This is a concept album: each track is about one of the people in this sketchy bar, on this fateful night. Each song is a stand-alone about that character, but all the songs interweave, as their stories mingle, until all the stories come together in a dramatic climax in the last two tracks. Each track is a slightly different genre, as well – the genre appropriate to the character described in the song. Folk, blues, country, bluegrass, rock. There’s an underlying theme about the choices we make. As Dolores tells the Invisible Blue Girl in the song of that title, “And she told you a time comes we’ve all got to rise To the moment – before the moment dies.”
As in the Waterline CD, the backup players on this endeavor are outstanding: once again, producer David West, vocalist/guitarist Kate Wallace, drummer Tom Lackner (of Jeff Bridges’ The Abiders), Tom Ball on harmonica, Gabe Witcher on fiddle, and on several tracks a special treat – the amazing Matt Rollings on piano.
The music video above accompanies this CD, from one of the songs, Dolores Quits Dancing. At 8 minutes, it’s more of a short film than music video – in fact, it won an award for Best Director at the Best Shorts Festival. But then all these songs are little stories. Eventually I’ll have a video for each of them.
By the way the track E Clampus Vitus is about an actual fraternal organization, based in the Western states, concerned with good works and California history. They erect memorial plaques all over the state. And they really don’t know where their name comes from.
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Liner Notes for Man Walks Into a Bar
- The promise of melancholy.
- THE MOTHER OF ALL BARS
- Longhaul Brown is like Ishmael arriving on the Pequod, and the poor moke just doesn’t know they’re going down. In post I had to fix the line “And a juke from 1964,” because I hadn’t glottaled the K hard enough and it sounded like “And a Jew from 1964.” It took David West to say, “If the Jew fits, wear it.”
- DOLORES QUITS DANCING
- Dolores is the emotional core of this whole tale. Trapped in a life she can’t see her way out of, she takes a bold move and escapes. Who doesn’t want that? She’s also emblematic of a recurring theme here: the death of love, and its rebirth. Driven, here, by Tom Lackner’s cholinergic pulsing drums. Watch the YouTube video to see Desert Rose, the only character without her own song.
- DANNY’S THREE WISHES
- Gabe Witcher’s haunting fiddle is the most intimate emotional expression of the state of Danny’s mind I could imagine. And the Kate Wallace choir under “benediction” sounds to me like all the angels in Doubters’ Heaven looking down on him.
- E CLAMPUS VITUS
- I love these guys. They really exist. Notable in this track are Neal Graffy’s brilliant homage to the guitar solo in “Hotel California,” here played on the kazoo, and David West’s subtle yet quintessential banjo. Of course David West is all over these tracks like a one-man band. I once told David he was the apotheosis of the consummate accompanist, and he said, “I guess those apotheosis pills must finally be workin’.” Clearly he overdosed.
- THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY
- Clearly all of these characters are pieces of me, in some sense – but this song is the most psychologically autobiographical. This guy – Old Drunk Tom – is talking about his lost glory days in Hollywood, and how he’s happier now being the old drunk in this local bar. If I’d ever become an alcoholic, this would have been my anthem. Looking back on his life, not only does he not ask forgiveness of those he’s transgressed (“Bedamn to Step 8,” flouting the 12 Step model), but he forgives them all, he’s content with his lot – and yet he’d do it again if that ship ever stopped in his port.
- LIGHT BLUE
- Lots of unrequited love going on in the bar tonight, and this hapless fella sets the bar. But patience is sometimes rewarded. In the novella, his name is Waley, and Light Blue is his nickname for the girl he loves, Madison, the Invisible Blue Girl.
- MY DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE FROM YOU
- My stab at a Country idiom love song, and I’m just the idiom to do it. When in the course, we hold these truths, the right to bear arms, declare my independence, liberty, freedom, try the soul, pursuit of happiness, all created equal – it’s practically a constitutional opera, with just a hint of bible (“Forty nights since you left me,” as in the Flood, only here it’s a flood of tears), and a dash of Hollywood (“A scar is born”) – this is my celebration of an American broken heart, underscored by Matt Rollings’ poignant piano solo, and John McFee’s heartbreaking steel. The character’s name is Rick in the novella.
- THE INVISIBLE BLUE GIRL
- Pretty women are often dismissed as having it too easy; even having it all. But because they’re given so much, they have an especially difficult challenge figuring out who they really are, creating themselves from the inside out, and being seen for who they really are. Brian Mann’s accordion perfectly evokes the poignancy of that dilemma. Bob Nichols’s drums bring just the right sort of Band, sort of Grateful Dead feel to it, too. Later in this song I like the way the advice Dolores gave her in the bathroom impacts both Dolores’s decision, that we heard about earlier, and this girl’s decision – that we’ll learn about later, when the bar blazes. Madison is her name.
- THE BARTENDER
- Named Dinah. Special bartenders are like special priests of the secular world. Priestess, in this case, and “her soul’s a thousand candles.” Just goes to show, even when you’re on top of your game, life can change in a hurry. Like the Bartender here, we’re all just about two songs away from catastrophe.
- WRONGSIDE BOB
- This guy’s been a biker, fireman, welder, singer, thief, teamster, stage actor, glass blower, blacksmith, boxer, bagpiper, bouncer… and all he wants is a little love. Great harp from Tom Ball here, and in the bluesier Great Trains, next up.
- THE GREAT TRAINS OF HELL
- Anonymous Joe brings Hell to the bar, and Wrongside Bob says, “Bring it.” Old Drunk Tom’s “shirt all aflame,” was inspired by the unsettling short poem, “Charles On Fire,” by James Merrill. Wrongside understands, at the end, that love can come in many forms, and going home is one of them.
- AFTER THE FIRE
- Longhaul Brown is me. His Ishmaelian verses wrap up all these intertwined stories – from his work in “the riggings” to his plagiarized line, “I only am escaped alone to tell thee,” taken from Melville’s Moby Dick, which took it from the Book of Job. But the choruses of this track are meant to be a metaphor for the creative process, the “firestorm” in the belly that erupts in an act of creation, leaving the artist in ashes, or wandering in the desert of his soul, wondering bleakly if it will ever happen again. That’s pretty much how I feel after every project, like it’s this intense explosion of energy, and then I’m done and I feel kind of empty, and wonder if lightning will ever strike again, or if, instead, I’ll never write another word because I nothing more to say. On a less bombastic note, if it wasn’t clear, the Clampers in this track, whose vow has always been to care for widows, rebuild the bar because they understand, as the Invisible Blue Girl did, that the Bartender was “wed to this bar,” therefore she’s now a widow. Also, unrelated, thanks to Laura Kahn for the line, “No remains but the bones.”
- Matt Rollings’s introspective reprise of “My Declaration of Independence From You” embodies the recurring theme here. Love – like Creation – turns melancholy, burns out, dies… but can find rebirth.