Saturday, September 15, 2012

An Only Child

Besides that five-string open-G tuning everybody brings up, nine things that I learned from Keith Richards' memoir, Life:

1. His mother was from a family of seven daughters, and if you've ever wondered about the hardiness of Keith's constitution, you should know that most of his aunts are still alive.

2. London streets used to be full of animals. Keith: "When I was growing up, it was heavy fog almost all winter, and if you've got two or three miles to walk to get back home, it was the dogs that led you. Suddenly old Dodger would show up with a patch on his eye, and you could basically guide your way home by that. Sometimes the fog was so thick you couldn't see a thing. And old Dodger would take you up and hand you over to some Labrador. Animals were in the street, something that's disappeared. I would have got lost and died without some help from my canine friends." (The roughly 60 pages of childhood stuff is probably the book's high point. Effortlessly evocative, it reads at times like some long-lost Dickens narrative, with asylum escapees on the heath, army deserters hiding in the woods by the Thames, a dead tramp found covered in bluebottles, street bullies, even a fatal explosion at a fireworks factory.)

3. The winter that Keith, Mick, and Brian Jones shared a flat was London's coldest since 1740. They had a pay heater—had to keep feeding it coins.

4. Keith not only wrote the bulk of the music for most of their best songs; he often came up with the lyrical angle as well: "Satisfaction," "Gimme Shelter," "Wild Horses" (I could go on) are all concepts that Jagger simply—albeit brilliantly—expanded on.

5. While Mick was fooling around with Anita Pallenberg on the set of Performance, Keith had revenge sex with Marianne Faithfull (and fled through a window when Mick came home). I've thought of Mick and Keith's friendship as fairly up and down, but the best way to describe it, for thirty years now, would be simply nonexistent. Interestingly, there are more entries in the index for Mick Jagger than there are for Keith himself. (My favorite: "Jagger, Mick and giant inflatable cock, 12-13, 485").

6. In the late '60s in the UK, if your physician registered you with National Health as a junkie, you could receive heroin pills plus an equal amount of cocaine (the idea being that the coke would counteract the opiate effect of the heroin). This was the purest heroin and the purest, May & Baker pharmaceutical cocaine. Definitely no "MSS" (Mexican shoe scrapings—Gram Parsons' term for low-grade smack).

7. Injuries sustained: finger squashed by a dropped flagstone, earring ripped from his ear as he slept, passing out after nine days without sleep and falling headfirst into an amplifier, finger burned to the bone by stray lump of phosphorous from stage pyro, punctured lung (falling off ladder), cracked skull (falling from tree).

8. When I was fourteen I found an old copy of Oui magazine in, of all places, a deer blind in the hill country of Texas. ("For the man of the world"—yeah, that was me all right.) One of the models was a dark-haired German who, in one memorable shot, drank water from a see-through garden hose. And now, all these years later I find out her name is Uschi Obermaier, a long-standing crush of Keith's. When he learned of Gram Parsons' death in '73 he was in Innsbruck; on a mad impulse he drove to Munich in the middle of the night to hunt Uschi down, although he barely knew her. He miraculously found her, woke her up, broke the news, got a single sleepy kiss for his trouble, and left. 

9. Towards the end, the book starts to simply mark time—this is his manager, this is his guitar technician, these are his neighbors in Jamaica, this is the snapping turtle Keith caught in the pond at his house in Connecticut, etc.—and it begins to sound like an acceptance speech at the Grammys. The lesson is that everybody's life eventually winds down into routine, even for an outlaw like Keith Richards. And so this is the ninth thing I learned:

When you're cooking bangers and mash, you've got to use a cold pan, no preheating. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Idaho via Coventry

"American Without Tears No. 2 (Twilight Version)" is an odd little number by Elvis Costello that's been hanging around lately. The alternate version of a King of America song and B-side to "Blue Chair," this thing stars an American vet who marries an English girl and does not turn out to be a catch. Squeeze sang about a very similar setup, and far more lucidly, in "Labelled with Love," from their Costello-produced East Side Story (1981). No one is where they belong in such stories; everyone is pining for somewhere else. The main character for some obscure reason shares several biographical details with Hemingway, from the war experience and impulsive marriages to the Havana, Florida, even Idaho settings, although the events take place just after Hemingway's lifetime and the heartbreaker in this song is absurdly identified as one Arnie LaFlamme. In the end, the atmosphere is more Graham Greene than Hemingway, but the lyric is really an excuse for trying out a few tropes, with as many shifts in viewpoint and setting as "Tangled Up in Blue." The designation of a "twilight" rendition seems as arbitrary as everything else in a song so whimsical that even Elvis calls its bluff, abruptly ending the last verse with a hasty "It would never work out," like an artist wadding up his drawing and tossing it in the wastebasket. (Damn thing isn't even on youtube. You have to go to 5:11 in this clip to hear a fuzzy live version.)

And yet, for all its flakiness, I've always liked this song. The recording has great drive, and Elvis has a lot of fun with this busker's arrangement, especially on the Sammy Davis Jr. line and in the switch-up in the final verse ("Just like me she found out..."). While tabs for the more placid King of America version of the song are easy to find, I haven't been able to locate a single set of chords for this alternate version anywhere on God's green Internet. And you know what that means...

American Without Tears No. 2 (Twilight Version)
(Elvis Costello)

G               C    G
December 1965 in Caracas
G                     A                 D
When Arnie LaFlamme took his piece of the pie
G                         C               G
When he packed up the casino chips, the IOU and the abacus
G                             D           G
And switched off the jukebox in a "A Fool Such As I"

G                                 C           G
He was a leg man who was open to offers
G                           A                 D
But he couldn't get her off his mind as he passed the tourist office
G                 C              G
And as he entertained himself singing just like Sammy Davis Junior
G           D         G
He toyed with a trip to Miami

For money like that
He could have sweet talk in your ear
Now they don't speak any English
C G    C           G
Just American without tears, just American without tears


It was an idea that he dandled on his knee and nursed it like his coffee cup
When he couldn't find any other way
It always seemed to come to him while the day was dipping down
And the sun was like a light bulb being swallowed by a clown

He took her for everything, he took her for his only one
He took her out of Coventry and over to Idaho
But the war wound that he carried home wasn't really visible
When the bullets were forgotten
She looked dowdy, down, and miserable

And she seemed to be crying for year after year
And said, "You don't speak any English
Just American between tears."

A  D A
"Arnie," she said to me, "will you turn down the radio?
    A      B    E
You haven't slept a wink since we came to Havana
A      D A
When're you gonna get the strength to go over to Florida?
E         A
All you ever listen to is 'The Voice of America'"

A                          D                      A
It was a story of a young English poppet
A                                                       B                            E
Who took up with a soldier boy and thought she would profit
A             F#m            E                   D
Just like me she found out what true love is about
A E                 A
Anyway she's in New Orleans, it would never work out
Oh she seemed to be crying for year after year
Now you don't speak any English
          D                         A   D                     A
Just American between tears, just American without tears

For you seem to be crying for year after year
Now you don't speak any English
Just American without tears
Just American without tears