Like California, Los Angeles has been rebuked and scorned in book, film, song, musical, vaudeville, pretty much every medium dating back to protozoan wall art. It’s easy to hate LA. I don’t have much of a problem with the city, beyond traffic, but the entertainment-industrial complex is a whoremaker chewing up everything in its path like a tornado made of assholes. I get the hate. Let’s channel that hate into song.
“This wicked old town
Where everybody lies to themselves
Where they gobble you up
Swallow you down, spit you out.”
The Bicycle Thief was Bob Forrest‘s post-Thelonious Monster collaboration with Josh Klinghoffer, now the Red Hot Chili Peppers hotshot guitarist, but then a 20-year-old industry neophyte. Of course, he was a neophyte who played all the guitar parts on “LA Country,” as well as dobro, cello bass, drums, and added harmony vocals with Bob and Anna Waronker of That Dog. The final :40 is particularly impressive, with what sounds like 8 different vocal tracks laid on top of one another. It creates a lazy, wobbling effect reminiscent of New Morning-era Bob Dylan.
The irony of the song’s anti-Los Angeles narrative is that Bob is actually one of LA’s biggest cheerleaders. If you don’t believe me, then you obviously aren’t listening to the awesome rantopolis that is All Up In The Interweb, his online “radio” gig every Wednesday night from 8-10 pm PST. You can listen live or download the shows as podcasts.
You should also check out a great interview with Bob and Josh (but mostly Bob) at DJ Roky Manson’s hollywood bungalow. It was conducted in 1999, when the BT released You Come And Go Like A Pop Song in its first incarnation on Goldenvoice Records.
“The true story of ‘Sin City’ is that I came up with that first verse and part of the chorus and I woke him (Gram Parsons) up. I said I think there’s something interesting here: ‘This old town’s filled with sin/It’ll swallow you in.’ He came up with the ‘green mohair suits’ stuff, a fascinating line, and then went off on some abstract thing about being at Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Strip. It was a microcosm of the culture at that particular time. Robert Kennedy*, by the way, was the man who ‘came around, tried to clean up this town.'”
–Chris Hillman to Barry Mazor, No Depression Magazine, Nov 2008
This version of “Sin City” comes not from the rightly lauded Gilded Palace Of Sin, but from an off-the-cuff radio interview during the Fallen Angels tour in 1973. It’s Gram, Emmylou, and drummer ND Smart (all pictured right), and despite being flawed and occasionally flat, it’s a remarkable document of the Gram/Emmy magic. Say what you want about GP’s lackluster work ethic, when he was properly focused … and by all accounts, 1973 was a great year for focus … he was pretty tough to beat.
* Robert Kennedy, of course, was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 6, 1968, a few months before “Sin City” was written.
“This ain’t Nashville. This is Raleigh.”
–Backsliders bumper sticker
The Backsliders were one of the great alt.country hopes of the mid-to-late ’90s. They were great because their brand of alt.country basically sounded like Damn The Torpedoes and Sticky Fingers and I have a rule that any band drawing inspiration from those two albums is always gonna be worth a listen, and in the Backsliders’ case, one of the great roots-rock bands of the era. What made them work was that Chip Robinson‘s country songs were played by a country band that could balls-out rock. Brad Rice later went on to be the lead guitar player in Whiskeytown and Son Volt (as well as Tift Merritt and Keith Urban) and I think the solo on “Lexington Ave” is him. But Steve Howell, who formed the band with Robinson, is a fine guitar player in his own right, so it could be him. If any Backslider fan knows for sure, feel free to post in the comments.
Update 4/30/13: As you can see in the comments below, Steve Howell of The Backsliders has graciously informed me that both the solo and song are his. Badass. That’s how the internet is supposed to work!
