On the Song “Dylan Thomas” and Comments on Ryhme

This post is about the song “Dylan Thomas” from the first Better Oblivion Community Center record. For the uninitiated (which is probably everyone reading this–recently a friend texted me a funny article from The Onion entitled “Study: No Two People Have Listened To Same Band Since 2003”), Better Oblivion Community Center is Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers. “Dylan Thomas” is the single, if singles still existed. You still won’t know them.

I want to write about the song because it has a killer structure and is awesome. The structure is based around a neat rhyme scheme with fabulous use of “near rhymes” and also around a see-saw in the verses between fairly pointed political commentary and apolitical hedonism. As with all interpretation, I can’t be sure that what I hear was intended, but what the hell–communication is what the listener does after all.

Now, a lot of songs, most, rhyme. That’s obvious. But not too many songs really hold up on the page as well, as poetry. I think “Dylan Thomas” does and I’d like to explore why.

Verse I:

It was quite early one morning/ hit me without warning/ I went to hear the general speak/ I was standing for the anthem/ banners all around him/ confetti made it hard to see

So the first verse clearly alludes to our political moment–it appears politically engaged to some extent. The reference to “the general” is redolent of South American politics (I am reminded of the fabulous Drugstore song “El President”). The rhyme scheme is tricky–it’s AABCC(D), where (d) “see” almost rhymes with “speak” in the delivery although the words don’t actually rhyme, instead being only vaguely alliterative.

Verse II:

Put my footsteps on the pavement/ starved for entertainment/ four seasons of revolving doors/ so sick of being honest/ I’ll die like Dylan Thomas/ a seizure on the bathroom floor

Verse II sees a clear shift from the political to the personal, the hedonistic, the depraved. While Thomas is famous for his “rage against the dying of the light,” Better Oblivion taps the seedier side of Thomas’ legacy–the singers (most of the songs on the album including “Dylan Thomas” are duets) in verse II are seeking pleasure and there is no hint of the macro picture here. So, verse I=macro, verse II=micro.

The rhyme scheme shifts to AABCCB, with a definite rhyme between “doors” and “floor.” Entertainment” and “pavement” I would consider near-rhymes, and the slightly off-kilter near-rhymes are for me what really make this song stand out as a piece of writing.


I’m getting greedy with this private hell/ I’ll go it alone, but that’s just as well

Hard to say exactly what “this private hell” refers to, however we get a sense of doubling down on the dissolute–in for a penny in for a pound as they say.

Verse III:

These cats are scared and feral/ the flag pins on their lapels/ the truth is anybody’s guess/ these talking heads are saying/ “The king is only playing/ a game of four dimensional chess”

Verse III is clearly political again, setting up a 1 for 1 see-saw (so far). “Cats” here cuts both ways–on the one hand “people” with flag pins in the era of truthiness, on the other, well real cats are feral. It’s a very clever, subtle move. Is the general from verse I the king from verse III? Probably. We live in an era where world leaders are not in the business of leading, but rather of playing elaborate, endless games.

The rhyme scheme here is a AABCCB where the second C and the second B are part of a single quote. Very nicely done.

Verse IV:

There’s flowers in the rubble/ the weeds are gonna tumble/ I’m lucid but I still can’t think/ I’m strapped into a corset/ climbed into your corvette/ I’m thirsty for another drink

This is where the song really comes into its own as a mini-masterpiece. On its own, this verse is nakedly apolitical and local–I am reminded of one of my favorite lines of all time from the final Replacements album. The song is “Someone Take the Wheel” and the line goes: “they’re fighting again in some fuckin’ land/ ah throw in another tape man.”

In 1990, Paul Westerberg didn’t give a shit about the Iraq War and wanted nothing more than to listen to music on the road. That’s an understandable point of view on the level of the human individual. What I love about what Oberst and Bridgers do with this song is how they alternate verses between the macro and the micro, the engaged and the depraved. The same conceit is used on the first song of the record, “Didn’t Know What I Was In For”:

I didn’t know what I was in for/ when they took my belt and strings/ they told me I’d gone crazy/ my arms are strapped in a straight jacket/ so I couldn’t save those TV refugees

I get this sentiment. Seriously I do. If we zoom out a bit on our world situation these days, we could easily say that every person with even a patina of ethical conscience ought to be on the front lines in one way or another. And then I look at myself and…well, I chose Medicine Sans Frontiers as the charity that gets some small percentage of my Amazon purchases. Will the future see me as a head in the sand hedonist? Probably, and with justification.

The rhyme scheme in verse IV is again a clear AABCCB with near-rhymes (probably the first time in history “corset” has been rhymed with “corvette”), in fact the same scheme as limericks. I f***ing love AABCCB. God bless it. Also, the line “I’m lucid but I still can’t think” pretty much summarizes my entire life to date.

Verse V:

If advertised, we’ll try it/ and buy some peace and quiet/ and shut up at the silent retreat/ they say you’ve gotta fake it/ at least until you make it/ that ghost is just a kid in a sheet

AABCCB again, the scheme which carries the song with the striking exception on verse I. Verse V alludes to the theme of the record–Better Oblivion Community Center is some kind of partially defined wellness retreat–and kind of splits the difference between the political and the personal, the macro and the micro. It also serves as a commentary on the commercialization of “wellness” and is a cheeky meta-comment on the cover of Bridgers 2017 debut:

Is this a shot at some critics? A self-aware reference to a DIY cover? I don’t know, and I love the line.

Following the logic of this piece, we have a kind of scheme of the verses as well. Let’s call is ABABC where A=political, B=apolitical, and C splits the difference.

Verse VI/ Outro:

I’m getting used to these dizzy spells/ I’m taking a shower at the Bates Motel/ I’m getting greedy with this private hell/ I’ll go it alone, but that’s just as well

It’s a simple AABB with the outro calling back the chorus from mid-song. The see-saw between the personal the political sort of resolves itself in the killer couplet. “I’m getting used to these dizzy spells” suggests acclimatization to the altitude–metabolization of the fear. “I’m taking a shower at the Bates Motel” is an amazingly effective counterpoint line–we are living at the knife point of maniacs. Ah well, let’s hit the bar. I’m thirsty for another drink.

Seriously, check out “Dylan Thomas” and the whole record. I know no one listens to anything I listen to, but still.

The Genius Razzlekhan and the Phony Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I went home with a waitress/ the way I always do/ how was I to know/ she was with the Russians too.

Warren Zevon

This is the saga of the queen of crypto hacking Heather Morgan, aka Razzlekhan, and the shameless tail chaser and phony public intellectual (is there any other kind?) Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Just so we are clear about who is who here, Taleb, the bestselling author “The Black Swan” and “Antifragile” is the villain, and Morgan, who along with her husband is accused of pulling off the largest heist in human history, $4.5 billion dollars, is the heroine. Morgan was briefly a Twitter star in late February, 2022 when her alleged crimes were revealed; however her stardom was not based on her hacking prowess, but rather on what was perceived (incorrectly) to be her world-historically awful rap videos, including, but not limited to, her banger “Versace Bedouin,” in which names herself “the crocodile of Wall Street.” Here is a taste of her work (note that the real Heather Morgan appears to be in her early 30’s, and is certainly not a grandmother. Also, the video depicts Morgan rapping around the Wall Street district of New York City with three women “dancing” behind her, one wearing large green gardening gloves and carrying a flag with a design we are unable to clearly see for the entire video):

Razzlekhan’s the name/ the hot grandma you really wanna bang/ always run the gilf game/ ever since I was fif-taneee

I’m many things/ a rapper, an economist, a journalist, a writer, a CEO/ and a dirty dirty dirty dirty ho

Better than most writers/ creepier than most girls/ weirder than most rappers/ but I still rock pearls.

Alert listeners will note the apparent Liz Phair reference vis a vis Razz’s sexual maneuvering in her teens, suggesting that there may be at least a little guile to her lyrics. But what impresses me (and I’ll just state this right out–I think Razzlekhan is a misunderstood genius) is the straight ahead sincerity of the lyrics. I mean, Versace Bedouin was released before Morgan was implicated in the crypto hack and here is her dedication at the top of the song:

Never forget, weirdest is the most original/ this song is for the entrepreneurs and hackers/ all the misfits and smart slackers.

The really hardcore music fan may pick up a possible Drugstore reference from “Say Hello”:

I say hello/ to all the junkies/ the sinners and the creeps/ I say hello to all the people in this place/ I say hello /to all the drug heads/ the prostitutes and freaks/ I say hello/ to all the people in the world!

But even I don’t think Morgan is a Drugstore fan, so the resemblance is most likely coincidental. What I love about Razz’s work here is that Versace Bedouin is a simple and totally sincere statement of intent. She tells the listener exactly who she is and what she’s about. She’s a weirdo and misfit, a hacker, a probable criminal, a business owner, and a dirty ho, and she is just letting the world know. She is, as the kids say, putting the motherfucking world on blast. Razzlekhan is coming for your bitcoin, baby, lock that shit down.

And the media loved it. The Guardian wrote a long (and pretty helpful) article on Morgan with the lead “Is this the new face of organized crime? Decoding Razzlekhan, the rapping bitcoin fraudster.”

“Who is this Bitcoin crime queen” they write breathlessly “and what does she tell us about the future of organized crime?” Well Mr. Guardian, that’s a good question that maybe I can shed some light on. Morgan and her husband (who, like the rest of the uncaring world didn’t care for her rap career–Heather I’m here for you baby; just reach out) stole the money, allegedly, from the platform Bitfinix but were unable to convert much of into cash or liquid assets and had to settle for Walmart gift cards instead. So that might tell you something–I’m not sure how organized the pair was.

Mr. Guardian again:

“It is hard to articulate how it feels to be alive in an age of massive wealth disparity and multiple deregulatory lines of questionable crypto minting, but I think watching an alleged Bitcoin embezzler struggle through painful rap bars in a flat-billed cap that reads ‘0FCKS’ is a good summation of the overwhelming confusion.”

But it really isn’t hard to articulate at all–it feels great, because while Heather Morgan the journalist, CEO, and dirty ho may be facing a little legal trouble, Razzlekhan the artist, in my opinion, stands unbloodied and unbowed atop the pinnacle of outsider art along with Daniel Johnston, Mayo Thompson, and the handful of other transcendent geniuses so far ahead of their time they were subject to as much ridicule as they were celebration.

(My favorite piece of music criticism ever comes from a Pitchfork review which doesn’t seem to be online anymore of The Red Krayola’s 1989 album malefactor, ade–it must have been a re-release because Pitchfork wasn’t around in ’89 of course–where the critic accuses Mayo Thompson of “playing the guitar badly, on purpose.” And it’s pretty true. The Red Krayola is out there.)

