Down at Texas Rose Café with CB and Townes Van Zandt

Michael Ochs Archives_Getty Images

Regular readers of longitudes know that I feature periodic musical interludes. I’m particularly enamored of 1960s rock music. I’ve hosted more than a few 50th anniversary specials in the last seven years.

For this interlude, I’m doing something a little different. I’m soliciting the help of a blogging friend, Cincinnati Babyhead (CB), to discuss an artist who is more associated with the Seventies: Townes Van Zandt. CB has been listening to Townes longer than me.

Like a lot of musicians I profile, Townes was all but ignored on commercial radio, and he never sold many records. But he’s cherished by a small cadre of fans for his purity and musical integrity. He died on New Year’s Day, 1997 at age 52.

CB and I hopped a coupla freights, he from Vancouver and me from Ohio. We converged in Archer City, Texas at the Texas Rose Café, located just under the water tower near the railroad tracks. Archer City ain’t much of a town. It’s on flat, dusty prairie in the middle of drilling rig country. It has a permanent Sunday morning hangover. It’s the kind of place where raggedy divorcees with dark pits under their eyes conduct discreet affairs with high-school football players.

I checked in at the Motel 7 at the edge of town. Juanita, the housekeeper on the day of my arrival, thought it would be real funny to short-sheet the bed in room 202, and her prank gave me fitful dreams all night. But I felt better next day after meeting CB at the TRC for Happy Hour. Appropriately, the TRC jukebox was chock full of Townes songs, mixed with lotsa Hank Senior. We ordered a round of Lone Star beers from Lowell, our portly bartender. Lowell wasn’t too busy, so he occasionally leaned in on our conversation while offering nods of approval.

Without further ado, here’s our beer summit (with thanks to Vinyl Daft Dad for the barfly idea):

lone star

longitudes: CB, we’re both on record as enjoying the music of Townes Van Zandt. When did you start listening to him, and why is he special?

CB: Man, that’s a hard one. I guess like a Texas wind he just blew into my life way back when. It seems that he’s been with me forever. Special? Just listen to him. If it hits you like it did me, you’re done. He stirs emotions, images, thoughts, memories, inspiration. He just has a no-bullshit feel about him. Probably for some of the same reasons you like his music.

longitudes: I think so. With Townes, you get no smoke and mirrors, it’s all about the song. He’s one of those legendary cultish writer-musicians like Gram Parsons or Fred Neil that other musicians often namedrop. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, even Zimmy have covered his songs.

CB: I remember when Merle and Willie cut “Pancho and Lefty.” I thought that was so cool. Plus it put some cash in Townes’s pocket. Emmylou has always had an ear for a good song and a special talent. She seemed to see past the rough exterior of people like Townes, Gram, The Band, and see and hear the beauty in the music. I guess she was moved just like you and me.

longitudes: She does have a sharp ear. Like so many of the greats, Townes had a substance problem and died young. For a while in the 1970s he lived in a shack without plumbing or electricity!

CB: Yeah, the old addiction thing. Who knows the demons he was dealing with? Too bad. I felt for the guy. Watched a doc on his life and shed a few tears.

longitudes: That might have been Be Here to Love Me from 2004. I first heard about him when Miss Emmylou raved about him in some old TV doc. Do you have a favorite album?old quarter

CB: That’s another hard one. You really can’t lose with any of them. When I think of Townes I always think of the wealth of songs he had. The one that always comes to mind is “Tecumseh Valley.” I get taken into that story every time and I’ve heard it more times than I can remember.

longitudes: I find his music hard to pigeonhole, which might be part of his appeal. He’s been called “outlaw country,” but I’m not sure that’s accurate, since his songs seem deeper, more literate, closer to folk. Maybe he lives on the county line between outlaw folk-country and singer-songwriter?

CB: I like your “hard to pigeonhole” thought. Labels mean so many things to different people. Townes is so much more than all those labels. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could ask him? Probably give you a different answer every time.

longitudes: Ha! He did have a crafty sense of humor. But he’s also good bummer music. Sorta white boys’ blues. Great to listen to when you’re a little down and out. Kind of a stripped-down Jackson Browne turned Texas troubadour.

