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Cult of the lyric: five guys with guitars taking turns singing



George Bernard Shaw once said, "The worst cliques are those which consist of one man." But while it's true that musically the last century would have been a damned sight poorer without such cooperative efforts as the Hot Fives and Sevens, the Family Stone, and "Ballad of Mott the Hoople," it's also true that there have always been musicians who believed that one is not the loneliest number but the onliest number. Whether under the influence of ego, tradition, or implosive personality, a wealth of artists--from Bo Diddley to Bob Dylan, from Robert Johnson to Daniel Johnson--have chosen to write material and take it to the stage themselves.

It would seem from a look at the upper reaches of this week's Billboard chart, however, that the singer-songwriter is a rare breed getting rarer. In a pop era when the original performance of a song is often merely bait for remixers Frankie Knuckles or Shep Pettibone (even Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" has been surrendered to the remixing trend), artful understatement is out of vogue, or is at least questionable business sense. Now New York City's Bottom Line wants to serve notice that the church of the crafted lyric still has its deacons, and the club is sponsoring small-group tours of troubadours to preach the gospel of the song.

The series, "In Their Own Words (A Bunch of Songwriters Sittin' Around Singing)," folded up its first leg in April in Nashville, then last month round two--featuring singers/guitarists/songwriters Marshall Crenshaw, Don Dixon, David Halley, James McMurtry, and Jules Shear--rolled into the Park West. From the moment Dixon sketched a delicate melody line and lit into a new lost-love lament, the concert promised to be the kind of low-glamour, high-intimacy fantasy camp that is heaven for performers and audiences alike.

The Park West stage was set with a skeletal elegance--five chairs lined up unassumingly behind five mikes, with one off to the side for the moderator, WXRT's Terri Hemmert. Rather than performing separate sets, the performers took turns: leadoff singer Dixon would play a selection and discuss it briefly with Hemmert, then the spotlight would cycle through McMurtry, Crenshaw, Shear, and Halley before returning to the top of the order. Whether it was Dixon's gutbucket versatility, Shear's folk shadings, Crenshaw's pure pop for now people, or the Texas two-step of Halley or McMurtry, each style celebrated the cult of the lyric that has entranced writers from Virgil ("Do not commit your poems to pages alone. Sing them, I pray you") to Manilow ("I write the songs that make the young girls cry").

The performers who benefited most from the show's friendly setting were those whose albums haven't always caught them wearing their strong suits. Better known as a producer (of R.E.M. and the Smithereens, among others), Dixon has released four excellent LPs of his own material but has never managed to climb beyond cult status. His biggest hit? "Teenage Suicide (Don't Do It)," the diegetic anthem of the dead-girls comedy Heathers. On albums Dixon comes across as amiable, talented, musically adept (though he can play serviceable guitar, he's a bassist at heart), and possibly inconsequential. Too witty. Too cheery. Too nice. Too bad, because as this appearance proved, he's not only a consistently interesting songwriter but a performer of the highest order. In a raspy R & B bellow that recalled John Hiatt at his balladeering best, Dixon tore into his songs with carnivorous ardor, not just wrestling the meat down but cooking it, cutting it, and feeding it to the audience. He can grill, as he did on a rousing rendition of his early rocker "Praying Mantis"; he can simmer with the full-throated blues roar of "I Can See the River"; and he can even host a Crescent City barbecue to the tune of Allen Toussaint's "Working in the Coal Mine," which he selected for a playful section of the concert that asked the singers to play songs they wished they had written. But since the show was about songwriting, let's leave Dixon's incendiary showmanship behind and marvel instead at the cleverness of "Praying Mantis" (compare his "She wanted his body so much she ate his brain" to Hall & Oates's "Watch out, boy, she'll chew you up"; there's no comparison) and at his new song's reduction of domestic turmoil to a spooky triplet ("Every time I think of home / Credit cards and broken bones / I wish I had a flashlight and a phone").