Razz herself embraces the outsider role and speaks directly to her artistic origins and sensibilities in her artistic biography:

Razzlekhan is like Genghis Khan, but with more pizzazz… No one knows for sure where this rapper’s from — could be the North African desert, the jungles of Vietnam, or another universe. All that matters is she’s here to stick up for misfits and underdogs everywhere (…) Because Razz has synesthesia, her art often resembles something in between an acid trip and a delightful nightmare. Definitely not for the faint of heart or easily offended, Razz likes to push the limits of what people are comfortable with. Her style has often been described as “sexy horror-comedy,” because of her fondness for combining dark and disturbing concepts with dirty jokes and gestures. Just like her fearless entrepreneurial spirit and hacker mindset, Razz shamelessly explores new frontiers of art, pushing the limit of what’s possible. Whether that leads to something wonderful or terrible is unclear; the only thing that’s certain is it won’t be boring or mediocre.

To my knowledge, no major media outlet even gave Razzlekhan a fighting chance; however I invite you to read the above self-description again with care. She is not in the least bit joking around. She identifies variously as a Bedouin, Turkish, a nomad, and an alien. Later in the same piece she identifies her influences as: Die Antwoord, Tierra Whack, Mickey Avalon, Salvador Dali, Diane Arbus, Hunter S. Thompson, Roald Dahl, and Charles Bukowski. This is a consistent, real, list of artists that a true outsider might well identify with. At the Razzlekhan level, the distance between greatness and awfulness is razor thin, artistic merit being, like everything else really, a circle not a line. In any case, judge for yourself–pull up a Razzlekhan video on You Tube (they are still there) and see what you think.

But what does any of this have to do with the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb? Well, it would have had nothing to do with him if our boy hadn’t chosen, with exquisitely poor judgment, to interject himself into the Heather Morgan/ Razzlekhan drama. Within hours of the heist news breaking, Mr. Taleb posted the following:

I have several things to say about this nonsense:

I. Check his use of “Attention” and the scare word “vulnerability.” Taleb thinks this message is super important and even urgent. He’s got to get it out there RIGHT NOW.

II. The story is obviously total BS. Taleb seems to have no sense of how Twitter works, and his narrative is so bizarre that he is basically begging for a roasting, which users in the hundreds did, of course.

III. Taleb gives no insight into why Morgan was DMing him. What did she want? Well, users, myself included, had a theory as to what might actually have occurred here. Occam’s Razor would suggest that at some point Morgan and Taleb began exchanging DMs, possibly on her initiative, as she was writing extensively for Business Insider and Forbes I believe, and maybe she wanted to ask Taleb something about one of his books. Taleb then pivoted into a bit of tail chasing, or, as one Twitter denizen put it slightly less crudely, he was looking for a little “bobs and vagine.” When Morgan was arrested, Taleb got spooked that somehow their DMs would leak, so he concocted a ridiculous cover story almost (but not quite) as stupid and unbelievable as Joy Reid’s claim that her fifteen year old blog with homophobic jokes and comments was hacked by Russians.

IV. The use of “some more recently” is a pure “tell.” Taleb’s bobs and vagineing has been going on for some time, it seems. But why in the world would Taleb think that the messages would leak just because Morgan was arrested (she was later released and her husband was held in custody, and I haven’t been able to get a status update on where she is today)? I mean there are really only two options:

i) that the messages would be released by the FBI or something as pertinent to the case, in which case Taleb and Morgan would have been discussing her hacking. This seems highly unlikely;

ii) Morgan would choose to release them herself in an effort to incriminate Taleb. But Nicholas baby, this is just not going to be a priority for Morgan after her arrest. I mean, she is accused of stealing 4.5 billion, and she’s got her rap career, and her husband is in prison. She has got stuff going on man; your DMs are way down the list.

All and all, this message shows that Taleb is an idiot and a complete joke. And people took note, including Edward Snowden, piping up from Russia. Check this out:

Snowden comes in with the savage take down here, and Taleb punches back with an offer to debate, what exactly? It’s not clear if this debate challenge was issued prior by Taleb nor is it clear, at least to me, what is to be debated. Are they supposed to talk medical issues? Mental health? Hacking? Bobs and vagine? Taleb continues to make no sense, and Snowden lets him know with another zinger:

Main Character Syndrome indeed. I would add Major Asshat Syndrome and Big Phony Fraud and Fragile Loser Syndrome as well. Because this is the guy who wrote Antifragile! Which is supposed to be about things that thrive during chaos, or in other words, things which are resilient. And nothing says resilient less than faking a hacking narrative to cover your tail chasing, issuing an incomprehensible debate challenge to someone way out of your league, and tripling down with blocking random twitter users who question you. And I would know, because after I liked the bobs and vagine comment and added something like “Methinks Mr. Taleb doth protest too much,” the fucker blocked me too! Sadly that Twitter account is history so I can’t post a screenshot, however it was obvious that this huge baby was scrolling chats and mass blocking to distract from his disastrous piece of public relations. Honestly, the whole thing was super funny and Taleb showed his ass in the worst possible way.

Taleb obviously thinks he is hotshit. Check out his Twitter bio.

What a poser. A flaneur is a French term for someone who walks the streets taking things in, and Walter Benjamin wrote extensively about the flaneur in his epic, and epically unfinished, “Arcades Project.” Actually, a flaneur is a lot like a kibitzer. I am the kyotokibbitzer (two b’s baby), and I love Benjamin’s work, including the Arcades Project. I bet Taleb is aware of Benjamin and fancies himself a fan. But he doesn’t know the first thing about Benjamin, because Benjamin was a humble guy who did great work and Taleb is a braggart, a tail chaser, and a bum. Deadlifts and dead languages my ass. Text is dead there Nicholas, at least your texts are, because you made a complete fool of yourself and you suck. Taleb exemplifies precisely why I dislike anyone who calls themselves a public intellectual or an expert. He is a poser and I’ll bet you 10 to 1 his ideas are stolen just like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, another total loser who piggybacks on people who know something to pump up his image. (A sure sign of a loser is a “public intellectual” who insists on using three names. What’s wrong with Nassim Taleb or Neil Tyson? The only people who need three names are serial killers; I mean even public intellectual number one Malcolm Gladwell only uses two names. Gladwell is known to pilfer ideas as well, but The Tipping Point is a pretty good read and the dude genuinely knows a tremendous amount about the sport of running. And he doesn’t call himself “Malcolm Julius Gladwell” or whatever. This is because he’s just a writer and knows that using his middle name would make him a prat.) Anyway, it’s totally fine to fake it ’til you make it, and most of us do to a greater or lesser degree, but you can’t fake your way into being an expert. Never trust “experts,” full stop.

So that’s the story of Razzlehan, the misunderstood genius, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the big phony. And in case you are asking, yes I did ask Razz to get in touch with me above. I’d say “I can fix her,” but she needs no fixing. She can DM me all she wants, and she doesn’t even have to get the Russians involved.

The Stage Banter of Matthew Houck and Dean Wareham


This post takes up the subject of stage banter with the hopes of gaining a window into what makes a great artist great. Before we get to stage banter, however, I want to look at Howe Gelb’s spoken introduction to Giant Sand’s cover of “The Pilgrim (Chapter 33).” Stage banter and spoken introductions are, clearly, related animals.

Gelb is the lead singer of the band Giant Sand, and the cover in question first appeared on Nothing Left to Lose, a Kris Kristofferson tribute album. The song was later collected on Giant Sand’s album Cover Magazine. You may know the song–it goes:

he’s a poet/ he’s a picker/ he’s a prophet/ he’s a pusher/ he’s a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned/ he’s a walking contradiction/ partly fact and partly fiction/ taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

It’s a good song, and Gelb turns in a sound version. But it’s his spoken introduction that really peaks my interest. On Kristofferson’s original he name-checks a number of folks who “had something to do with” the genesis of the song. Gelb repeats the original name-checks, slightly out of order, before listing a set of artists that he, Gelb, learned the song for:

Well, I guess when Kris wrote this song he wrote it for Chris Gantry-he started out doing it though by-ended up writing it for Dennis Hopper, Johnny Cash, Norman Norbert, Funky Donny Fritts, Billy Swan, Paul Seibel, Bobby Neuwirth, Jerry Jeff Walker. Ramblin’ Jack Eliot had a lot to do with it. Me I ended up learning this song for Vic Chesnutt, Jason Lytle, Evan Dando, Polly Jean, Paula Jean, Patsy Jean, Juliana, Victoria, Bobby Neuwirth, Bobby Plant. Curtis John Tucker had a lot to do with it.

The alliterative Bobbys and the matching of Ramblin’ Jack Eliot and Curtis John Tucker make this speech into a mini-poem of sorts, and we know many of the protagonists. Hopper and Cash of course; Jerry Jeff Walker and Ramblin’ Jack Eliot are folk singers, older than Kristofferson; Bobby Neuwirth is a folk singer, multimedia artist, and Dylan confidant in Don’t Look Back. Funky Donny Fritts is a session keyboardist, and I believe Norman Norbert and Billy Swan were session musicians as well. Paul Seibel was also a folksinger-I don’t know him; maybe you do. Kris’ meaning is pretty clear-a song like The Pilgrim doesn’t come from nowhere, and the folksingers he learned from are portals back in time to an earlier tradition to which he generously pays tribute.

Not being myself a 70’s session musician completist I did have to look up a few of the names. The Gelb names are more familiar, expect one. Vic Chesnutt, Jason Lytle and Victoria (Williams) are folk singers (or were, as sadly Chesnutt has passed). Evan Dando, Juliana Hatfield, and P.J. Harvey are/were alt-rock superstars. Bobby Plant would be Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame, Bobby Neuwirth is Bobby Neuwirth.

But here’s the point, after listening to Kristofferson and Gelb name-check Funky Donny and Curtis John, I feel an affinity for them-were I to bump into Funky Donny in an airport bar or lounge his presence would resonate with an essential familiarity. Even if I didn’t know precisely that it was he, I would recognize immediately that he was indeed funky, not to mention a serious problem when he’s stoned. And Curtis John Tucker, well, his role is still opaque to me, but he clearly had a lot to do with it.

What both singers hint at in their evocation of the circumstances surrounding the creation of a song is the presence of community behind the music. Behind or beside every Kristofferson is a Norman Norbert, behind every an a Bobby Neuwirth, every Gelb a Curtis John Tucker.

