"I've been to Memphis / And Muscle Shoals / And I love a woman / What I don't know." Those words, the chorus to the first song on Lyle Lovett's fourth and most recent album, Joshua Judges Ruth, illustrate the singer's woeful, sardonic romanticism; he tends to see relationships as creating not unions but gulfs. In the past, this bleak vision sometimes seemed nasty, and around him there's always been a scent of rather more intergender viciousness than was strictly necessary. That's a superficial charge--there is such a thing as irony in the world--but not an entirely baseless one; to paraphrase Robert Christgau on Elvis Costello, you wish Lovett liked girls more, but you're willing to believe he's had some bad luck. Since he got married to Julia Roberts last week, you might expect Lovett to act like his luck has changed--and that expectation would be confirmed by his demeanor during an uproarious show Saturday at the Chicago Theatre.
Lovett's always had a sense of humor, but it's tended to be at the expense of the innocent bystander. Saturday, positively giddy throughout, he reveled in a brand-new set of horrible ironies, this time at his own expense. The lines "So after a lot of thought / I'd like to reconsider" from "Here I Am" were greeted with howls from the audience, and he could hardly keep his habitual deadpan. He lost his place in a song and charmingly explained that his mind was elsewhere; he muzzled some hecklers with graciousness, only to turn on the audience later on. ("I think of Chicago as a cow town!" "Moooo!" replied the crowd.) And before songs like "She's No Lady" ("She's my wife") and other compositions on similar themes, he apologized for performing songs based on emotions he acknowledged were obsolete.
Just as his nonpareil Large Band (now at a career-high 13 strong) is actually an umbrella structure for a number of smaller combos--which play country swing, gospel, rock in' roll, big-band jazz, straight jazz, and other things--Lovett's personality itself is multifaceted: genuine country star, subversive songwriter capable of extraordinary nuance, embittered love man, novelty-song goof, and so forth. He has almost impeccable taste, a a streak of religious fanaticism, a peculiar but extravagant ambition (the kind that puts a formally dressed country swing orchestra on the stage of the Chicago Theatre), and luck of the sort that scores you four country hits with your first album. His songwriting is occasionally so advanced that songs that aren't brilliant seem like a waste of time, and his shows so visionary that his now-standard sequence of dreary dirges in the second half (which pushed the show past two and a half hours) seems perverse.
Lovett's trafficked in irony for so long that it was genuinely touching to see him sincere for once. But this sincerity only creates a new tension. No one knows what goes on between two people in a relationship, but from the outside it looks like an odd pairing, one that touches Marilyn Monroe-Arthur Miller territory: Lovett's as close to being an intellectual as country music has ever had, and as for Roberts, well, the last person she was going to marry was Kiefer Sutherland. Lovett's bruising compositions came from experience--not hard to imagine for one with his crinkly face, saucepan mouth, and sarcasm as involuntary as a stutter. Now his experience is different. His shows of late have started with the jazzier parts of the Large Band riffing on "The Blues Walk," a big-band instrumental, before he walks out to sing his usual set opener, "Here I Am." But Saturday night he marched out with the full ensemble for a rhapsodic, trembling take on his trademark cover of "Stand by Your Man." Then he left the stage to let the show begin again with "The Blues Walk." His take on "Stand by Your Man" was originally a backhand slap at those who called him a misogynist. Now it's a signpost to unexplored territory, a statement of hope, a plea. Could be a union, could be a gulf, but Lyle Lovett's in love with a movie star. What he don't know.
A Quincy goes out this week to Trib columnist Eric Zorn. (The Quincy award, in memory of the punk-rock episode of the TV show Quincy, is for people who say stupid things about rock 'n' roll.) Zorn was upset last Thursday because the city was going to set off fireworks to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" instead of to a live orchestra playing the "percussive, military, immense" 1812 Overture and the "merry, historical" marches of John Philip Sousa. "Born in the USA,", wrote Zorn, is "ironic and angry, not proud and patriotic." Heavens! There's a lot of talk these days about the PC thought police, but playing to the cheap seats like this--and in the process trashing anything that might induce people to think and promoting mindless, pummeled patriotism--is of course much more prevalent, and much more American....In the weeks since Prince announced that he henceforth wishes to be referred to as the strange symbol that adorned the title of his last album, the worry has been how one is now supposed to address his Magnificent Purpleness. "Hey, biological-symbol-for-woman-with-a-few-extra-strokes" just doesn't cut it. The answer seems plain to Hitsville: in printing, there's a generic name for a miscellaneous typographical symbol like that. From now on, he's "Dingbat."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.