CB: Oh yeah, I mean, how can you beat a song like “Waiting Around to Die.” How many times did you hear that on the radio? I would guess never.

longitudes: CB, what do you say we ratchet up the beverages a little? These Lone Stars are cold, but kinda weak. Wonder if Canadian brews are legal here in Texas. Lowell??

CB: It’s a known fact that beer gets weaker the farther you get from the Frozen North. Lowell keeps the good stuff in his secret fridge in the back. Crack us a couple Mooseheads, fella.

longitudes: You earlier mentioned “Pancho and Lefty.” That might be his best-known song: Livin’ on the road, my friend / Was gonna keep you free and clean / Now you wear your skin like iron / Your breath’s as hard as kerosene. That’s great writing. You wear your skin. And the iron and kerosene similes. The road is not for sissies, CB.

CB: Those lyrics are such a good example of his words and what they conjure up for you and me and anyone else who takes the time to listen. That “breath as hard as kerosene,” he knows that stuff. Him and Guy Clark came up to play in my area, which is about as far away from Texas as you can get. Townes couldn’t get past the border, so Guy played the show solo with a shit-eating grin on his face. Probably thinking about another fucked-up road story. It was a great show. Guy played a couple of his buddy’s tunes.townes 3

longitudes: I discovered Guy Clark, another songwriter’s songwriter, from his connection with Townes. Another Townes song I love is the bittersweet “To Live is to Fly,” which is on his gravestone. The title alone makes me shiver. “No Place to Fall,” just a simple love song, but like to make you cry. Also, “If I Needed You,” which came to him in a dream. Not your typical love song. He shifts the pronouns around. He also mentions “Loop and Lil,” who were pet parakeets…how’d he get away with that?!

CB: You keep throwing those songs at me, I just might have to go on another Van Zandt binge. He gets away with it, Pete, because they are beautiful songs sung with truth.

longitudes: “Beautiful songs sung with truth” sums it up. He comes off as just a regular fellow who can play a little, sing a little. But there’s a lot of talent underneath that casual exterior.

CB: His live recordings are sprinkled with it. I can imagine him sitting with us right here in this bar singing a little, drinking a little, laughing a lot and pretty much not wanting to be anywhere else. Just like me. I might not be going home tonight.

longitudes: Well, if you need to stay another night, Juanita at Motel 7 makes a fine bed. Anyway, if you could only choose one word to describe Townes and his music, what would it be?

CB: I could throw out a truckload, but because you are only giving me one word, it has to be special. Just like you and me, Pete. Special. Plus that word has come up a few times since we sat down.

longitudes: Great word, my friend. I’ll choose pure. Townes Van Zandt had a special kind of purity.

Well, muchas gracias, muchacho, for meeting me in the Texas Rose Café. I think ole Townes would be pleased to know of our rendezvous. (Thanks, Lowell, I’ll eat it here.) Townes, here’s to you!

(Sound of clinking glasses).

 

(Header photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Dusky Songbird: A Tribute to Maggie Roche

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Maggie Roche died last year. I only recently learned this sad news.  (Blame our relentless media avalanche, or my own hibernation inclinations). She and the music of The Roches have been continually rolling across my mind lately. If any artist deserves a profile on longitudes, Maggie Roche does.

For those who don’t know them, the Roches were an Irish-American trio of sisters, most popular in the late 1970s and ‘80s, famous for their intricate folk harmonies and quirky lyrics (and clothes). The Roches are treasured by a small cult of passionate, and distinctly older, fans. In other words, their music was far too clever and sophisticated to ever get past the left end of the FM dial.

I love all three sisters, who each contributed something special. But Maggie… the eldest and linchpin of the trio… was my favorite. Her songs were intriguing, with one foot in sunlight and the other in partial shadow. She had a touch of dusky Irish mystery, and I loved her strange alto/contralto vocals, aptly described by one writer as a young girl trying to imitate the voice of her father.

