people really happy. That seems like a pretty awesome thing to leave behind in this world.
This clip, however, reinforces some rather nasty sexist notions. So ignore the scene in front of the song and just enjoy the bubblegum goodness.
Note: The obligatory obituary post for AC/DC’s Malcolm Young will be coming soon. But I’ve got to get this little rant off my chest first. Plus, I think Malcolm would’ve really enjoyed hearing this tune again.
One of my dear friends on Facebook recently posted this article about some students offended by Steve Martin’s 70s novelty hit “King Tut.” Something about the performance being “blackface” and akin to using the n-word. Assuming they meant that literally, that means they’re assuming Tutankhamun was a black man. That may or may not be the case; depictions of Tut pretty much run the gamut colorwise. But seeing that he was born in a land of much sun, he probably had a bit more melanin in his skin than, say, your average Scandinavian. (Skin color is directly related to how much sun your ancestors were exposed to when evolving. Period.) But the song wasn’t meant as a commentary on race. It was meant as a commentary on the blatant commercialization surrounding the Treasures of Tutankhamun tour. It came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1978, and my family went. (My original post of this song focused on that, written while Daddy the amateur Egyptologist was still around.) It was glorious. And it was also crass and expensive. We alone purchased I don’t know how many silly souvenirs from it. The entire country was gripped with Tut fever at the time. Why shouldn’t Steve Martin have a little fun with it?
Of course, if the instructor of the class had played this version from Saturday Night Live, then they would’ve seen Martin’s introduction and contextualization of the song. If they paid attention. And if they didn’t decide to reflexively get their hackles up over the obvious stereotypes and pure silliness of the song. He wasn’t making fun of Tutankhamun; he was making fun of all the idiots who acted like they knew something about him or ancient Egypt just because of one really spectacular art & artifact tour.
I don’t fault these kids for being aware of the bias against African-Americans in our society. I don’t fault them for trying to fight for equality. I certainly don’t fault them for fighting back against the brutality and violence many black people are faced with every day simply because of the color of their skin. They’re right, dammit. But I do fault them for not understanding the joke in this case. They missed the point. And the instructor probably missed it, too. I imagine this was presented not in the cultural light it was meant to be seen, but as a case of racial stereotyping.
Really, these kids would be offended by pretty much anything from SNL back in the 70s. You know, back when it was kind of offensive. And really, really, really funny. And truly insightful and satirical. They only know about the tame buffooning that they see today. They didn’t watch the good old days when the Not Ready For Prime Time Players and the show’s writers were both vicious and fearless. If they’re offended by “King Tut,” then they really better not ever see the Job Interview skit. They’ll really lose their shit over that one.