THE GREAT CURVE 002
curated by Todd Berryman
One of the things I have written about elsewhere regards albums that have been fairly inspirational when I’ve been working on major projects, something that started in my college days. If there was a major term paper due, some attempt in a journalism class at redesigning a magazine layout, or some other (usually collaborative) thing, that’s when Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew or Lou Reed’s New York would come out. Post-college, it’s when I’m nestled in updating my iTunes info, like cover art or composer credits, or reorganizing albums, or writing blogs for work…anything, really.
As time has wound on since college, other albums have come into play as being very useful for this purpose. Many other Miles Davis things from his seventies space music period work nicely, especially the box set The Cellar Door Sessions, covering a 1970 residency at that venue. I think part of it lies somewhere between albums that don’t require a lot of focus, but they’re great albums you can also engage with, at any time that you’re ready. Which is to say that they’re rewarding, when you decide you want to consume them directly; it’s like you want to throw your skills up against what any of these musicians have done and see if you can hold your own. My A+ work has invariably come from these albums playing somewhere in the vicinity of my work space. 🙂
I wish, really wish, that I could give you some more explicit criteria that helps me decide whether an album fits this use, but I can’t. It’s total “smell.” I’ll put something on and think, this, right here, and it’ll go into the list. Miles’ stuff has seemed to suggest it more than anything else, but Lou Reed’s New York is one of the outliers…I think it’s the intent that it should be consumed in one sitting, like a novel, as Lou put it, and so what better way to go for focused unfocused listening than to pop it on when I’m in the middle of some intense creative endeavor?
Today’s edition of The Great Curve is the other outlier, and it’s really not an easy one to find at present. It’s a property owned by a major record label, and yet, as of late 2016, you still can’t find it for download, and can only really find CD reissues outside the US, a sad comment on the modern era’s frequent lack of desire for preservation, or dissemination of sterling work.
The name may not ring bells, but it’s one of those cases where you probably know the guy’s work. A singer-songwriter associated with the same people in the scene that spawned Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, he’s best-known for the practically-a-standard “Mr. Bojangles” (brought to fame by the young Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), one of those songs that goes into the language, like “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “Come On-a My House” – a hard feat indeed.
A New Yorker, Walker was involved with a band called Circus Maximus in the late 1960s, trying a fusion of psychedelic folk and other strains that the audience…basically wasn’t ready for. By summer 1968, the band had scattered to the winds, with its members finding various levels of success (in bassist Gary White placing the song “Long, Long Time” with Linda Ronstadt). Transplanting to the Austin, Texas scene a few years later, after going solo and getting “Mr. Bojangles” into the right hands, Walker became something of an early forerunner of the outlaw country scene that eventually gave us the “second acts” of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
Them’s the facts. How this album fell into my lap is more of a mystery.
In the mid-2000s, I was living not far from Bloomington, Indiana. One hazy summer Saturday morning, a now-former girlfriend returned from work as a newspaper carrier, and told me that there was a yard sale going on near her route, and that they were selling vinyl records for 50 cents a throw, and did I want to return with her to check it out? I checked my wallet – I had maybe 40 dollars in there – and said sure.
Now, I didn’t feel terribly compelled to go into town and hit a bank machine for more, because I’ve had a fair amount of experience with the “records for sale” thing before. Invariably, I’d end up at a yard sale, and it would amount to a couple of weather-beaten Motown albums, and a few things from the 101 Strings Orchestra in perfect shape, because they never got played…or when I’ve had people drop off a box of albums in the past, I might find some good things, but it’s usually full of stuff that I’ve had already, or is easily accessible, because the same albums have turned up again and again. I have set aside copies of Frampton Comes Alive or Tusk or Deja Vu many times over. (This is not a knock on those albums, all I mean is that they’ve come up again and again in different contexts, and you can only reasonably own so many copies of them.) So, I went into this thinking that there was NO WAY I was going to buy 80 records, so why worry?
We ended up driving into the middle of nowhere, past multiple signs that said “YARD SALE, SATURDAY AND SUNDAY” and the hours. Finally finding the right driveway and pulling in, I noticed that unlike many in-town yard sales, there weren’t people parked all over the place. It was maybe us, and another car, in front of the garage. I walked in, and the slightly musty smell of the garage and humidity, and older cardboard overwhelmed me. I felt my allergies start to kick up, eyes watering, sniffles. (It was summer, after all.)