Here’s my paltry, belated tribute to this amazingly talented and very introverted artist.

♫ ♫ ♫

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Suzzy, Terre, Maggie Roche

Margaret A. Roche was born October 26, 1951 in Detroit, Michigan, and raised in the leafy, conservative burg of Park Ridge, New Jersey to artistically inclined parents John (Jack) and Jude Roche. She first sang in Roman Catholic church choirs, sometimes with her two younger sisters, Terre (pronounced “Terry”) and Suzzy (rhymes with “fuzzy”). She started writing songs in 1964, after receiving a guitar for her birthday.

As they got older, the Roches supplemented their choir singing with annual Christmas caroling, sometimes venturing across the Hudson River to Greenwich Village. At their father’s prompting, they crisscrossed New Jersey to sing from the backs of trucks in support of Democratic candidates (their first large public appearance may have been in 1978, at a rally for Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, where they were introduced by comedian Chevy Chase).

Maggie briefly attended tiny Bard College in the Hudson Valley (I think it was just after Chase and Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen), but she dropped out to form a duo with Terre. In 1972, after a songwriting class at NYU with Paul Simon, they assisted on one song on Simon’s album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973). This led to an album with Columbia, Seductive Reasoning (1975). Few people know about this album, and even less bought it when released. But it contains early stirrings of genius by Maggie. Her closing song, “Jill of All Trades,” fits snugly alongside the best, then-in-vogue confessionals of singers like Laura Nyro, Carly Simon, and Judee Sill.

Irene Young

“All of you will buy a ticket, just to see my face again” (photo Irene Young)

Supposedly, Columbia hoped the duo would provide some sex appeal for its label. Instead, reflecting Maggie’s inclination toward modesty, Maggie and Terre deliberately dressed plain for the sleeve photo, with no makeup or jewelry.

Youngest sister Suzzy made it a trio in 1976. The threesome soon developed a following at Gerde’s Folk City in the Village, where, fifteen years earlier, Bob Dylan had made a splash.

Like the Everly Brothers, Bee Gees, and countless bluegrass bands, the Roches exploited their genes to create intuitive vocal harmonies, with Maggie anchoring the low end. They were also cheeky lyricists, penning ironic songs about adultery (“The Married Men,” written by Maggie), crowd anonymity (“The Train,” by Suzzy), and inter-generational tension (“Hammond Song,” by Maggie), among others.

All three stellar songs are featured on the Roches’ 1979 eponymous album on Warner Brothers, tastefully produced by, of all people, prog-rock god Robert Fripp (King Crimson), in “audio vérité” style.

( I still remember, as a record reviewer for my college newspaper, looking at the cover of The Roches album and thinking Why would three attractive women deliberately try to look nerdy and unsexy? And why is Fripp producing them? )

The Roches thrust the sisters into the spotlight. Critic Jay Cocks of Time magazine called their music “startling, lacerating, and amusing.” Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow performed “The Married Men” together on Saturday Night Live, and soon after, Paul Simon chose them as his musical guests on the show. Punk rock was peaking in the late 1970s, and the Roches combined the directness of punk with literate and sardonic lyrics, precise pronunciation, avant-folk harmonies, and a goofy, insouciant attitude, to create something musically unique.keep on doing

The follow-up album was punningly titled Nurds (1980), and was slightly disappointing compared to the debut… although Maggie’s “This Feminine Position” is one of their breeziest songs, with its soothing synthesizer and acoustic guitar. Also, she interprets an Irish folk ballad, “Factory Girl,” with Gaelic aplomb.

The group came roaring back with Keep on Doing (1982), again produced by Fripp. This might be their high point, with Suzzy and Terre’s “Keep on Doing What You Do/Jerks on the Loose” and Maggie’s songs “Losing True” and “The Scorpion Lament.” “Losing True” is the song that permanently hooked me on the Roches. It’s rich with irony, rhyme, and alliteration, and the cathedral harmonizing, with syllables stretched to breaking point, rivals anything the Mamas and Papas ever did.