The humanity and camaraderie inherent in the spoken introductions to The Pilgrim remind us that artistic communities are vital in the creation of lasting artistic production–Neuwirth may not have been essential to Dylan’s art in the mid-60’s, but he was instrumental to its vitality; Kristofferson wrote “The Pilgrim” but it wouldn’t have been as good without Paul Seibel. And as for Curtis John Tucker, well he had a lot to do with it.

On the Spoken Introduction of the Band Members of Phosphorescent by Matthew Houck on Live at the Music Hall

On side two of Phosphorescent’s majestic 2015 live album Live from the Music Hall, the band plays a song from their 2005 album Aw Come Aw Wry, called “Joe Tex, These Taming Blues.” Houck’s early Phosphorescent albums are interesting–they are more ambient and keening than his mature work and some of the songs are really long.  Joe Tex is one of the better early songs, and Houck puts a little something special into the first couple lines on the live version: 

Is it ever gonna not be so hard to see you around/ or am I really really really really gonna have to really gonna have to really have to leave town

Houck is a master at harnessing the power of repetition—here each “really” takes on its own character and valance.  The band gives an excellent performance, which goes for about 4 minutes. It is apparently the second last song of the night, because at the end of the song Houck moves to introduce the band. Here he goes, as the band chugs on behind him:

Brooklyn, that’s Scott Stapleton playing that piano right there…

The first “Brooklyn” is loaded with import–Houck is going to drop some wisdom on the folks tonight. Stapleton plays a few understatedly beautiful lilting keys and…

Brooklyn, that’s David Torch playing that percussion right there…

Torch gives a little maracas shake, right on time, as Houck establishes the rhythm and flow of the introductions. The basic elements include a “Brooklyn,” which shifts in valance a little each time, and the band member playing “that (instrument),” “right there.”

Brooklyn, this is Rustin Bragaw playing that bass guitar right there…

A slight shift in the pattern–probably Rustin is standing next to Houck. Bragaw drops a couple of notes on his funky bass and on we go–naturally, the bassist gets the lowest key introduction.

Brooklyn, Christopher Showtime Marine playing those drums right there…

Houck reaches for a higher register here, both on the slightly more breathless and rushed “Brooklyn” and an uptone delivery of Marine’s nickname. Another shift in the pattern–Marine has a moniker. Showtime delivers a healthy drum piece and…

Brooklyn, the trigger finger Ricky…Ray…Jackson playing that guitar and that pedal steel right there, come on…

We’re getting there. The crowd is excited for this one; the pedal steel player is clearly a star. Houck pauses a beat on each name, “Ricky…Ray…Jackson, come on,” and the come on is both an entreaty to the crowd and also a general “come on can you believe this guy!” from the lead singer. Pedal steel is no joke. Also, Ricky Ray’s nickname comes before the name–he is in fact the trigger finger here tonight, his birth name is just data.

The trigger finger plays a couple of high notes and…

Brooklyn, last but certainly not least, the best looking one in the group, Joe Help, playing those keyboards right there, come on.

No fuss around the two-syllable “Joe Help,” which Houck delivers as if it was one word. Joe Help and Joe Tex, good looking guys that’s all.

I can’t tell you what a pleasure this has been y’all. Thank you for being here. Hope you come back again.  We’re going to play one more song; thank you guys so much again.  This is a song called Los Angeles; this is how it goes.

And the band plays a stunning closer.

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On the Between-Song Patter on the Bob Dylan Bootleg Record “Peco’s Blues”


Behind any work of art, pretty much, there is some kind of “process.” The scope and complexity of this process differs across art forms, of course. The writer’s process is rather different than that of, let’s say, the magician David Copperfield. I find all artistic processes fascinating, and am drawn specifically to what happens “backstage.” Backstage is a world unto itself.

In the early 1970’s, the film director Sam Peckinpah was making a film called Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and he asked Bob Dylan to do the soundtrack. He also offered him a small role in the movie, a character called Alias. Dylan hadn’t really done a soundtrack before, nonetheless he headed down to Mexico to work on the film with Peckinpah. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid the film is ok; it’s not my favorite Peckinpah by any means. (That is reserved for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, with the one and only Warren Oates in the lead role. Oates around this time also starred in the film Cockfighter, which features the greatest rejected tagline of any film even “he came into town with his cock in his hands and what he did with it was illegal in 48 states.”) The Pat Garrett soundtrack in many ways transcends the film, mostly because this is where we are first introduced to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which would go on to become one of Dylan’s best known songs, and is a really good soundtrack overall, however I am more interested in an extended set of outtakes from the sessions which are collected on a bootleg record called Peco’s Blues. Peco’s Blues features a number of alternate versions of the best known songs on the soundtrack, including Heaven’s Door and “Billy,” however the most interesting part of Peco’s Blues is the black and forth patter between Dylan, his sound engineer Chuck, and his band. This patter, I suggest, opens a fascinating and unique window into Dylan’s working methods and general approach to art. In what follows we will look at each incident of patter or conversation in the order they occur. All of the instances occur within the first 20 minutes of the nearly 70 minute recording as Dylan, his band, and the engineer endeavor to get on the same musical page.

Patter at the End of “Billy 2,” around the 7:34 Mark:

Dylan (D) wraps up a lengthy take of Billy 2 and asks his engineer Chuck (C):

D: Was that any good?

C: Pretty good Bob. What happened was was you hit the mic twice when you were moving around out there and we had a couple of clunks on it.

D: That’s too bad (…) Shit, I wish Sam was here. He’d know what to do.

C: That mic’s just a little more sensitive than the Sennheiser’s and I’m getting a little…

D: That’s too, uh…that’s…

C: And I’m getting a little puff of wind sometimes when you get real close to it when you sing.

D: That’s too sensitive.

C: Let me move it back a little for you Bob.

D: I think we must have got it though Chuck.

C: (with what sounds like a pencil in his mouth) Oh I recorded it, darn tootin’. I had a little puff from your voice once and you knocked the mic twice.

D: Well that might have been alls that we need.

C: You wanna, you wanna hear a playback on it?

D: Yeah, I would.


We see right away here that Dylan is the boss and that the engineer is walking on eggshells a little bit. This is made clear by Dylan’s reference to “Sam,” who he obviously thinks is a better engineer than Chuck. We have more than a little sympathy for Chuck, as it wasn’t he that knocked the mic and he is trying his best to give Dylan the relevant information.

I love how Dylan here, while implicitly criticizing Chuck, also picks up on Chuck’s framing of the microphone situation and agrees that “that’s too sensitive.” However, the relative sensitivity of the mic is not Dylan’s main concern. Dylan, famously, likes to work fast. For some of his records that has been a positive, on these the sound and performances come across as organic and coordinated, like all of the players grasped their roles and just ran with them. On other records, Dylan’s preference for speed let’s him down, and songs, and especially the production, can feel rushed, even a little sloppy. Dylan famously warred with Uber-producer Daniel Lanois, who had produced U2 and Peter Gabriel among others before Dylan asked him to produce 1989’s Oh Mercy. Oh Mercy sounds great and was Dylan’s “comeback” album after a mixed, to say the least, mid 80’s period, however Lanois’ sonic fingerprints are all over it. Too much so for Dylan, who wanted a faster, looser approach. Lanois is no pushover, and held his own with Dylan. We get the sense that Chuck is no Lanois.

So, despite the knocks on the mic and the puff of wind, Dylan is going to be fine with using this version on the record. Chuck, of course, is going to want Dylan to play it again. Chuck, or someone, would win this one because the extended take of Billy 2 here is not the one used on the final album. The little tussle between Dylan and Chuck ends in a draw as they agree to listen to the playback.

Patter at the Beginning of “Turkey,” around the 8:40 Mark:

D: Hey Roger, when I stop, when I stop, you stop. I’ll do something else and you figure it out. So it might go like this (Dylan starts playing and the band fills in a little hesitantly behind him).

D: Say Chuck, Chuck?

C: Yeah

D: Let’s take this down and mark it under, uh, Turkey…We got a buzz in the amp.

C: I’m not picking it up.

D: OK come on now.

The band plays on the instrumental Turkey for about a minute before Dylan stops.

D: OK, this is under Turkey.

Dylan begins again, and this time the band fills in much better, the song sounding fuller and tighter in all ways.


This is in my opinion the most illuminating of Dylan’s comments and gives us a window into his way of working throughout his career. As mentioned above, Dylan works fast and expects his musicians to do the same. Thus he instructs Roger that when he Dylan stops, Roger is to stop, Dylan will “do something else” and Roger needs to “figure it out.” Dylan’s instructions may not sound very fair to poor Roger, but I think they actually are. A musical team is in this case not unlike a sports team, say a basketball team, where even if an offense is running a designed play or “set,” players need to figure out what’s going on and adjust their own position and movements constantly and on the fly. There is no playbook, not set of absolute rules about how to accomplish this any more than there is a set of rules about how to follow Dylan musically. The musician, like the athlete, just has to work by feel, take in all the information around him or her, and figure it out. If they can, they will keep their job; if not, not.

Patter at the Beginning of “Billy Surrenders,” around the 18:10 Mark:

D: Let’s see now. You know, you know what we want when Billy starts (laughs) this guy Jerry Fielding’s gonna go nuts man when he hears this (laughs). You know what we want when like Pat Garrett comes down from the hills right, and all these guys come out like one by one. And Billy comes out, he’s almost standing in a circle you know, so like (indistinct) one by one and then there’s like a big pause and he stops and there’s silence. You know those big organ notes, those scary things (hums organ notes) (laughs). Can you get behind that? (Dylan and the band laughing.)


The recording of the Pat Garrett soundtrack was pretty complicated, in large part because Jerry Fielding, Peckinpah’s usual composer, was relegated to a supporting role and apparently resented it. Accounts differ as to whether Fielding quit, walked off set (and maybe came back), actually did try to advise Dylan as requested, or some combination of the above, however the history of the film makes clear that there was friction. Dylan is clearly aware of the tension with Fielding, and makes a joke about it in a place where it doesn’t even seem relevant. Dylan seems to almost revel in the conflict, setting up Fielding to his band as a “suit” who is not in the field so to speak, and who Dylan enjoys winding up with his musical choices. Whatever the exact situation with Fielding was, the issue is clearly a live one at the time of recording.

My sense is that Dylan is mostly talking to his band here, as there are a number of people in the background laughing along with Dylan through this monologue. Despite his reputation for playing fast and loose most of the time, Dylan shows a pretty good grasp of particular scenes in the film and clearly knows what he wants. The “big organ notes” he mentions do indeed feature on the soundtrack, however maybe not to the extent Dylan wanted. I have to laugh at the very 1970’s question “can you get behind that?”