“All the night life and the parties
Temptation and deceit the order of the day
And it’s a bloody mary morning
Cause I’m leavin’ baby somewhere in LA”
People rarely think about this as a Los Angeles song, but the smog and haze (if not the temptation and deceit) should tell you otherwise. The studio version is from Willie Nelson‘s classic 1974 album, Phases And Stages and downloadable at my ‘RIP Jerry Wexler’ post. However, my favorite rendition is from Willie And Family Live, recorded and released in 1978.
Compared to the Phases And Stages recording this version breathes fire, the band stretching out in the fashion that’s now taken for granted, but was just becoming part of the americana musical landscape. Willie takes off on one of his patented minimalist Django runs, with harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, playing off the Trigger man. The secret weapon of both the song and the Family Band is drummer, Paul English, who pushes this song into a homegrown, aeroponically grown, and completely organic blend of western swing and country-rock.
Warren Zevon‘s original is a first ballot Hall of Famer, no question. But, I like this recording better. It helps to have one of the best country singers and songwriters of the last 30 years (Yoakam) and an acordeonista legendario (Jiménez). Flaco is great, but Dwight kills it. I’ve been listening to his catalog of late and I keep wondering one thing. Why aren’t people talking about Dwight Yoakam as one of the all-time greats?
Anyone who likes country music even a little bit likes DY. His career took off in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, occasionally playing shows with X, The Blasters, and Los Lobos, and he’s been in LA ever since. At the height of the “hat act” era, stood out, almost casually, as the real deal. He’s had a few missteps, but that’s gonna happen in a 30 year career.
How’s this for an 8-album run?
1986 – Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.
1987 – Hillbilly Deluxe
1988 – Buenas Noches From A Lonely Room
1989 – Just Lookin’ For A Hit (comp)
1990 – If There Was A Way
1993 – This Time
1995 – Dwight Live
1995 – Gone
“I think it’s safe to say that the single very impressive figure to me was Merle Haggard.”
I know I’m in the minority, but I think the greatest singer/songwriter California has ever produced is Merle Haggard, not Brian Wilson. Granted, it’s meat and potatoes vs. vega-tables and both food groups are important. I can flesh out my pro-Hag argument later, but I offer one observation. In 1965, Merle released his debut album, Strangers. It’s ok, if you like hearing one of the greatest country voices ever and textbook honky tonk music. In 1974, Hag released Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Fucking Album. Think about that. In 9 years he released 30 albums!
While there may have been a slight songwriting dropoff between 1965 and 1974 … and setting aside the 5 Strangers instrumental albums and 2 compilations … that’s still 23 albums of mostly original material, with some great live tracks and spirited covers mixed in (Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, e.g.). That’s roughly 275 songs, many of which are upper deck home runs. People have yet to catch up to the Merle Haggard catalog, but they will.
Iris DeMent – Big City
Tulare Dust: A Songwriters’ Tribute To Merle Haggard, 1994
“I don’t feel emotionally bound to California, where I grew up. I feel emotionally bound to DeMent Island (Arkansas). That’s where I’m from and I feel that I wouldn’t be doing music if it weren’t for my strong sense of connection to my ancestors I never met.”
—Iris DeMent to Nicholas Dawidoff, In The Country Of Country, p. 270
One of the rare instances when the pupil bested the master. Hag recorded “Big City” in 1981 for his album of the same name and it remains one of his best songs from that era. But, Iris owns it and Merle knows it. She recorded the song in 1994 for Tulare Dust: A Songwriter’s Tribute To Merle Haggard and he loved her version so much he sought HER out. What makes the cover work on dual levels is that the anti-LA conceit remains, but the gender switch ironically gives the song more balls.
Iris’ appeal is simple, really. She sings with a keening, plaintive twang that’s capable of reducing grown-ass men to a blubbering mess. “Big City” is no exception. There’s two acoustic guitars, a tasteful lead, and that voice, that instrument seemingly beamed in from a Dust Bowl radio station. God bless Iris DeMent.
“Big City” is dedicated with love to Amber Wagner.