There were many TV appearances through the ‘80s, characterized by innocuous interview questions usually unrelated to the music. My favorite is Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow, from 1982, where poor, shy Maggie was dazzled by the cameras, and gripped the armchair like she wanted to bolt from the studio! In 1983, the Roches had an hour-long special on the PBS show Soundstage. In 1985, they appeared on both The Dick Cavett Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Their music was then featured in the film Crossing Delancey (1988), starring Steven Spielberg’s then-wife, Amy Irving. Suzzy even had a small role in this film.

In 1990, Carson brought them back in the wake of their comeback album Speak. Here, they bopped to their beautifully sarcastic “Big Nuthin’,” written about their hyped but hollow TV spots (Carson naïvely thought the song was strictly about the Saturday Night Live appearance). By this point, Maggie was playing keyboards onstage.speak

While “Big Nuthin’” is the eye-opening track on Speak – a great album, song-wise, but hindered by then-fashionable high-tech production gloss – it’s the ghostly minimalism of Maggie’s title song that knocks me out.

After Speak, they continued to release records, including an enormously popular collection of Christmas songs, We Three Kings (1990), which is sometimes reverent, sometimes whimsical, and always Roche-ey.  But their visibility dimmed as Maggie wrote fewer songs. Suzzy released solo records, wrote two books, and raised her daughter (Lucy Roche, who currently records and tours with Suzzy; Lucy’s father is singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III). Terre, a talented guitarist, established a guitar workshop and also began a solo career.

Maggie, characteristically, kept a lower profile. She joined her sisters for music voice-overs (as roaches!) on a segment of Spielberg’s cartoon series Tiny Toon Adventures (her bug character was the brassiest of the three… a private joke for fans, since Maggie was so soft-spoken); a children’s record, Will You Be My Friend, which won a parents’ award; and made several records with Suzzy, including a 2001 collection of diverse prayers set to music, called Zero Church (for an inspiring, non-denominational, non-traditional song for Christmas, you can’t beat “Anyway” from that album). The Roches also covered songs for various artist tribute albums, notably a lush rendition of the Band’s “Acadian Driftwood.”

The last album with all three Roches was Moonswept in 2007. For me, the standout song is “Family of Bones.” Suzzy handed her sister the words, and Maggie waved her wand to conjure, in less than a day, the haunting, hymn-like music.

♫ ♫ ♫

Mountain Stage archives

L to R: Maggie, Suzzy, Terre (photo Mountain Stage Archives)

Maggie had breast cancer for ten years, but evidently didn’t tell her sisters until just before she died. Suzzy wrote on the Roches’ Facebook page that her sister was “a private person, too sensitive and shy for this world, but brimming with life, love, and talent.” She also called her a “brilliant songwriter” and “authentic.” Maggie left behind her partner, Michael McCarthy, and a son, country songwriter-producer-musician Felix McTeigue. In 1989, she wrote a song called “Broken Places” about a mother being reunited with her son, after giving him up for adoption. Most artists would attempt just a first-person narration of a risky song like this. Maggie, however, interpreted it (like “Hammond Song”) from two different viewpoints.

While I don’t usually provide links to songs, I can’t help but do it here. In addition to a self-effacing sense of fashion, Maggie had a wicked sense of humor. The song below is from the seriously underrated album Can We Go Home Now (1995): thirty-three couplets of Maggie’s hilarious rhyming bliss, sung from the protective shell of her allegorical black winter coat.

Fly with the angels, dusky songbird.

(Thanks to John Lingan, The New York Times Magazine, for some information)

 

Pearl

50 years

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All I know is something like a bird within her sang
All I know she sang a little while and then flew on
Tell me all that you know
I’ll show you snow and rain…

– from “Bird Song” by the Grateful Dead

She fled to California from Port Arthur, Texas in the early 1960s. From all accounts, she wanted to escape a stifling environment that had branded her a freak. She was a marginal student, suffered bad acne, sang black music, and hung out with “undesirables.” The gulf between her and her peers must have been as vast as the Gulf of Mexico.