Overall, Peco’s Blues provides a fascinating window into Dylan’s working methods and expectations for his crew. Of course not every musician works this way; many will give much more precise instructions I am sure, and in the era of computer aided music Dylan’s approach on Pat Garrett is certainly a old-fashioned one. But I like it. It is absolutely worth listening to the entirety of Peco’s Blues to get a sense of Dylan’s working methods as well as how a band, here playing together live and recorded live, “figures itself out” and gets from sketch to finished product. I am myself not a musician but a writer, and the writing process, although never exactly easy, is perhaps a little less complex, mostly because most writers write by themselves, with an editor or editing team looking over the work at a later date. There is nothing in writing quite like “I’ll do something else and you figure it out,” and it is the shifting, quicksilver like nature of Dylan’s approach to music making here that continues to interest me and draw me in.

I Have a Crush on Katie Park From Bad Moves

I love live music. More than that, I love live music fans, and music fans in general. This piece is basically about being a music fan, and was inspired when I saw the band Bad Moves open for The Hold Steady in 2018 at the Brooklyn Bowl. They were touring on the back of their first full length, Tell No One. While at the Bad Moves/ Hold Steady show a music geek introduced me to a band called Swearin’. Swearin’ has been around a little longer than Bad Moves, and in 2018 had released Fall Into the Sun. The two bands don’t really sound all that much alike (Bad Moves is basically “Power Pop” and Swearin’ is basically “Indie”) but they write somewhat similarly about matters of love and friendship.

Let’s play a game that we live in a world where a record by a band like Bad Moves or Swearin’ would produce radio hits. I want to live in that world. Or maybe I don’t; maybe it’s better for everyone that bands like these stay a little more on the DL. Let’s first take a look at Fall Into the Sun. (Swearin’s frontwoman is Allison Crutchfield, and the band is mostly her baby.) My pick for the single would be the lead off track, “Big Change.” It starts with a simple, slightly scratchy guitar line over which Crutchfield softly speak-sings:

The best years of our lives/ were spent in some stranger’s basement/ medley made of empty cans and ex’s/ and that radical romantic conversation/ about how we are like mutants/ who found each other by chance through rock ‘n roll music

clenched fist, eyes wild/ scream over the records, you artfully complied/ while I put my bad faith into practice/ sit at home on Saturday night/ ease into my false sense of superiority/ no art degree, no conservatory/ just Katie and me

I really like what Crutchfield does here. She is basically writing about a friendship solidified over a shared love of music. Now, I know a lot of people. I also have some friends. When you ask an adult, “How many real friends do you have?” the number will vary widely. A lot of people will say “four or five,” something like that. People in general have surprisingly few real friends. I have ten or fifteen, maybe more, but am only in regular contact with about half that number. A good friendship, in my opinion, is one where no matter how long you and your friend have not hung out, if you see them it’s as if not a day has passed. With this sort of friend, I’ve found, there is between yourself and them something fundamental shared. It can be anything really. For example, I first met my good buddy when we were both in graduate school in Arizona, and at first I thought he was a total dick. He was loud, interrupted people constantly, and loved being the center of attention. One night we were drinking as a department and he started razzing me there on the street, just casually insulting me left and right. Suddenly I got where he was coming from. This was, in fact, his way of offering to be friends. Once I understood this, I began to give it right back to him. Called him every name in the book. And he ate it up. By the end of the night we were fast friends and have been ever since, because we share an understanding that our friendship is based on ripping on each other. Music, obviously, is another great basis for a friendship.

When Crutchfield sings “no art degree, no conservatory/ just Katie and me,” I’m reminded of the refrain from Don DiLillo’s Underworld: “who’s better than us.” If they can do it, why not us? Fuck ’em. That’s what attitude looks like kids–take notes.

So “Big Change” is my single from Fall Into the Sun. (“My single” here just means the song I would choose as the single. For some records, the single is super obvious, while for other records it’s debatable. Bands and producers, in my opinion, do not always get this right.) A good record will tend to have at least two singles; three is a bonus.

For Fall Into the Sun’s second single I’ll go with “Grow into a Ghost.” It opens with a chugging guitar riff with an almost Krautrock drum line. The song is a perfect 3:10–in and out. Do you know anything about lost love? Swearin’ does–here’s verse II:

I write you ceaselessly and abstracted/ I hang out with old friends/ and they unknowingly remind me/ of who I was before we met/ you were somewhere out in the desert/ you frame the natural light perfectly/ will you come back soon and/ let me love you completely

and the chorus: “I watch you/ I watch you grow into a ghost.”

Swearin’ is good, but Bad Moves is better. And the star of Bad Moves is the exquisite Katie Park. (I know they are a collective, but my world is my world baby.) Before their show Katie was at the merch table selling…magic eye! That she made by hand. And what did it say? The magic eye said “Bad Moves.” Obviously. I checked it out and chatted for a few minutes with Katie, trying to play it cool. It was the highlight of my year. 20 minutes later she and the band were on stage, crushing it.

The single here is pretty easy. It’s “Crushed Out.” The band released “Crushed Out,” “Spirit FM” and “Cool Generator” as the singles, all of which are excellent. Maybe “Spirit FM” is catchier than “Crushed Out”? Possible. But “Crushed Out” has more lasting power in my opinion. “Crushed Out” is about exactly what it sounds like. It has a basically perfect power pop structure with a killer hook, a classic bridge, and a theme at once super obvious and super deep–the power of a crush.

It was a strange infatuation/ I couldn’t place it at the time/ but now it seems as if my mind/ was all stopped up with you/ I had no sense of aspiration/ I didn’t know, I guess it’s fine/ but now it seems so obvious/ did it seem so obvious?

through all my fits of desperation/ sharing looks and passing notes/ what did you make of what I wrote?/ what could I ask of you?/ the weeks of strained communication/ could you read between the lines/ or was it just so obvious?

Baby, if you are crush-prone that power never goes away. Bad Moves knows this–it’s kind of what the record is about. Crushing out that way can be pretty obvious–do you think I’m crushing out on Katie at all? Nah, this is just a piece of music appreciation.

Cool Generator is my second favorite song on the album, but my “sneaky favorite” is “Missing You.” A sneaky favorite is just what it sounds like: it’s that song that may fly under most people’s radar but that you have a special soft spot for. My all time sneaky favorite song is “Three Drinks” by Craig Finn of the aforementioned Hold Steady. Three Drinks shows up on Finn’s 2016 EP Newmyer’s Roof. It’s nearly acoustic, unlike most Hold Steady songs, and sounds just a little bit country. Three Drinks is about a woman (most great songs are) who may have been a child star once upon a time, and is now a drinker. It is an example of a certain type of song that Finn is amazing at, the deeply empathetic look at adult relationships in all of their gloriously flawed complexity. In this sense, Three Drinks fits in with “Spinners” from The Hold Steady’s 2014’s Teeth Dreams, “Tangletown” from Finn’s 2017 solo record We All Want the Same Things, and “Esther” a Hold Steady single from 2018. Finn’s writing on Three Drinks and Tangletown is at its absolute apex. Here’s the opening to verse two of Three Drinks:

There was bloodsucker blues in the lobby at dusk/ she blew smoke in my face and it felt like a bus/ the chef cut his finger off the waiter got fired/ I only took notes to try to come off inspired

Come on man. The refrain focuses on that magic hour between drinks 3 and 4, when matters begin to move from the slightly anxious first stage of the evening to something entirely other:

It takes 1 2 3 drinks/ and now she’s not so frightened/ it takes 4 and 5 and 6/ and then she’s sick/ but in the hour in between/ she feels holy and redeemed/ blessed and blissful/ painless and serene

And then Finn delivers this killer quatrain:

She left the room to put on her face/ I went through her purse/ it was all pills and mace/ she said its so hard to choose between space and time/ she mostly just smoked and drank wine

It was all pills and mace, baby. Man Craig Finn can write.

So anyway, my sneaky favorite on Tell No One is “Missing You.” The song starts like the others, high-speed power pop, and after two verses switches to a near-spoken word breakdown of the tug-of-war between a crush and the expectations of the world around. Guess which wins?

Something inside told me I shouldn’t do/ things that set my heart racing, the dreams I held to/ so I wrapped them up tight and hid them from view/ and gave them a name I called “Missing You”/

every cop in the city and the family I knew/ the church and the pastor all said I shouldn’t do/ but their pleas for contrition just couldn’t break through/ not one of them stronger than missing you

I officially support these sentiments. And look what the band does with the simplest rhyming possible: “knew,” “do,” “through,” and “you.” High level.

So that’s my sneaky favorite –doesn’t mean it’s better than “Crushed Out” (it isn’t) it’s just a little sneaky. I’m all about sneaky favorites, on all levels.

In addition to the Magic Eye, Bad Moves also engage in a little publishing. A little literature. Specifically they publish a pamphlet called “The Virtues of Wearing White.” Check this out:

Chatting with Katie, she acknowledged more than a passing familiarity with the literature of the Jehovah Witnesses. I love Witness literature. Both Witness and Bad Moves publications have a real “it’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day” vibe. If you know me this is not a secret, but I’m a hardcore closet New Ager. There, secret’s out. I’ve messed around with all kinds of New Age action. Once I attended a Kabbala meetup in Manhattan. There were some hardcore New Agers there too, seriously. Those folks were not in the closet at all. Shining eyes, whatever color they are wearing. Me, I like black because it’s easier to launder, but Bad Moves have me thinking. (One other publication you should take a look at if you are into this kind of thing is the Christian Science Monitor. It’s a serious piece of literature. God is great baby, god is great.)

When I was younger my parents had a friend called Tom Hutchinson, who, predictably, went by “Hutch.” Hutch owned a boutique coffee shop there in town and I drove a delivery van for him for a bit. But that’s another story. Anyway, Hutch was a weird guy and he hated the Witnesses. It was one of his favorite topics. He’d call them the “Witlesses,” and say: “When they come to my house I turn the hose on ’em.” People thought this was pretty funny, but I was not that into Hutch’s attitude to the Witnesses. I mean, he didn’t want anyone trying to convert him on his property, which is fair; however, I felt, and still feel, that if someone wants to come to my door, give me a little literature, and talk about how god loves me I’m gonna let them. I genuinely like the Witnesses. They seem like lovely people. Read more

The Thin Man in Rome, Part III: Reading Maya’s Chart

Dateline The Jazz Club: November 5th, 20:29

The saxophonist and theremin player jam for about fifteen minutes before taking a break. Nothing is announced, and the thin man can’t tell what’s going on. Was that the opening act? Are either of these players part of the trio? Where is the trio? Which if any of these people is Peter Andreessen? Information is thin. A guy in a black and white striped shirt brings out an electric organ and begins setting it up while the theremin player hits the bar. For a moment the thin man forgets about his assignment and allows himself to just enjoy the scene.

