Monday, May 17, 2010

The Man with the Blue Guitar

How many modern Bluesmen can you name who play with elegance and panache, making six strings ring like a metallic 12; who write non-12 bar songs that often chime internally like Tin Pan Alley tunes, yet are still audibly "Blue"; and who sing in three distinct voices (or maybe three variants of the same whiskey-gargling baritone)--general mushmouthed Southerner; nimbly drawlin' "N' Wawlins" native; and old man half-talking the words, sounding like his false teeth are loose! And maybe I should mention that he's white?

Well, the only right answer would be Chris Smither, whose recording career amazingly was launched going-on 50 years ago (which makes him nearly old enough to qualify as a "Blues Rediscovery"!). Back then he still sounded like a young whippersnapper, but one who snapped those guitar strings like a whip, influenced by both laconic Lightnin' Hopkins and the sly "Candy Man," Mississippi John Hurt. He cut two albums for Tomato Records, plus an unreleased third, then dropped into a hole of booze and drugs that pretty much held him down and out for a dozen years. Fortunately, before that he had met both Eric von Schmidt and Bonnie Raitt (he was living in Boston then), and they either recorded his tunes or talked him up to friends. So when Chris resurfaced in the early '80s, he was remembered as the writer of "Love You Like a Man" and "I Feel the Same" (Raitt recorded both), but now playing better, patting--often stomping--his foot on the floorboards like John Lee Hooker, and sounding a whole lot wittier and wiser.

His own songs of the last couple of decades in fact combine humor, philosophy, droll remarks, and sneaky puns; rather than telling stories, they usually explore life circumstances. He claims to write only to have songs to perform live, the setting he prefers; and his spontaneous performances do regularly trump the more-polished studio takes. Smither and his striking blue six-string don't really need any back-up, so every ten years or so he releases a live album that designates the previous decade's best songs (or moments), even by collecting performances from a variety of venues if necessary. (Latch onto the Hightone CDs titled Another Way to Find You and Live As I'll Ever Be for Smither on stage. Among his studio albums, watch for Happier Blue, Small Revelations, Leave the Light On, and Train Home--but choosing these is really a matter of favoring near perfection over mere excellence!)

Though Chris seems content to issue a new album just every two or three years, his songwriting has become so brilliant and his musicianship so assured that fans like me wish for more frequent hearings. In signature songs now he'll mumble and grumble and try to adjust to having his car stolen ("Let It Go"), or search pathetically and comically for that mean heartbreaker "Lola," or transform himself, metaphorically at least, from cave man to liar to dreamer to old man ("Cave Man"), or work to invoke/become his own "Homunculus" (a song he values so much that his music company bears its name). But Chris admires others' creations too, so he's just as likely to rear back and tear "Statesboro Blues" and "Dust My Broom" to Smithereens; trip out on favorites by Chuck Berry or Little Feat; take a few moments to nail the stunningly lovely Rolly Sally song "Killin' the Blues"; and then casually toss off waltz-time takes on "Kind Woman" and "Visions of Johanna." (Dylan has become a favored source over the last decade, and Chris gives the Bobster a run for his money on several numbers; in fact, I'm convinced the guitarman now "owns" "Desolation Row." Who knew there was so much beauty hidden in that surreal circus of strange?)

But best we examine the words of a few key Smither songs. No matter where mic'ed, his guitar skills and rhythmic feet are a given, tending to business while his lyrics hone in on certain "Small Revelations":

Simple to see where we come from,
Harder is where we go...
Passion is feeling in motion,
Compassion is standing still,
This isn't justification,
Hearing is letting it happen,
To listen's a work of will,
Beware of cheap imitations,
Thankful for small revelations,
Thankful for small revelations...

Or maybe you're hurting from a failed romance? Think of his "Winsome Smile":

It's hard to believe, but I'm tellin' you, your heart will soon recover,
But you don't want it to, you love this achin' agony,
It's noble and it's true, you won't forsake this pain for other lovers,
I think happiness would fill your mind with misery,
But time will wound all heels, and it ain't pretty,
With any luck at all she'll find some dope that you can pity,
Your loss is measured in illusions, your gain is all in bittersweet intelligence,
And your winsome smile will lose some of its innocence...

Even the Big Easy street vendor selling vegetables (in "No Love Today") feels your pain:

I got ba-na-na, watermelon, peaches by the pound,
Sweet corn, mirleton, mo' better than in town,
I got okra, enough to choke ya,
Beans of every kind,
If hungry is what's eatin' you
I'll sell you peace of mind,
But this ain't what you came to hear me say,
And I hate to disappoint you,
But I got no love today,
I got no love today...

Occasionally he grapples with political matters--Darwin, DNA and intelligent design in "Origin of Species," Iraq and the blasted oil men of "Diplomacy," after-Wall-Street madness wreaking havoc on ordinary lives ("Surprise, Surprise")--but mostly Chris masks his displeasure, musing philosophically, as in "Outside In":

Did you ever stop to notice, it's when you feel a little low,
That the entire spinning universe descends to say hello
With heavy-handed cheerfulness and a calculated smile
And says, "Carry me awhile."
But you don't have to carry much of anything at all.
The biggest thoughts of bigger things are really pretty small.
The major thoughts that occupy the minor state of mind
Are what we leave behind,
Just a minor thought that we can leave behind...

There are scores more songs worth citing on Smither's dozen available albums, but I'll let his bitter-angst, easily witty "Confirmation" put paid to this rummaging and ruminating:

I need confirmation of my duties,
Help me get my poor life back in line.
If I tell you what the hell I'm up to,
Maybe you can tell what's on my mind.

Cuz I don't pick no cotton, I never pick my nose,
I couldn't pick a pocket in a pile of dirty clothes,
But I pick 'em, I choose 'em,
I pick the locks that used to keep me in.
I pick 'em up, I put 'em down,
That's how I get around, but it's wearin' thin.

I don't drive no bargains, I never drive a car,
Couldn't drive a wagon if you hitched it to a star,
But I'll drive you crazy,
Make you wonder who you are,
Drive nails in your coffin,
But I don't often let it get that far.

Help me get these pieces back together,
Make it so the seams don't seem to show.
I had it patched with bits of glue and leather,
How it fell apart I'll never know.

Cuz I don't look for trouble, but it finds me all the same.
If you hear me shout, just lookout, cuz it's callin' me by name.
It's lookin' still, it always will,
If looks could kill I'd be six feet underground.
I never was good lookin',
But now I'm too old to let that get me down.
Yes, I never was good lookin',
But now I'm too old to let that get me down...

Speaks right to the core of me, folks.


Alan Kurtz said...

There's ample precedent for your title "The Man With the Blue Guitar." In 1937, Picasso's blue-period reverie The Old Guitarist (1903) stimulated Wallace Stevens's poem "The Man with the Blue Guitar," although in Pablo's painting everything was blue except the guitar. In 1962, Roost issued a compilation of unaccompanied solos by Johnny Smith likewise entitled The Man With the Blue Guitar. On the LP cover drawing, a silhouetted man on a stool plays a turquoise guitar with no strings attached. What is it about blue guitars that inspires such evasion?

IWitnessEd said...

And thousands more if one adds the small final -s to Blue. Coming soon: Chris examines a capital C... or maybe a small-b blackbird from 13 evasive angles?