ACME Field Trip: rural California (Part III)
Alan Connor's final despatch from the Sunshine State.
14 March 2003
Last despatch from California, where your heart is warmed by the odd liberal apologetically finding a way to mumble, sotto voce, that internment and the disregard of international law are probably a bit off, and your spirits left positively ebullient when you see that folk have trodden NO WAR into a golf course bunker for the sake of the aerial TV cameras. I grant you, it's a little depressing to note that it only took the network thirty seconds to notice this and replace the offending free-speech sand (digital manipulation? archive footage spliced in?), but Now More Than Ever and all that.
Diversion from the impending $9bn-a-month massacre has been best provided by the movie Heartworn Highways, a 1981 collection of footage of country musicians, of interest to anyone who likes personal storytellers in a Dylanny mould. Actually, if you just enjoy ambling grainy photography of roads and shacks and truckstops and suchlike, you'll probably love this. It's from the school of documentary-makers who threw off such formal shackles as 'voice-overs' and 'subtitles' and 'any explanation whatsoever', leaving the viewers to make their own sense of the disconnected and seemingly-arbitrary sequences of image and song.
Of course, the main appeal is the music. If, like me, you once thought country music was a load of reactionary piss with mawkish lyrics and bland playing, this is for you. If, like me, you were then told that the really good country stuff was Gram Parsons and the Allman Brothers, and tried that stuff, but got bored of rich hippies play-acting, it's even more for you. The guys in Heartworn Highways are the Outlaws - I'm still not clear on whether they're called outlaws because they played outside the Nashville studio system, or because, like David Allen Coe, they broke actual laws, like murder.
One hero (and a non-murderer) is Townes Van Zandt, a Texan on a farm who introduces us to, in turn, his dog, his gun and his wife before sitting in his rocking chair and playing us a startlingly-beautiful song about codeine addiction. An old black blacksmith calls in, hears it, and sits and cries and cries.
Better still is Guy Clark, a hatchet-faced handsome fellow, who sings about trains and good food in an irresistable voice that makes you wonder why he isn't a freaking superstar. If you've ever enjoyed listening to a man with a guitar singing a song, you should probably listen to Guy Clark right now, before you read the rest of The Music Thing, even.
Try here (Recommended: 2; 3; 7; 10) and download this.
How do the gazillions of American TV stations fill up their Theme Nights? The same way as Channel 4: by spreading it on real thin. Luckily, this means that Channel 4513848's Ferris Bueller Day consists of showing Ferris Bueller's Day Off again and again and again, with adverts between every cut. Is Bueller the greatest film ever made? Quite possibly. So why can't I buy the soundtrack? John Hughes didn't release one because he thought "the mix of songs in the movie was too eclectic to sell as an album." Hmmm. Pulp Fiction? Anyone? Anyone?
Time erases some of the best sequences from memory. Few teen movies have the balls to send their truant heroes to the Art Institute of Chicago and have them gaze at Seurat, zooming in on the dots in a moment of communion, loss and peace. I have not yet seen the sequel to Dude, Where's My Car? (to be called Seriously, Dude, Where's My Car?), but I would imagine that the 'freedom' enjoyed by Jesse and Chester this time will not be free-thinking enough to include pointillism. A pity.
That scene, with its use of the Dream Academy's cover of Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want had me scurrying to the 'D' section of Amoeba Records, resolved to get back into British Indie Bands Who Were Big For A Spell In '80s America (not yet a genre with its own section) - and, like the Neil Young fan who has to plough through endless copies of No Parlez in record bins, I found myself awash in used Dream Syndicate vinyl. Should I have been disappointed? Readers, help. I suspect there is fun to be had listening to the Dream Syndicate, and other exemplars of what they tell me is called Paisley Underground (early Bangles, for one). But which albums are the good 'uns? Rewarding recommendations will be rewarded.
The NME have taken time out from taking paparazzo shots of Lavigne and the Tatu girls frolicking like sexy children to take a pop at my future bride, Norah Jones. Odd, since if Coldplay had recorded a song as sweet as Don't Know Why, they'd whop it straight on a covermount CD, but what's really irksome is their dismissal of Norah as music for middle classes to eat artichoke hearts and crème brulées to. How did the rock 'n' roll heroes at NME know to include the grave accent in "crème"? Not Spellcheck, that's for bastard sure. I checked. More likely because they recall it from Formal Hall at Magdalen. Now stop pretending. We all like crème brulée, and, in the words of Keith Richards, Norah Jones is "a very sweet girl - I'd give her one."
Why Beast Of Burden? We all understand why the Chinese state has forbidden the Rolling Stones from playing bawdy tracks like Let's Spend The Night Together (which Mick was always happy to change to Let's Spend Some Time Together when it was censored in America) and Honky Tonk Women, but Beast Of Burden? The lyrics are a simple enough love-plead, no more explicit than Tumbling Dice (officially allowed), so far as I can make them out. Maybe they find the C#m-to-A chord change harmonically lame, or something. But it sure makes you glad to live in the West. At least when the state here reveals the same knee-jerk impulse to prohibit Bad Songs (like, say, Howells on hip-hop causing murders), we get to ask them questions (and find out that Howells' children are So Solid Crew fans) and laugh at them. We can laugh, right? Howells' brats haven't killed anyone so far as we know, right? Or maybe they're impervious to suggestion, because they're white or something.