Sunday, February 4, 2007

Dust Off Those Grooves (Chapter Eight)

It would be interesting to take a poll of music lovers and critics and ask the question, 'What was the high water mark lyrically on an album in the rock era?'
There have been a lot of best of lists but I don't recall ever seeing that and yet what specific album would most music lovers point to as being the lyrically, the greatest? Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, how about Tom Waits Blue Valentine? Paul Simon's first album, what about Lou Reed's New York? Wouldn't want to leave the ladies out, Patti Smith's Horses anyone, Rickie Lee Jones Pirates? Springsteen, Townes Van Zant, don't forget Paul Westerberg. Tough question and I don't have the answer but the first one that comes to my mind and the one I would nominate is Under The Big Black Sun by X.
John Doe and Exene's Cervenka's lyrical masterpiece chronically the struggles of a working-class couple going through loss, a broken marriage, alcoholism and boredom is to my eyes and ears one of the great literary achievements in rock history. As good as any novel and the fact that the words are on top of one of the great rock bands in their prime only sweetens the deal.
Under The Big Black Sun should have been a disappointment, and God knows everyone was expecting one. It was the first major label album by X who had just signed with Elektra from the indie label Slash. Major label debuts are notorious for presenting watered down versions of once great acts. Even a great album like The Replacement's Tim suffers from a bit too much production, and the battle between the indie and corporate idea of what constitutes a great album continues to this day.
X were never a typical band though and with Under The Big Black Sun they delivered their finest work. It's a work that synthesises their harder earlier punk origins with their interest in more classic American traditions like country and folk. Americana 15 years before everyone was throwing that word around, it was called Cow-punk at the time and groups like X and Lone Justice would pioneer the sound that a future generation would reap the benefits of. Much like the country-rock sound Rick Nelson, Michael Nesmith and Graham Parson's would revolutinalize in the late 60s. It was a new spin to something very old.
Under The Big Black Sun would, like their first three albums, be produced by former Doors mastermind Ray Manzarek and I'm not totally sure if he has ever gotten enough credit for these recordings. First of all the idea that a musician so associated with L.A. rock from the sixties producing a young punk band in the eighties was incredible, but Ray managed, like John Cale with The Stooges and Patti Smith, to produce X with just enough control. He never compromised their sound, but he roped it in just enough to allow its inherit subtleties to come out. Ray Manzaerk is an uncredited hero to the 2nd wave American punk movement.
X's third album kicks off with the thunderous The Hungry Wolf, and we are immediately presented with something much more complex than the average rock lyric. Recalling Exene's native American ancestory we are presented with a, 'hungry wolf' running 'endlessly with my mate'. The song, ending with the haunting refrain of 'I Roam' is dedicated to The Santee Sioux Indians and JL 'Funny Papers' Smith.
The album continues chronicling the couple's doomed relationship with Motel Room In My Bed, it's lead character going to sleep, "Soggy and forgetful, hopefully not waking up so fitfully". Exene have John have an incredible way of presenting a concrete situation, like alcoholism, in such a subtle way. The music might be in your face but the words rarely are, these are clearly two authentic poets who happen to be part of one of the great American rock bands.
The single Riding With Mary continues and it's one of X's greatest songs and gives us the first clues that Exene is going through much more than just a disintegrating relationship with John. Her beloved sister had been killed just prior to recording this, she would remember her so tenderly in the film The Unheard Music just a year after this album, and it's that death that is sparking many of Exene's most poignant lines. The song, detailing an adulterous affair, ends with this image, "on the dashboard rides a figurine. A powerless, sweet forgotten thing, so the next time you see a statue of Mary, remember my sister was in a car".
Exene's Come Back To Me follows and is dedicated to her sister Mary. If anyone has ever written a more heartbreaking and real description of a funeral and dealing with death I have never heard it. Lines like, "Flies and relations make an annoying sound" and "I built a shrine for you on the kitchen wall with flowers and Florida souvenirs. You were walking through the house last night, I knew it was you from the space in your steps" are so perfectly rendered and detailed. Notice how they aren't just souvenirs, but Florida souvenirs, and it's not just her steps but the space in between them. Anyone who has ever questioned how good rock lyrics can be should listen to this song.