I pushed through, because what I saw were crates and crates of vinyl, in addition to all the other yard sale stuff. Kneeling down, I flipped through a few, and was actually astonished, for once, as it was a whole trove of things I’d wanted but could never find on vinyl in CD-maddened times. There was a fairly comprehensive collection of original pressings of Paul McCartney and Wings albums. A Moody Blues one that I hadn’t spent much time with. A selection of Warner Brothers Loss Leaders, the two-record sets they used to advertise for two dollars a throw on the sleeves inside Best of the Doobies and disco albums in the 70s, albums I could never quite talk Mom into letting me order (I think that, for her, it was the equivalent of seeing those ads for sea monkeys or X-ray glasses on the back of comic books…in other words, a scam, and not to be trusted).
And, sitting in one crate, there was Jerry Jeff Walker. Having known his significance in that Austin scene, and a few other songs, plus a Rykodisc reissue of Driftin’ Way of Life, I flipped it over to look at the back cover.
He’d taken some pains to clue the potential listener in to the content of the songs, including a reference to a film for which Vince Guaraldi had done an album based on songs from the film soundtrack, and I thought, this guy knows good movies, and jazz, for that matter. I clued in fairly quickly, looking at the bottom of the cover, that this was a reprint of an album that had been released on Decca Records not long before…this was when the label was bought by MCA, around the same time that Who’s Next got reprinted, and various Rick Nelson things. At this point, reading the back cover notes, I thought, this may actually be an interesting listen. So I pulled the vinyl out of the jacket and gave it the eyeball.
The first thing I noticed was the Guy Clark songwriting credit on Side 1. I flipped the album over…
Now, this album was definitely far from mint condition. Somebody had played this album a lot. Maybe not to death, but it was evident from the grooves themselves that someone enjoyed both sides of this album immensely, for a good long time. I also noted that this album was, for the era, insanely long. Roughly 46 minutes, 23 a side, was considered the outer limit for what you could reasonably put onto a record and still have pretty decent fidelity. Over that limit, and you’d have to start cutting the volume level to accommodate all the music, or narrow the equalization so that there’d be less treble and bass, often both. These are a couple of the ways K-tel used to put so much music on their various collections (the other was editing parts out of the hit songs, whether excising an intro, fading out early, dropping a chorus and the like), but I hadn’t really seen an original-issue album from an artist rack up a 55-odd minute running time before. At this point, I had a feeling this might sound like a lot of surface noise with just a hint of music, and almost set it down…but something about this album felt RIGHT in my hands.
I opened up the gatefold.
I found the liner notes, written by Walker himself, quite beguiling in their way, especially these two sentences, early on: “Ramblin’ around this country I meet and play music with people everywhere I go. That travelin’ and that music should be this ‘Record’ (like a journal or a log book).” Something about the second sentence in particular caught in my brain, since I’d been journaling in earnest for a half-dozen years by that point. I thought, you know what? 50 cents. Even if the album’s unplayable, it’s worth it just to have these liner notes around somewhere as a point of reference. Buy the damned album.
I tottered out of that yard sale, with, yes, 80 albums in tow in the back seat, including Jerry Jeff Walker. There was some tricky picking and choosing as to what to grab, and what not, but I figured that I’d grab the big and important things at that moment, and that I’d hit the bank machine tomorrow and come back for everything else that caught my interest, which was a LOT.
Noon the next day, got some more cash, hoping that some of the lesser titles that I hadn’t gotten already might still be around, and not picked through. I hit the highway…and looked for the signs…which…weren’t…showing…up…anywhere that I remembered them. Drove around for an hour trying to find the yard sale, up and down county roads, and nothing.
The reality was probably very simple, in that they’d sold everything on Saturday and had no reason to do another day. What it felt like at that moment in time, though, on that now bleak Sunday morning, was that the house and sale had sprung up out of nowhere, like Brigadoon, not to return for another 100 years. I consoled myself with the knowledge that I had grabbed a lot of good stuff already, 80 albums’ worth, some known well by me, others not so much, and I’d be kept busy exploring a couple of crates of music.
Over the following weeks, I went through the stacks, one album at a time. The McCartney stuff sounded better in those original pressings than I’d ever heard them before, having heard most of it in the CD and cassette eras. As for those Warner Brothers Loss Leaders, the first thing I dropped on the turntable, they were the most amazing mixtapes-as-vinyl I’d ever heard. I didn’t necessarily care for all the individual songs, but in that context, the flow was amazing to witness.