Maya is sitting with Philip, McKnight, and the other young man from before. This group as currently constructed does not look particularly permeable, so the thin man bides his time. After a while, the organ player starts playing a riff, high on the keyboard, lots of black keys. The saxophone player comes back out and act two of the show is underway. This duo is actually really good, and the thin man envies the organ player’s facility. The dude can play.

A few stools down from the thin man and Ali sits a woman with dark blonde hair, fully made up, wearing a fur shawl and spiky leather boots. She looks to be in her mid-40s, give or take a few years. She addresses herself to the thin man.

“Sit here,” she says, gesturing to the stool next to her.

The thin man considers this request. On the one hand, she doesn’t seem like his usual type, for another thing, he’s working. That said, the thin man is a gentleman of a kind, and doesn’t like to say no to ladies. He moves over to next to her.

“You’re not from here,” she says. Not a question.

“No. I just got in from Singapore.” This much is true.

“You’re cute,” she says. “Buy me a drink.”

“What would you like?”

“Manhattan. He knows how I like it,” she says, gesturing to the bartender. This woman, the thin man takes it, is a regular. “I’m Vivian,” she says.

“Jack Bishop,” says the thin man.

“Hi Jack Bishop,” she says and lays her right hand on his arm. “I’m glad I met you tonight.”

The thin man’s usual type she may not be, however she is a well-put together woman for sure and her initial moves seem pretty promising. The thin man takes her hand below the bar and they exchange smiles. The thin man sneaks a glance at Ali, but the driver’s face is impassive. Ali has seen it all—therefore sees nothing.

The organ and saxophone set turns out to be a longer than the first, and after about 20 minutes the thin man sees Maya heading back to the lobby, alone. Vivian is going to have to wait; he’ll be back later, if possible. He slides along the left side of the room back to the lobby where he finds Maya, smoking a menthol.

“May I join you,” he asks, taking out his American Spirits.

“Sure, want a light?”

“That would be fantastic.”

Maya lights the thin man’s cigarette as he looks around. The theremin player has established herself behind the merch table and there are about 20 different items for sale, CDs, vinyl, some kind of flash drive thing with music on it, etc. Peter Andreessen is one prolific individual, thinks the thin man, if there even is a Peter Andreessen. The thin man remembers that Philip had said that Maya liked action, and the plurality of merch choices gives him an idea.

“Want to play a game?” he asks Maya.

“What kind of game?”

The thin man takes her arm and steers her over to the merch table. “Pick a number between one and twenty.” The thin man knows that very few people, beautiful temptresses not excluded, can resist picking a number.

Maya flushes slightly. “14,” she says. “I like 14.”

“14 is my lucky number,” says the thin man. “Let’s count.” And he starts counting off the items from the top left one by one until he gets to 14.

“I’ll take this one,” he tells the theremin player. She looks at the CD and smiles. “That’s one of my favorites,” she says.

“I’m sure it’s awesome,” says the thin man. He pays for the record with some of Grey’s Euros and turns back to Maya.

“May I buy you a white lady madam?”

She laughs lightly.

“Are you trying to pick me up? Because you should know I’m taken.”

The thin man has already decided to take a direct approach.

“I’m not trying to pick you up,” he says. “I’m just hitting on you.”

Maya blushes outright. “Are you always so straightforward?”

“Just a straight arrow, that’s me.”

“Somehow I doubt that,” says Maya. But she stays put.

The thin man decides it’s time to tack back to safer ground.

“Have you known Alan long?” he asks, even though he already has already gleaned this information from Philip.

“Sure, I’m his bae,” says Maya.

“What’s a bae?”

“It means before anyone else, silly.” Three weeks and already a bae, thinks the thin man.

“Oh, so you’ve been together a while then?”

“Actually no, I’m not really his bae. I’m just the slut on the side.”

Now this is information the thin man can get behind. Time to push his chips in.

“Do you have a cellphone?” he asks. Yes, she does.

“Let me borrow it for a second.” Maya looks at the thin man quizzically.

“What for?” she asks.

“I’ll do your chart. Do you know your birth time?”

“I think so. It’s like 1:34 in the morning.” Maya has her phone out and the thin man slides it into his own hands.

“May I open a browser?”

“I guess so,” says Maya. “I mean if you are going to do my chart and all.”

“What’s your birthday?”

“February 3rd, 1989.”

“Ah, an Aquarius. Figures.”

“What do you mean ‘figures’?” she asks, “what figures?”

“Well I just mean that you’re an air sign, which makes sense to me. I’m an air sign too. You think fast and move fast. I like that about you already.”

“Oh you do do you. Well we’ll see about that.” She pauses, and then, because having your chart read is just basically addictive, she asks, “What else do you see?”

The thin man points to the glyph representing Mars. “Mars is in your 6th house—that’s a strong placement for a career woman. I’d say you are a powerful force in your own sphere, am I right?”

Maya smiles coyly. “Maybe. Maybe I am. Is there anything else about my career?”

“Well Mars is square Venus in the 2nd house. That’s interesting. That could mean a lot of things. It might mean that your work life and love life are connected. Maybe there’s something there that’s being worked out.”

Now you might think that the thin man is playing it a little too fast and loose here, but he knows what he’s doing. He’s no expert in astrology, but he’d picked up a bit from a bartender called Jessica who he’d worked with back on the cruise ship. Jessica was a pro, and would read customers’ charts on the regular. The thin man had watched her performance many a time. From Jessica he knew that when reading someone’s chart you can basically say anything as long as you ground it in a little actual astrological theory. So it was with the Mars-Venus square, a perfect opening into Maya’s secret world.

“Are you suggesting I’m sleeping with my boss?“ she asks. “Because he’s not my boss. And anyway I’m barely sleeping with him.”

“I didn’t mean anything of the kind,” replies the thin man smoothly. “From looking at your chart I’d say it’s more like there is something in the realm of love that will be a turning point for you professionally one way or another. I’m not sure what that could be.”

“Oh my gosh, it’s exciting,” says Maya. “Tell me more about my chart.”

Running out of ideas, the thin man stalls. “Let me look more carefully. There’s a lot here.”

“Am I complex?” she asks.

“Very complex. Complex and deep I’d say. A lot of planets below the horizon.”

Before the thin man can delve further into the mysteries of Maya’s chart, two men approach. The one in front is heavyset and looks to be a native Italian. The other one is lighter with blonde hair and a slight sneer already in place. The thin man guesses he is from Northern Europe, Germany maybe. The heavyset man squares his stance just a foot or two from the thin man and Maya.

“You two are getting pretty cozy back here, aren’t you?”

“And this matters to you how exactly?” asks the thin man.

“She’s my sister,” says the man, “and I don’t want some creep like you hanging around her.”

The man was not Maya’s brother, this much the thin man knew. However he played along.

“You have a very interesting sister,” he says “do you know she’s a natal Aquarius?”

“How about this,” says the man, “how about you shut the fuck up and fuck off?”

“Now that’s not very nice,” says the thin man. “I thought we were just starting to get along.”

The blonde man steps forward. “We’re not asking twice pal,” he says. He’s seen one two many movies this guy. The thin man turns to Maya. “Looks like you got the manners in the family,” he says. But Maya turns away.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I had probably better get back to my group.” Kin they may not be; however the men have some kind of hold over her, and she heads back to where the show is kicking off once again.

The thin man is prepared to beat a strategic retreat when the heavyset man starts in again.

“What were you doing on her phone?”

The thin man considers his response carefully. On the one hand he could tell the truth—we were just checking out her birth chart—but that might only further aggravate the man. The thin man guesses that these two are some kind of minders sent from Pelican corp. to keep an eye on Maya. They are probably worried about her phone containing sensitive information. Before the thin man can reply Mitchell Grey appears as if from nowhere.

“Is there some kind of a problem gentlemen?”

“No problem old timer,” says the heavyset man, “this guy was just hassling my sister.”

“I don’t think so,” says Grey. “I don’t think that is what was going on at all.” Grey may be in his sixties, but as he squares his shoulders and lifts his chin slightly it’s clear that he is not a guy to mess with. The heavyset man registers this, takes a beat. Slowly he pulls back the right flap of his jacket to reveal a gun on his hip.

“What’s that?” asks the thin man.

“It’s a gun.”

“Let me have it.”

The man barks out a laugh. “The fuuck are you two?”

“We’re not the guys you kill,” replies the thin man, “We’re the guys you buy.”

“Well, I’m the guy you kill,” says Grey, “but not tonight I think.”

The heavyset man has heard enough, and balls his fists, holding them slightly in front of his body. “You motherf…” he starts, but gets no further because Ali is already behind him and twists his right arm up behind his back, hard. The man yelps in pain and Ali slams him against the wall. The German takes a step back and raises his hands slightly as if in surrender, his sneer turned to fear.

“Looks like you’re outnumbered now,” says Grey as cool as can be. Why don’t you put it back in your pants and let’s go have a little talk.”

to be continued…

The Thin Man in Rome, Part II: At the Jazz Club

My baby’s gonna pay for me.

The National

Dateline The Jazz Club: November 5th, 17:54

The thin man met Grey in the lobby as promised where Grey handed him several hundred Euros as well as some American dollars. “Just in case we get separated,” Grey said. The thin man could take care of himself ok at a poolside party in Singapore, however tonight’s action already felt a little different. He wondered if Grey was carrying a gun. Happy as he was to have the cash, the thin man hoped Grey would not stray too far afield. The driver had the car ready, and they drove the 20 minutes to the jazz club.

Once inside (the doors had actually soft-opened sometime before 18:00) the thin man takes the place in. It’s a pretty large club with a stage area in front, a bar to the left, and a sound booth in the middle with aisles on each side so that patrons could feed back into a lobby area where another bar is set-up, as well as space for the “merch table.”

There are already 20 or 30 people inside, drinking, talking, smoking. The thin man decides to buy a pack of cigarettes–cigarettes are a great ice breaker and the thin man will need to break some ice later on. He asks for American Spirits, yellow, and the bartender hands them over.

“Who’s playing tonight?” asks the thin man in English.

“The Peter Andreessen Trio,” replies the bartender in the same language. “They are pretty popular, and a little far out.”