Like Dixon, Jules Shear is a man whose faceless name has wide currency, a Fantomas of songwriting who remains largely unknown despite the fact that his handiwork has hit the top ten (Cyndi Lauper's "All Through the Night" and the Bangles' "If She Knew What She Wants") and has appeared on albums by artists as diverse as Art Garfunkel, Olivia Newton-John, and Roger McGuinn. Blame his anonymity on his failure to find a recording format that suits him (now he's in a band belting out big boss sounds, now he's sitting by the dock of the bay with Marty Wilson-Piper, now he's hiring sidemen and rocking out tunefully), or blame it on his band names (the Funky Kings, Jules and the Polar Bears, Reckless Sleepers). But whatever you do, don't blame it on his talent, which hasn't failed him yet. The intimate ambience of the concert, which Shear indirectly midwifed by developing MTV's Unplugged series, suited him wonderfully. There's an Auden line--"Silence to lovers is the welcome third party"--that may or may not have provided the title for Shear's 1988 The Third Party but that certainly communicates the essence of his songs. Backed by rudimentary guitar work and a pleasant, if limited, vocal delivery, his delicately shaded songs are pointed and unflinching dissections of relationships. When his "Jewel in a Cobweb" appeared in its full-band arrangement on this year's The Great Puzzle, it was too transparently Dylan-indebted--the trenchant metaphor as anchor, the eclectic sourcebook of imagery. Performed solo, however, the song was transformed by new filigrees and subtleties. It's kind of the reverse of the equation that enriched Dylan's own "Isis," which was merely a collection of glittering images until the Band tied on fiery Appalachian fiddle and chord-blocking and kicked it into overdrive. And while nothing in "Jewel in a Cobweb" has the force of "The wind it was howling and the snow was outrageous / We chopped through the night and we chopped through the dawn / When he died I was hoping that it wasn't contagious / But I made up my mind that I had to go on," the arachnophobic anthem has a Shear complexity all its own: "The first time I laid eyes on her / She thoroughly charmed me / But he had two legs around her / And that completely disarmed me / My friends knew I didn't like him / They said just be smart and try to act nice / She's a jewel in a cobweb / He's a genius at getting paid for bad advice." Shear, no fool, must sense that his material does well with acoustic treatment; a bonus CD of unplugged renditions is being packaged with special copies of The Great Puzzle. Does this signify a decisive move? Doubtful. Old habits die hard, and it's a safe bet that Shear will soon be band-ridden again. The only real question is how awkward a name he can devise. Maybe he'd consider the Hectic Jackals.

For all the good vibrations present, you can't have too much yang without some yin, and the three other performers wilted under scrutiny, particularly Marshall Crenshaw. An unregenerate raised-on-radio talent--his big break was landing the part of Lennon in a production of Beatlemania--Crenshaw's early hits ("Some Day, Some Way," "Cynical Girl," "A Favorite Waste of Time") were the natural extension of early Beatles and Buddy Holly, and they earned him an instant following in the early 80s, when punk had helped revive brevity and simplicity and three-minute eggheads like Elvis Costello were offing art-rock dinosaurs. Just a regular Detroit guy, Crenshaw has retained his intensely loyal following by shunning pretense and posing; at the show, in response to a question about "Cynical Girl," he disavowed any emotional commitment to the title, explaining that it was just a phrase that struck him once "on his way home from paying a parking ticket in New Rochelle, New York." "When a Man Loves a Woman" it ain't. On his last few records, especially 1987's Mary Jean & 9 Others, Crenshaw has put some fiber in his diet, achieving greater lyrical complexity; but at the Park West he returned to earlier songs, and his admirable energy couldn't disguise their slightness. Only "Things Are Easy," a wistful lament, held its own. As any airplay vet knows, you're measured by the company you keep, and in this group Crenshaw's material came up short.