A fourth-grade classmate was future NFL coach and FOX Sports commentator Jimmy Johnson. One of them perfectly fit the mold of conservative 1950s Texas. The other shattered it.

Friday, June 10 will be 50 years since rock singer Janis Joplin made her debut with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the legendary Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. Recently, I was reminded of her greatness when the PBS show “American Masters” aired a very good documentary about her.

Folks, help me here please: has any woman singer since Janis possessed even a shot glass of her charisma? I don’t think so. Many have tried, and many have failed.

Only a few divas have even come close to replicating her sexually charged delivery of soulful blues-rock. Tina Turner certainly comes to mind. She and Janis actually did a duet on stage in 1969 (what a magical moment that must have been). Singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, born one month after Janis died, has a little of Janis’s distinctive blues rasp.

But I’ll be gobsmacked if anyone has been able to tear down the rafters like “Pearl.” She glowed like St. Elmo’s fire for only four short years. Her likes hadn’t been seen since Bessie Smith in the 1920s, and they may never be seen again.janis2

I’ll grudgingly admit, though, she’s not for everybody. A friend of a friend once derided Joplin as “that shrieking harpy.” And most recordings of her are pretty shabby. Her most famous backup band was Big Brother, but even with two lead guitarists, they were little more than a distortion-heavy garage band.

Many people, especially women, can’t understand her appeal. Although never crude, Janis was wild, uninhibited, and boldly sexual. Which probably explains her biggest fans: horny young men. Some people prefer subtlety in their music and performers. And Janis was anything but subtle.

On stage I make love to 25,000 people. And then I go home alone.

Similar to her Haight-Ashbury friends, the Grateful Dead, Janis had to be seen and heard in a live setting. She was more about the moment than the artifact. One of her greatest performances is captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s MONTEREY POP, a groundbreaking cinéma vérité documentary about the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Until Monterey, she was unknown outside of San Francisco. But her performance of “Ball and Chain” sent earthquake tremors through the audience. The camera shot of Mama Cass Elliot sitting open-mouthed during Joplin’s performance, then mouthing the word “Wow,” is now part of rock legend.

The Monterey festival was her coming-out party. There would soon be a record contract, then national and international tours, Woodstock, and television appearances (she made four noteworthy appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show,” and Cavett says he’s still in love with her). She became the most famous woman in rock ‘n’ roll, and she holds that title even today.

***

In 1970, Janis returned to Port Arthur for her 10-year high school reunion, an exotic flamingo landing in a nest of sparrows. The reunion was bittersweet. Years earlier, while still in Texas and performing in coffeehouses at the University of Texas, an unnamed fraternity voted her “Ugliest Man on Campus.” One can only imagine how she felt at this brutal insult. Her friend and fellow musician, Powell St. John, said Janis took it hard.

But she never let it stop her.

***

I confess that I don’t often listen to her music these days – my shredded nervous system just can’t handle it – but Janis is special to me because her singing had something real and honest that you don’t often find anymore. Bullshit is the music industry’s stock and trade. But with Janis, there was no bullshit. When she sang, she pulled something from deep within her. Maybe despair.

Whatever that intangible was, it’s hard to imagine rock music without her; there would just be a big gaping hole. Janis held nothing back, and despite having to endure the agonies of childhood ridicule, she stayed true to her muse and plowed her own path. There aren’t many of us that can do that.

So, even though I don’t drink Southern Comfort (Janis’s favorite beverage), I plan to raise a glass to Pearl on June 10. As another friend once told me with great emotion, one who actually knew her: “She was one helluva woman.”

But, in truth, she was a little girl.

…Don’t you cry
Dry your eyes on the wind.

4-18-69_NY_by Elliot Landy

In New York City, April, 1969.  Photo copyright Elliot Landy