Typically an album will have a very specific break between side A and B. Different sounds or themes will be approached but here X again shows that they were never typical as Under The Big Black Sun and Because I Do both share an alcoholic haze of confusion and regret. The last lign on side one, "Mary's dead, Good morning Midnight" lends intself perfectly to the opening, "I am a black and white ghost in a black and invisible dress", of side 2.
Throughout the album, even though they are exceptional, the lyrics never over shadow the music. This is, after all, a rock record and it's a great one. Bonebrake and Doe were really coming into their own as a rhythm section. Bonebrake is a huge jazz, and specifically Lionel Hampton, fan and his drumming is uncommonly controlled for a punk group. It is also savage and loud, just tribal enough for Hungry Wolf and tender enough for Please Come Back To Me, exceptional work. Billy Zoom was astonishing in all of his work with X, early Rockabilly was and is his biggest influence and he continually gives the band some of the most incendiary fret work imaginable. He makes it seem effortless also, you never feel like he is pushing it or trying to impress. His riffs are deceptively simple and always powerful.
The album's themes of adultery and loss continue with Blue Spark and the only cover on the album, Dancing With Tears In My Eyes. The Leadbelly quote on the inner sleeve is particularly chilling, ending with a thought that will resonate with any music lover filled with something dark, "that's to show how music can bring you back.....if you ain't too far gone".
The album closes with three of X's most legendary songs. Three songs that would take the band to a spiritual place that few have ventured to. These are that Darkness on The Edge of Town that Springsteen sang of and that Badlands that Malick filmed.
First up is Real Child Of Hell, an exhausting rehearsal was filmed for The Unheard Music, and its idea of possession being the cause of a relationship breaking down is an astonishing one for rock. The real child of hell that the song presents is not only inside John Doe and Exene Cervenka but ultimately the fan wanting Exene's dress and much more. It's an indictment not only of themselves but the people they are confessing to, and if you haven't figured it out by now Under The Big Black Sun is a confession.
The ferocious two minute How I Learned My Lesson is what lyric sheets were made for with lines like, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so I never want to see you again", becoming a blur underneath the incredibly fast and frantic music.
The album ends with the finest song John Doe and Exene Cervenka ever wrote, and musically the finest song X ever performed. I don't say that lightly either, The Have Nots is one of the great songs in American music and I would hold it up against anything that Guthrie, Dylan, Springsteen or Reed ever wrote. Our sage ends with the couple separated and they are both at bars, just after work, drinking themselves into a much needed oblivion. It's a sympathetic chronicle and indictment of the American dream gone wrong, The Replacements would later cover similar ground in Here Comes A Regular as well as Th Manic Street Preachers in the astonishing Design For Life. It's a subject many authors and filmmakers have covered but it's not something you see in Rock music a lot. Correlating the life of a rock band with a dead end job with "the game that moves as you play" is one of X's most chilling moments. It's fitting that the original lyric sheet goes on longer than the song with a listing of bars to visit, hide and ultimately fade away completely in.
Under The Big Black Sun was awarded five stars by Rolling Stone and was near the top of nearly every critics poll in 1982. It was a defining moment for X and one which they would never top. They would record one more album with Manzarek, the brilliantly scattered More Fun In The New World. The remainder of their catalogue all suffers from over-production but still feature some of the most sublimely brilliant American music ever recorded. They would never scale the despairing heights of Under The Big Black Sun again but would provide a lovely sequel of sorts in 1987's See How We Are, in which the by now divorced John Doe and Exene Cervenka would lament, "the bars we keep between us".
25 years later Under The Big Black Sun is still relevant, still without peer and I'm pleased to report still available. Rhino had a wonderful re-release of it out, remastered with bonus tracks and in depth notes. Even though that will never sound as good as much worn and loved vinyl copy, I urge anyone who might be reading to get this currently available cd. It might make you re-think those best of lists that are released each year, it might make you remember a lost love or at the very least it will remind you that we all have something inside that needs exorcising.....if we're not too far gone.


Timothy said...

This review is pure brilliance... you really hit the nail on the head. This has been one of my favorite albums of all time, and it's had a huge effect on me over the years.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Timothy,
I feel the same way about it and appreciate the comments.