But even the runt of the litter gets to play with the other puppies, especially when the other puppies are as gracious and accommodating as these other four musicians. In their work, each tended to emphasize the real over the ideal, the personal over the political. There was hardly any bile in the songs--even of the Dylan/Costello/Graham Parker variety--and none in the spaces between them. Many of the five have crossed the others' paths before--Shear and Crenshaw have written songs together, for instance, and Dixon has produced Crenshaw--and though they had only been on the road together for a week at the time of the show, the scent of a band was already on them. Occasionally they'd back each other up, Dixon scrambling back to man the bass, while Shear contributed earnest backup vocals and Crenshaw percussion using only a small black shaker egg--at one point seizing it in his teeth for a hilarious Jimi-at-Monterey solo. The most impressive sounds of the night came from Halley, who spun out calligraphic slide figures on his Silvertone.

If part of the series' zeitgeist relies on unifying songwriters from disparate regional traditions, the series also illustrates powerfully that talent still tends to cluster; both Halley and McMurtry made their careers on the Texas bar circuit. Despite more than 15 years at the trade and songs covered by Willie Nelson, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Jerry Jeff Walker, Halley is hardly known in these parts--his only solo LP, 1990's Stray Dog Talk, came on the British Demon label. But he's not as country as his list of patrons would indicate--he's closer to a holy alliance of Matthew Sweet and Blind Willie McTell--and with his plaintive, direct vocals overlaying accomplished fretwork, he had the crowd charmed by the close of his first song. The emotional authenticity of his verse was bracing, both in the weepy "Rain Just Falls" and in "Man of Steel," a portrait of the strong, silent type with internal rhymes so tight they'd squeeze Johnny Mercer breathless: "Your man of steel will never bend / He'll pretend but in the end / We both know he's no one's friend / For real." If Halley's metric demands sometimes encourage cliche--"fade to black," "feet of clay," "cut to the bone," and that's just in "Man of Steel"--his outlook is never hackneyed, and a vivid urban landscape called "Hometown" displays a descriptive talent that leaves you thinking he may have other tricks stashed in that Silvertone case.

Maybe it's something in the Lone Star water, but both Halley and McMurtry seem more completely submerged in their own material than the others. At 30, McMurtry was the youngest of the bunch, the son of novelist Larry McMurtry and a college English professor; his friend John Cougar Mellencamp produced his 1989 debut Too Long in the Wasteland. Equal parts Cormac McCarthy and John Prine, with just a pinch of Barry Hannah thrown in for good measure, McMurtry's wonderfully intense narratives--about prairie losers, small-town ennui, love in barren spaces--are exercises in pressure, with images so menacing you feel as if you'd be safer in a Jim Thompson novel, or in Charley Starkweather's head, even. The title track opens with "Hear the trucks on the highway / and the ticking of the clocks / There's a ghost of a moon in the afternoon / Bullet holes in the mailbox"--an arresting lyric that doesn't stop until it drags you to the station, books you, and throws your ass in stir. McMurtry has his sophomore effort, Candyland, due in June, and he gave a generous preview at the Park West. Though the Methuselan beard tumbling down his shirtfront was new, the overpowering sense of place in the title track was familiar--"Candyland" is a wicked depiction of suburbia, where "Kids around the pool [are] screaming like cats on fire" and "The best circus music's . . . hell to an ice cream man." At his best, McMurtry is one of the most exciting young songwriters around, unsentimental and unrelenting--and uncomfortably precise, as in "Where's Johnny," the tale of an All-American boy's withdrawal into himself ("Went on off to college got his head stuck in a different state of mind / When they asked him was it alcohol he told them it was nothing of the kind"). But "Where's Johnny" also lets McMurtry's maudlin streak come to the fore, and one new song in particular, the please-stay-with-me-always "Dusty Pages," was distressingly generic. Emotional directness is fine, but not at the expense of texture. McMurtry without his Thwarted America is like Tom McGuane without the west or Kenneth Rexroth without the Orient; the scalpel may still be sharp, but there's no body to cut into.