Far out, thinks the thin man. Far out is good. I can work with far out. He sees Grey across the room, sitting with two younger men. Neither of these looks much like a senior vice-president. The thin man starts to move toward the group but Grey shakes his head, almost imperceptibly. Guess we don’t know each other, thinks the thin man. Makes sense. He recalibrates mentally for a second–he’s just here to take in a little jazz and maybe hit on some women. Or one particular woman perhaps.

He orders a white lady, gin and Cointreau, on the rocks. The thin man is a dabbler, in life and in alcohol, and white ladies are there to be dabbled in. He starts to circulate, moving easily, just looking to make conversation. One of the men Grey had been talking to is at the back bar and the thin man approaches.

“Hi, I’m Jack.”

“Hey Jack,” says the man, “I’m Philip. You here for some jazz?” Philip has what sounds like an American accent, and the thin man guesses he works for Company X in some capacity.

“Sure am,” says the thin man. “I’m a big jazz fan, but I don’t know these guys tonight. Do you know anything about them?”

“Yeah, I saw them play before here in town. They’re from Norway and they’re pretty far out.”

“Cool,” says the thin man, “sounds like fun. Where are you from Philip?”

“From the USA man, Kentucky originally. But I’ve been living here in Rome for about two years.”

“What do you do?”

“I work for a company called Company X. I’m in the marketing department, and I report directly to a vice-president over here. It’s a pretty good gig.”

“Company X huh? I think I’ve heard of them. Aren’t they in talks to buy the Green Group or something?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” replies Philip. “You’re up to speed on the business news.”

“I dabble,” says the thin man, “but I don’t know much more than that. Is anyone else from your company going to be here tonight?”

“There should be a few of us, yeah. I think my boss is coming too, with his new girlfriend.” Philip leans closer to the thin man and says quietly “you gotta check this chick out man. She’s got it all going on. She’s called Maya and she just arrived in town like three weeks ago. My fuckin’ boss moves fast man.”

“It’s good to be the boss I guess,” says the thin man.

“Yeah man,” says Philip. “What ya drinking?”

“It’s called a white lady. You should order one too.”

“Maya’s a white lady too I think. Not really sure. I think she was in Eastern Europe before somewhere. Anyway, I should stop talking about Maya, it’s bad form I guess.”

The thin man laughed. “Not bad form at all. I’m interested. What does she do here in Rome?”

“I’m not really sure. She’s living at the Plaza, probably on my boss’ dime. I think she’s in corporate in some way. You can ask her yourself, she should be here soon.”

“I’d like to meet her,” said the thin man. “If you would be kind enough to make an introduction.”

“Sure thing. I’m not sure you’re her type but you never know. She likes action, and money.”

“Well I don’t have any money,” replies the thin man, “but maybe I can generate a little action. Let’s see how things go.”

The thin man and his new friend chat a little more, before a woman who looks to be in her early thirties comes in with an older man in a suit with no necktie. The suit looks sharp, maybe not as sharp as our driver’s outfit, but sharp, however the man inside it looks like he’s got some things going on. His hair is slightly out of place and he looks around the club rapidly. He’s a little jumpy. The woman is dressed in a stunning black dress with a fur coat on top, low-cut heels, and a necklace with a ruby inside. Philip waves at them and they wave back. This must be Maya, thinks the thin man. Very intriguing.

As Maya checks her coat, the VP approaches the bar.

“Good to see you Philip,” he says. “Maya was running a little late as usual and I was afraid we’d miss the first part of the show. What are you drinking?”

“It’s called a white lady,” says Philip, “he turned me on to it.” Philip gestures toward the thin man who has already turned slightly to face the duo. The VP offers his hand to the thin man.

“Alan McKnight,” he says, “white ladies eh?”

“Jack Bishop,” says the thin man. “Yes sir, there is nothing more satisfying than a white lady after a long day.”

“I have no doubt,” says McKnight, “but I think I’ll just have a beer. Maya might try one of those though, she like her fancy cocktails.”

His beer arrives as Maya comes over to join the group. She glances at the thin man before turning to McKnight.

“Buy me a martini darling. Two olives.” She speaks with the absolute assurance of someone who never has to pay her own way.

As the bartender is mixing her martini a few notes from a saxophone drift back from the area of the stage. The band is setting up, testing instruments.

“I won’t even have time to enjoy my beer before the show starts,” complains McKnight. “I wish you didn’t take so long to get ready honey.”

Maya turns up her nose–McKnight’s salvo doesn’t even merit a reply. The thin man still hasn’t been introduced to Maya, so he comes one step closer and says “hi I’m Jack. I was just chatting with Philip before you guys came in. Philip says you’re new to Rome?”

“This time around, yes,” she says. “I used to live here though, so I know the city.”

“How long will you be staying?” asks the thin man.

“As long as he’ll have me,” she replies, turning to McKnight. “Right darling?”

McKnight is not paying attention. “Uh, right, uh huh.”

“I said you’re going to keep me around aren’t you?”

“Of course I am.” McKnight has regained his focus. “You know how much I treasure you honey.”

The thin man finds all this talk pretty banal, but it does provide some insight into Maya and McKnight’s relationship. McKnight might well treasure her, however he is also clearly unhappy with certain aspects of their relationship. In addition, he is continuing to look around as if he was expecting someone or something. The thin man wonders if McKnight has a suspicion that all was not what it seemed with Maya. He might realize this on an instinctual level without guessing, for example, that she might be a corporate spy.

“Shall we go up front? The show’s about to start,” says Philip.

The group takes their drinks and moves past the sound booth to get a good view of the stage. The thin man looks around surreptitiously but sees no sign of Grey. He does see the driver however, leaning against the inside bar and smoking a cigarette. The thin man makes a strategic decision to separate temporary from the Company X crew. If he’s going to make a move on Maya tonight it’s better that he approaches from a more oblique angle anyway.

The thin man walks across to the bar and stands next to the driver. Although Grey had indicated that the he should act like a stranger, the room is filling up and he feels like a little chat can’t hurt anything. He keeps his voice low though, just as a matter of tradecraft.

“I didn’t get your name before,” says the thin man. “Mine’s Jack.”

“Ali,” says the man. “Making any progress?” He is apparently entirely up to speed with this evening’s operation.

“Hard to say. I’ll need more time. Do you work for Company X as well?”

“Not I,” says Ali in perfectly inflected English. “Grey doesn’t either, really. We’re contractors.”

“I see. Have you worked together long?”

Ali looks at the thin man and pauses. For just a second the thin man sees something flash in the man’s eyes, something close to sadness. Then it’s gone, and the man says matter of factly, “I’ve known Grey for thirty years. We’re partners.”

All of the sudden a tallish women comes on stage and, without a word, begins playing what looks to the thin man like a mini-theremin. The keening notes of this unusual instrument fill the room, and Ali looks at the thin man with a slight smile and shrugs. Mini-theremin may or may be not be Ali’s cup of tea, but he’s a gamer, and the thin man feels warmly toward him. The theremin player starts ramping things up and a second musician joins her on stage and, again without a word, begins playing the saxophone, loudly and erratically. The show has begun.

to be continued…

On Subcultures and Scenes in Craig Finn’s “It’s Never Been a Fair Fight”

This piece is about an absolutely amazing song by Craig Finn called “It’s Never Been a Fair Fight.” We will also expand on the song’s theme, which is how subcultures (and “scenes”) operate. Finn is, in my opinion, the greatest lyricist working today (not the greatest living lyricist, that’s still Dylan). I’ve written about about Finn before here, and here.

Finn himself says that “It’s Never Been A Fair Fight”:

“is about the extreme difficulty of staying true to the rigid rules of a subculture as you get older. The character in the song revisits an old peer and finds struggle and disappointment in the place he left behind.”

In this case, the narrator had been part of the punk/hardcore scene in the 1980’s and 1990’s, has left the scene, and reflects on his time there and what it meant as he meets his old friend, and we suppose former lover, Vanessa. I’m not sure I understand the entire chronology of the song, as it engages in some apparent time jumps that can be little hard to follow. Overall however, it is pretty clear what the song is about. The opening verse sees the narrator (let’s call him C, because while we will grant Finn the understanding as an artist that his characters are characters, in this case the song feels pretty autobiographical) checking in with Vanessa. The song opens in the present day.

I met Vanessa right in front of her building/ she was vague in taste and drowning/ she says she’s got a new man and he’s in a new band/ and they’ve got a new sound

I said hardcore’s in the eye of the beholder/ I’ve got a broken heart from 1989/ I was holding me head in my hands from the heat/ there were elbows in my eyes.

While we get the impression that C has been out of the scene for a while, Vanessa is very much still in it, new man, new band, new sound, same old place. Vanessa’s man, we assume, is in a hardcore band, and I believe it is the case that Finn came up through the hardcore scene before forming his first band Lifter Puller. Lifter Puller is not a hardcore band, and I don’t know if Finn was actually in a hardcore band or just in the scene.

“Hardcore’s in the eye of the beholder” is a funny line for a number of reasons (it also reminds me of the classic David Berman line “punk rock died when the first kid said/ punk’s not dead/ punk’s not dead”). In any case, after C recalls his broken heart from 1989, the song shifts back in time, back to when C was attending hardcore shows, hot and sweaty, elbows in his eyes.

Vanessa said that there’s threads that connect us/ flags and wars we should never accept/ Angelo said that there’s snakes in the smoke/ from the cigarettes

Ivan isn’t all that concerned/ he said it’s mostly about what you wear to the show/ I think the scene’s gonna fall apart pretty soon/ heard a song that I liked on the radio

Finn is an absolute master of sketching characters in just a line or two. Here, he uses a sort of pointillistic approach to introduce us to two additional members of the scene, Angelo and Ivan. With just a few short verses we already understand a great deal about “the scene.” Here is what we can deduce:

i) All four members of the scene have very differently valenced loyalties. Put another way, they want different things from it. Vanessa is a purist; for her being part of the scene is like being part of an tribe, an army, and we take her to be a fierce protector of the in-group/ out-group aspects that tend to arise in subcultures. Angelo, it seems, is a little out there; he’s seeing snakes in the cigarette smoke and probably not all that interested in the ultimate nature or meaning of the scene. Ivan likes the t-shirts and jeans, likes the look. He’s not a purist either. And C, well he likes a little pop music, an inclination we assume is strictly verboten for folks like Vanessa.

ii) Probably because of the differences in ideas and ideologies between the scene members, C sees things coming to an end, both with the scene and between he and Vanessa. Here we are reminded of the difficulty of keeping any kind of group together, whether a scene, a band, or just a group of friends. Everyone knows the feeling of having a group of friends who tell each other they will be tight forever, however life doesn’t usually work that way. The best film about this dynamic is Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, which depicts a young group of friends in Manhattan who come together and then slowly, but inevitably, come apart over the course of a winter. There is a great moment in Metropolitan where the main character, Tom, looks around and realizes the scene is dead. Where did it go? It was here one day, gone the next. Scenes are like that, and this is what Finn is writing about.

iii) The inherent differences between people which make keeping the scene together are also something that Finn celebrates to a certain extent I think. One of the most salient features of Finn’s writing is his compassion. Finn has compassion for Angelo and his snakes, Ivan and his jeans, and for Vanessa, in all of her rigidity. As of the time of the song we know for sure that Vanessa is still in the scene and C is not. I guess that neither Angelo or Ivan is still around, however if only one of them is my money’s on Angelo, if he’s still alive.