Eventually, Jerry Jeff Walker came out of its jacket, and got its fair turn. It sounded as I suspected it might: someone had loved this album dearly for a few years, and gotten great pleasure from it. Full of clicks and pops due to the low program level, yes, and a couple of skips…but it was, indeed, a journal. Songs about guitars that he’d owned, guys who made boots that he had much respect for, old loves resurfacing, times spent in jail, a lot of experience distilled in that hour’s worth of tunes. It held up almost like a concept album, the concept being something as simple as “this is what this person was doing in his life at that exact moment in his personal history.” He had, according to the liner notes, come up with at least two records of material, in two different recording locations, one of which was a former laundromat. The music, and the way it came together, practically live-to-tape…it felt like THIS was how you made an album, to me, the audio equivalent of cinéma vérité. (In that regard, it feels like a cousin to The Band, another album made under peculiar circumstances, although in the case of The Band, it was done in a common room, a pool house rented from Sammy Davis Jr. and reconfigured for recording.)
After the first listen to Jerry Jeff Walker, which felt like home to my ears, I dubbed it to cassette and MiniDisc quickly, so I could save some wear and tear, and thought I’d eventually upgrade it to compact disc. But…that last part wasn’t so easy to do, as it ended up. It took a few years for a label in another country to finally reissue the thing, although a couple of its songs ended up on an occasional Walker anthology here and there. By the time the whole album was put out overseas, though, I’d found comfort in those vinyl dubs, and had by that point transferred the entirety it to digital myself, so I could have it on an iPod. (That also gave me the chance to clean up a few of the more obnoxious pops, and boost the level.)
The clicks and pops of that copy of the album had insinuated themselves into my consciousness, to the point that they were part of the matrix of my enjoyment, and I had to willfully listen to make out what he was singing about, but that’s what gave it character. I thought of Sue Snell in Stephen King’s novel Carrie, sitting at home on prom night, and the author’s description of her knitting, and listening to Jefferson Airplane’s Long John Silver album, one that had been played so much that it was badly worn, but still soothing. That was how it resonated, comforting sound, surrounded outside this crackly hearth by occasional real-life madness, a calming-if-noisy oasis. I no longer really desired to hear it cleaned up so much anymore…the surface noise was embedded in the experience for me.
It took the next album, ¡Viva Terlingua!, for the rest of the world to catch on to Walker’s charms, with songs like his performance of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” and Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train” as standout moments. In fact, the album took the cinéma vérité approach even further, at the Luckenbach (Texas) Dancehall, so live-sounding and in its moment that you can hear the sound of crickets during the album. This album was the one that identified him with the “Gonzo country” style, and it still gets respect and acknowledgement even now…but those moves found their first full flowering on Jerry Jeff Walker.
In some ways, I can’t really describe this self-titled album, and I’m not really sure that I even want to, at least not directly, in terms of the music, other than to say that it’s that point where folk and the jazzy lilt and melodicism find themselves braiding together with storytelling and eastern philosophy, like an early taste of something that Lyle Lovett found a way to make more marketable. It’s an outsized collection of songs – my thinking is that Jerry Jeff knew he was never going to talk his record label into releasing everything from the sessions, or may have tried and failed, so rather than try to do a two-record set, he tried to put as much good stuff as he could into that limited space, hence the stuffed-to-the-gills running time – that captures the bull’s-eye point where outlaw country was beginning to make itself known, an early moment that showed a lot of people how it could be done. These weren’t songs about tractors, or mother and apple pie, or cheatin’, or panders to patriotism…they were songs that blew open the notion of what country could be, and kicked open the borders to that territory.
Finding the stuff from this album, as I mentioned earlier, is a bit tricky, but you can get a taste or two here…and it may be worth your time to chase down the whole thing. Here’s the opener. Clap your hands and dance. 🙂
The second song on Side 1, the one about the bootmaker I mentioned in the essay proper. This is the right version, by the way, just from a different collection.
Side 1, third song. I had a HELLISH time trying to get this transferred in various formats, as the instrumental section of this song would not stop skipping. Patience in this work, friends, is a virtue.
The penultimate song on the album, which references the movie Black Orpheus in the notes.
Probably Vince Guaraldi’s best known song from his album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus. It was later covered in a hit version by Sounds Orchestral.
Bassist Stuart Hamm’s live bass solo performance, referencing another very well known Guaraldi composition. (The relevant part starts at 1:56 in the attached clip.)