The Bottom Line's original blueprint called for the show to be supplemented by a panel discussion. It needn't have bothered. Hemmert is no Bill Moyers, and the five panelists are no Joseph Campbells, especially McMurtry, who early on leaned a little too heavily on his laconic opacity. But once it sunk in that Crenshaw wasn't going to offer a detailed exegesis of "Eight Days a Week" and Halley wasn't going to demonstrate cross-Spanish tuning, the personalities of the five men began to harmonize nicely. There was plenty of good comedy--Shear needling Dixon about the incomprehensible chorus of "Praying Mantis" ("I could have sworn I heard the word "anus' in there somewhere"), Dixon urging McMurtry to play Van Halen's "Jump," and an ongoing Halley bit about supportive crowds that culminated in the hand-delivery of a sandwich to the stage. In fact, the evening's seamless amity was lost only once, when, during the wild-card round, Crenshaw weighed in with an abysmal cover of Queen's "We Are the Champions." No worse than some of the versions that showed up in the April Freddie Mercury tribute at Wembley--Robert Plant forgoing that crazy little thing called self-respect on "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," for instance--it was still a disconcerting choice. If the selection's anthemic hyperbole and bald theatricality was being lampooned to celebrate the intimacy of the Park West, it was a hollow victory. And if the endorsement was genuine, Crenshaw could have hinted at that by ironing out the king-sized ironies in his own presentation.

All five performers offered not only songs that will endure--then again, herpes stays with you too, as did the catchy XTC mix that preceded the concert--but also songs that can nourish. One of the evening's highlights, a mythic Stax-blues called "Time and a Half" in which the narrator labors for his lover in a magical 50s-pop-culture interzone, was given an impassioned reading by Halley that was all the more stunning considering that he didn't even pen the piece. Who did? A Texas friend of his named Mike Sumler, whose total anonymity is heartening, not perhaps to Sumler, but in the sense that it testifies to the existence of untapped talent, the promising unknown. The same night as the Park West show, four Nashville journeymen were giving audiences more of the songwriter's craft at the Old Town School of Folk Music, and there's no reason the Bottom Line can't keep dispatching foot soldiers in the Acoustic Wars, although the next time they might be more careful that when they unplug the AC and the DC they don't disconnect the PC as well. If the series' mission is truly to showcase talent and encourage budding songwriters, why choose five white men? Where was Lucinda Williams? Where was Vinnie James? Here's a sweet 16 to prime the pump: Paul Westerberg, Juliana Hatfield, Joe Henry, Steve Forbert, Billy Bragg, Peter Case, Robyn Hitchcock, Tom Ze, Richard Hell, Tanita Tikaram, Hugh Harris, Joan Armatrading, Garland Jeffreys, Bernadette Cooper, Kirsty MacColl, and John Wesley Harding.

This kind of music can so deftly refute the criticisms that are often leveled against it, the claims of bookishness and self-involvement and leaving too many stones unturned. On the official scorecard, the concert ended with a negligible five-man acoustical jam of "She's About a Mover," but emotionally the show peaked about a half hour earlier, with Halley's "If Ever You Need Me." The ecstasy of tracing this elegant love song's contours suffused not only Halley, but his guitar as well. And it's understandable. Guitars live a hard life, never knowing when they're going to be dumped for a gleaming new Gibson or a National Triplate Style Two that's winking seductively from a pawnbroker's window. And when they're not fretting about the other woman, guitars are often forced to perform unspeakable acts. ("My Sharona"? It's worse than kiddie porn.) These songwriters are a six-stringer's best friend. Think about it. If you were a guitar, wouldn't you rather be strummed in the service of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" than "Temporary Secretary"? Of course you would. After that, you'd go easy into the hock shop for the National. You'd let them have you for a song.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Linda Covello.

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