Through the course of my own life, I have been involved, for a shorter or longer time, with a variety of subcultures. One category of subculture that I have frequented is what we could broadly call “new age.” My explorations of this category have been reasonably extensive. Back in my early 20s, I was involved for about 4-5 months with a Tibetan Buddhist group back in Washington State. I would get up at 4 AM, drive an hour across town to a beautiful old house on the hill, and meditate with the folks there. This group also organized some outings, such as mountain hiking.

I enjoyed the group and the meditation. The group leader, a slightly older woman who was lovely, asked me to pay like 6 dollars for a little book with chants in it, which I did. There was a total cross-section of people in the group of different ages and backgrounds, and all in all I liked it there. However, I peeled off from the group after a time for reasons very similar to those discussed by Finn. There were two specific things that led to me leaving. The second I’ll discuss a little later. The first was one day I was chatting with one of the members on the street outside after meditation. He was telling me how his daughter used to play chess, however he would no longer allow her to do so because it was interfering with her studies of Tibetan Buddhism. “There’s just not enough time,” he told me.

I had talked with this guy before and he was a perfectly nice guy, but I didn’t agree with his approach. I felt, in fact, that it was bad action. Now, I understood that people joined the group for different reasons and had different levels of investment. I was not looking to become a Tibetan Buddhist or anything—I was just “checking it out.” To circle back to Finn, the valence gap between this fellow’s take on the subculture and my own was vast, and his entire approach turned me off. This was the first step in my deciding to leave.

The next three verses of “It’s Never Been a Fair Fight” see C trying to keep the door open to Vanessa even as he edges out of the scene. He wants to meet her and if she agrees he will know that she like him feels that “punk is not a fair fight.” Finn doesn’t say, but I’m guessing Vanessa doesn’t show.

If things change quickly/ just remember I still love you/ and I’ll circle ’round the block tonight/ between 9 and 10 o’clock tonight

If you’re still standing here, I’ll take that as a sign/ that you agree it was a sucker punch/ punk is not a fair fight/ it’s never been a fair fight

We said there weren’t any rules/ but there were so many goddamn rules/ we said that they’d be cool/ but then there were so many goddamn rules

Verse VII is the hinge-point of the song and basically it’s thesis. Finn’s point is straightforward: the appeal of the scene was the potential for freedom, exploration, rebellion, however once inside the subculture C finds himself increasingly hemmed in by the strictures of that culture and the requirements necessary to remain within it. The very thing that drew C to the subculture (flight from an over-determined social reality) is that thing that ultimately drives him away. “It’s Never Been a Fair Fight,” appears in two versions on the 2021 record All These Perfect Crosses; the main version is horn driven and upbeat, and there is also an acoustic version. On the main version, Finn, realizing perhaps that the repeated line is a bit poetically unorthodox, spits out a laugh on the “then” in “but then there were so many goddamn rules,” and in the process underlines the centrality of the sentiment to the song as a whole. It’s a great verse, and one which tells us something fundamental about C’s nature: he likes the action, and as such needs to be free to pursue it wherever it may be. Action is not limited to the Minneapolis hardcore scene, after all.

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A run-in with Damon K. in a Kyoto Basement (a “Dis-Track”)

What follows is a true story.  Or, in the words of Damon K., formerly of Galaxie 500 and presently of Damon and Naomi, “here are the dirty facts.”

It was sometime in the first decade of the 21st century.  I was minding my own business in my fair adopted city of Kyoto.  You see, I live in North Kyoto and unless I have good reason, prefer to stay in orb of the north-central part of the city.  The south is for business, the east for the occasional mountain jaunt, and the west too wild and forbidding for a humble man such as myself.  Mostly, I just try to stay north of Shijo Dori (positively 4th street, so to speak).  That’s my zone.

As with any excellent locality, there is plenty to explore in North Kyoto.  One place that the locals know is Cafe Independants–a cafe with a small bar which from time to time hosts shows.  Cafe Independants is located in a basement with exposed white pipes and stone walls.  It’s hip if you’re into that kind of thing, certainly not trendy though.  And, it features a kick-ass pair of sneaky staircases that are worlds into themselves.  I have enjoyed those staircases many a time my own self.

I have had the pleasure of seeing the great Bill Callahan open for the immaculate harpist Joanna Newsom there when Ms. Newsom was just breaking through.  Callahan was the bigger name, and his generosity in opening for her was striking.  That was a great night.  I may have even smoked a rare cigarette.  I also saw my mate Darren Hannah play bass there with a bow.  That was something–and the dude executed a beauty of a bow toss at the end of the show.  A bow toss for a bassist is like a mic drop for an MC.  Show’s over folks.  So you see, I’d had some nights there.

The Cafe runs an open kitchen which serves right through gigs and back in the day also had a record shop open in the back.  It’s a small place, seating maybe 35 on a good day, and when a show is on people tend to pack around the big pole in the center and squeeze into communal tables.  Smoking is allowed.  The Cafe, at the best of times, is not a quiet place.  This is to be borne in mind with what followed.

So one evening I had secured tickets to see Damon and Naomi play.  Damon and Naomi were members of the late 80s/ early 90’s band Galaxie 500 with Dean Wareham.  The band didn’t really know what it was doing at first, like many a band before, and kind of stumbled into near-greatness before Wareham walked and started Luna, the world’s greatest band.  Wareham details the reasons behind the break-up in his memoir Black Postcards.  Poe is supposed to have said that any man who tells the simple truth of his life would write a masterpiece.  Wareham gets pretty close to following Poe’s dictum.

The ending of Galaxie 500 came about, according to Wareham, essentially because Wareham was tired of being treated like a child by the other two, a long-time couple.  I think he wanted his own band, and wanted to chill a little.  From Black Postcards:

Traveling is stressful.  And with Damon tour-managing, it seemed like every hotel check-in, every seat assignment, and every rental car was a problem.  Damon would argue about what floor his room was on.  He would get annoyed if he didn’t get the seat he wanted on the flight.  I shouldn’t have let this bother me.  I should have minded my own business.  But traveling together highlights your differences.

At one show in late 1990, a techie shone a spotlight on Dean as he stepped downstage for a solo.  This seems to have been the breaking point.  Black Postcards again:

Damon: “In retrospect I notice that Dean chose the L.A. show to launch this new trick, when the audience was full of music industry people.  We hadn’t had any spotlights in Columbus or Dallas!”

Dean in his contemporaneous tour diary: “Damon said he doesn’t like me walking in front of his drum kit–it throws him off.  I didn’t tell him to go f*** himself.”

Things were rough, and Dean split in 1991.  (Wareham quotes a Damon interview saying “Here are the dirty facts!  What happened was simply that Dean quit, more or less out of the blue, on the telephone one day.”  Ah oui, les sales faits.)  Galaxie 500 is still an interesting band and has a handful of great songs.  Then, Damon and Naomi formed their own group, named eponymously.  They are pretty good.  I like “This Car Climbed Mount Washington,” from More Sad Hits, and the whole record Playback Singers is strong.  Still, they are a far cry from Galaxie, much less Luna.

Nevertheless, I was excited to hear they were coming to little old North Kyoto in fact to play the Independants.  I showed up early with a friend and we had a few drinks, as you do.  There were 30 or 40 people there, as normal.  People were chatting, eating, smoking, and a local warm-up act started preparing on stage.  Actually, there is no stage at the Cafe, just floor space.  The show, from my point of view, HAD NOT STARTED.  Additionally, I WAS BEHIND THE POLE.  I wish at this time to stipulate this very clearly in light of what followed.  I also wish to stipulate that no-one is a bigger fan of the idea of the local warm up act than my good self.  Nobody.  By god, I remember seeing the Tenniscoats, a much beloved Japanese band that you won’t have heard of, open up in Kyoto for someone, Bonnie Prince Billy maybe, and saw the great Saya Ueno play in her barefeet.  I support the local art community with a whole heart.  And no blasted interloper will tell me otherwise.

Anyway, on the night in question I will admit I was talking to my buddy while the local artist was getting set up.  And yes, she may have said something into the microphone.  I don’t really know.  Because before I could do anything, here comes Damon K. bounding across the room, right in my face, and shushed me.  “Don’t speak when the ARTIST is talking,” he hissed.  Right…in…my…face.

Now, the human mind is a remarkable deal.  When Damon shushed me, two simulataneous and equally strong thoughts came into my head.  The first was, “wow, Damon from Galaxie 500 just shushed me.  Cool.”  The second was, “dude, f******** you!  This is my city you pompous SOB, the show HAS NOT STARTED, there is a room full of chattering people, and you are going to lecture me about the ARTIST.”

What did I do next, you will ask? Well, in my mind I like to think I produced a gesture equivalent to Dave Moss’s finger flips in Glengarry Glen Ross, the single best fuck you even put on screen. Or, I may have stared dumbly at the guy.  One or the other.

On the Velvet Underground’s Live at Max’s Kansas City, the future poet and songwriter Jim Carroll famously “ruins” the recording of “Sweet Jane” by asking for a double Pernod. You can find reference to this incident in works as scholarly as The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, published by Oxford Press: “‘Excuse me can I have a Pernod, get me a Pernod’. Poet and author Jim Carroll’s boorish demands for a bloody Pernod ruined (this) illegal cassette taping.” 

Well, let’s look at the (dirty) facts.  Carroll’s supposedly boorish demands are almost entirely heard between songs when the band is tuning.  He doesn’t know that the show is being taped. On Sweet Jane, for example, Reed finishes the song and then we hear Carroll:

“Oh yeah, I wrote it, but it’s pretty new, yeah.  Did you get the Pernod?  You had to get the, you had to go to the downstairs floor.”

Sure, he is a little lit.  Sure he is close to the mic.  But the song is over.  There is downtime.  The man is thirsty.  The recording is “illegal.”  Now I ask you, is this “ruining” the song?  Only if you are an honest to god prat.  Otherwise, this is called local color.  Guess what Damon, buddy?  I’m a local.  This is my city.  I’m colorful.  And I’ll take my bloody Pernod whenever I goddamn well feel like it.

Stylistic Note: The style of this piece is deeply indebted to Eric Ambler’s The Intercom Conspiracy.  Inspiration from this master of form is acknowledged, with deep gratitude.

On Kris Kristofferson’s “To Beat the Devil”

This piece takes a look at Kris Kristofferson’s “To Beat the Devil.” The song appears on Kristofferson’s self-titled debut album from 1970 on Monument, which is, by any standard, an astonishingly good record. The album features “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and “Just the Other Side of Nowhere,” along with the ol’ Devil. That’s four absolute classics right there for ya.

Sunday Morning features an opening quatrain that most other songwriters would trade their career for:

Well I woke up Sunday morning/ with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt/ and the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad/ so I had one more for dessert

(I could play this game all day—Jason Isbell’s Southeastern features another couple life-work worthy couplets:

The first two lines of “Super 8”:

Don’t wanna die in a super 8 motel/ just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well

And from “Different Days”:

Time went by and I left and I left again/ Jesus loves a sinner but the highway loves a sin.

If I’d written lines that great I’d call it a career and sip martinis on the house for the duration.)

Sunday Morning and Bobby are probably objectively better songs than To Beat the Devil, yet what I like about this one is that Kristofferson states very clearly a kind of founding intention for his life in song and art, right out of the gate. The only parallel I can think of is Craig Finn’s The Hold Steady, whose first album Almost Killed Me kicks off with “A Positive Jam.”

(Here’s Finn telling it like it is:

I got bored when I didn’t have a band/ so I started a band/ we’re gonna start it with a positive jam/ hold steady.

Rock on Craig baby.)

Anyway, let’s get to the focus of this piece. Kristofferson opens with a spoken intro.:

A couple of years back I come across a great and wasted friend of mine in the hallway of a recording studio. And while he was reciting some poetry to me that he had written, I saw that he was about a step away from dying, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. And the lines of this song occurred to me.

Here the singer is looking up at his idol who is both “great and wasted.” I wasn’t around quite yet in 1970, yet I can easily imagine Ginsberg’s “best minds” line hanging over talented folks across a lot of zones. Klosterman wasn’t quite there either (June 5, 1972–a mid Gemini of course), but he was close, and to indulge not for the last time in a little Klostermania, the zeitgeist seemed to be making people thirsty.

The singer receives some scraps of poetry, shards of shattered inspiration, and a song “occurs” to him. He doesn’t state it directly, however we imagine the song arrives fully formed, like “Pancho and Lefty,” or “Kubla Khan.” Thus, To Beat the Devil is also both an answer and an offer of redemption to his idol, who here is John(ny) Cash.

I’m happy to say he’s no longer wasted, and he’s got him a good woman. And I’d like to dedicate this to John and June, who helped showed me how to beat the devil.

The singer takes up the mantle of the master, and in so doing opens a possibility window onto redemption for his senior. This is no exaggeration—Cash also recorded To Beat the Devil in 1970 and we are basically stipulating that Kristofferson’s genius, descended from Cash while also original to himself, helped rescue Cash from addiction and the whole deal there. We won’t be deep diving into the archive on this one—as we said we’re just keeping it local and breaking it down, so you’ll have to take my word on it or search it up your own self.

Here’s the first verse; the words speak for themselves:

It was wintertime in Nashville/ down on Music City Row/ and I was looking for a place/ and to get myself out of the cold/ to warm the frozen feeling that was eating at my soul/ keep the chilly wind off my guitar

A classic down and out in the big city piece of scene-setting. The singer is physiologically and psychologically frozen, a cold wind gusts across his art. The man needs a break.

My thirsty wanted whiskey/ my hungry needed beans/ but it had been a month of paydays/ since I’d heard that eagle scream/ so with a stomach full of empty/ and a pocket full of dreams/ I left my pride and stepped inside a bar

You might think that the operative nouns here would be “thirst” and “hunger,” but no. This is not a man with a thirst; this is a thirsty man. We also hear an echo of a now-ancient American past where a man with an empty stomach would go in search of, of all things, “beans.”

Anyway, he’s got no money, can’t really bring himself to care. So, a singer walks into a bar.

Actually I’d guess you’d call it a tavern/ cigarette smoke to the ceiling
and sawdust on the floor/ friendly shadows/ I saw that there was just one old man sitting at the bar/ and in the mirror I could see him checking me and my guitar/ and he turned and said/ come up here, boy, and show us what you are/ I said I’m dry, and he bought me a beer

The man in the mirror, the devil himself. The singer comes face to face with the man who checks him out and summons him over. Kristofferson then enters into a bargain–offers up the terms of an encounter: a beer on the old man’s tab. Score one for the thirsty man. The singer faces the old man; it’s to be a showdown. He doesn’t have much, but he’s got some “friendly shadows,” traces of an older map perhaps, an older memory.

I can’t help here but engage in a bit of presumption. When I play the song in my head, I want to hear “in the mirror I saw him casing me and my guitar,” (listen to the way he pronounces “guitar” on the track. Kristofferson was born in Brownsville, Texas in ‘36 and behind the laid back folksinger you can here some roots here baby).

If I could make one edit to the song, it would be to replace “checking me,” with “casing me.” What a great verb “to case” is.

Lexical Interlude: “To case the joint”

1. slang To observe a place in order to familiarize oneself with its workings in preparation for some criminal activity (often robbery). Judging from the security footage, those men cased the joint hours before robbing it.

2. slang By extension, to thoroughly examine a place. In this usage, no devious motive is implied. As soon as my kids walking into the hotel room, they started casing the joint, exclaiming about everything from the TV to the mini-fridge.

The seminal use of this verb phrase comes from Bill Callahan, formerly of Smog. Callahan is an odd duck—he is so artificial, so obviously self-created as an entertainer, that he has become almost post-authentic.  Callahan contains multitudes.

My favorite Smog album, well in the top two, is Red Apple Falls, which features “Ex-Con,” on which Callahan sings: 

Jean jacket and tie/ feel like such a lie/ when I go to your house/ I feel like I’m/ casing the joint

Devious motive implied.


He nodded at my guitar and said/ it’s a tough life, ain’t it?/ I just looked at him/ he said “you ain’t making any money, are you?/ I said, you been reading my mail/ he just smiled and said, let me see that guitar/ I got something you ought to hear/ and then he laid it on me

The devil has a bead on the singer, and he’s not far off.  Yes he’s broke.  Yes he’s down and out.  Whaddaya want?


Filmic Interlude I: The Long Goodbye

In Robert Altman The Long Goodbye, written by Leigh Brackett, the main character Philip Marlowe gets out of jail somewhere in the first act and heads to a all-purpose pit stop restaurant who’s owner apparently collects Marlowe’s mail. The dialogue is exquisite.

Marlowe: You got any messages for me?

Owner: Believe we’ve got a few over there. As a matter of fact, you’ll find my phone bill in there too.

Marlowe: I wouldn’t worry about that.

When you ain’t got nothing you got nothing to lose. Kristofferson’s got nothing to hide in his mail. Those bills go straight to the wastebasket.


If you waste your time a talkin’ / to the people who don’t listen/ to the things that you are saying/ who do you thinks gonna hear?/ and if you should die explaining how/ the things that they complain about/ are things they could be changing/ who do you thinks gonna care?

there were other lonely singers/ in a world turned deaf and blind/ who were crucified for what they tried to show/ and their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time/ ‘cause the truth remains that no one wants to know

The devil’s words speak for themselves. The path of the troubadour is a dead end. The world has not ears to hear nor eyes to see. Truth tellers meet a bad end. Whiners gonna whine. It’s a strong opening bet, made, we presume, with his red right hand.

Well the old man was a stranger/ but I’d heard his song before/ back when failure had me locked out/ on the wrong side of the door/ when no one stood behind me/ but my shadow on the floor/ and lonesome was more than a state of mind

The singer is on familiar territory; he’s has been tempted by this cynical incantation, he’s not immune to tuning out his calling when out in the cold. Who is?

You see, the devil haunts a hungry man/ if you don’t want to join him/ you gotta beat him/ I ain’t saying I beat the devil/ but I drank his beer for nothing/ then I stole his song

This is the key verse in our little tale. You see, when we tango with the devil the devil usually gets to lead. That’s just the way it goes. But the thing about the devil is, his game is a bit of a bluff. A couple of low pairs, maybe. You just gotta call.

and you still can hear me singing/ to the people who don’t listen/ to the things that I am saying/ praying someone’s gonna hear/ and I guess I’ll die explaining how/ the things that they complain about/ are things they could be changing/ hoping someone’s gonna care

I was born a lonely singer/ and I’m bound to die the same/ but I’ve gotta feed the hunger in my soul/ and if I never have a nickel/ I won’t ever die ashamed/ ‘cause I don’t believe that no one wants to know

Kristoffeson flips it right around. The devil’s got a point; the singer may die dead broke, that’s fine. Songs are borne on the wind in any case. The thing is to have faith in your audience. To believe someone is out there, heart in their hands and ear to the wind. And to hold this faith as a mantra. That’ll keep ‘em guessing, cause then you’re not playing their game, you’re playing your own.

Overall, To Beat the Devil is a young man’s song. It’s got a confidence, a swagger, even a hubris. So, after drafting most of this piece I wanted to find a recent live version, see how it’s aged. I stumbled on a version from a live set with Lou Reed released in 2017. The set is part of The Bottom Line Archive, and it finds Kristofferson in a Waitsian stage of life. The voice is richer than ever, but he’s not exactly singing. Then again, that’s what they said about Dylan and it’s B.S. The voice is the voice; singing is just a category.

The set is interspersed with short interviews of the two songwriters. Here is Kristofferson’s spoken introduction that precedes To Beat the Devil. It is instructive.

Interviewer: The devil figures in some of your songs, you know there’s that silver tongued devil and he pops up from time to time. Who’s the devil? What’s the devil for you? What are your demons?

K.K.: Well, I, I’ll do that song then. Ahhh…

Interviewer: Is that a metaphor or is that something real for you?

K.K.: Well here’s a song called To Beat the Devil. Maybe it’ll explain it. I can’t.