Bob, Ty Cobb, and the Macabre
A few random thoughts strung together by means of a forced rhyme
fact that Bob Dylan is recording a Christmas album is disconcerting.
Rumor has it that Bob had his band listen to Andy Williams’ Christmas
music for inspiration. This cannot turn out well. If the band manages
to capture the schlockmeister’s uniquely saccharine approach, then the
album will suck. And if they are unsuccessful, it’s still Bob Dylan
singing “Here Comes Santa Claus.” This has got to be the most
wrongheaded Dylan venture since Firesign Theater’s early ‘70s album Bob at the Met. And that was an intentional parody.
time you can mix ghosts, baseball, and Bob Dylan into the same song,
you're doing all right. That's what The Felice Brothers do on their
song "Cooperstown" from their latest album Yonder Stands the Clock.
hazy and indistinct, propelled by accordion wheezes and guitar strums,
and those snarling Dylan words that are, impossibly, written and sung
by somebody named Ian Felice. And like a lot of the songs that Dylan
sings, it communicates a great deal without making a lot of literal
sense. The ghost of Ty Cobb wanders the Baseball Hall of Fame in
Cooperstown, New York. There's a church service, perhaps a funeral,
going on. And then we're back in 1905, a young Ty Cobb on the
basepaths, a young woman watching him from the stands. And from there
it gets seriously weird and metaphysical.
For those who may not
be familiar with the man, Ty Cobb may have been the greatest baseball
player to ever play the game. And he was universally despised; a mean,
contentious sonofabitch who never had a kind word for anybody, and who
came into a base with spikes flying, determined to injure any poor
schlep who happened to be between him and his goal. In the summer of
1905, his mother gunned down his father. Three weeks later, he played
his first game for the Detroit Tigers. And he spent the next 21 years
with a chip on his shoulder, daring anyone to stand in his way.
a line like "he had a game like a war machine" sounds just about
perfect to me, as does the line about the wolves that stand between
first and third. I think I've been in that game. It's a great song; a
fever dream of a bygone era, poetry excavated from the Georgia clay,
simultaneously earthy and transcendent.
few months ago I spent some time with guitar slinger and ace songwriter
Dave Perkins, who is currently writing a book about Gothic Country,
that strange and macabre mixture of Old Testament fire and brimstone,
bad whiskey, loose women, and the intersection of backwoods theology
and murder ballads. It's a potent and disturbing musical brew that has
fueled everyone from Flannery O'Connor's Hazel Motes to The Louvin
Brothers to Johnny Cash to Nick Cave to 16 Horsepower. And since then
I've been burrowing in to this moving and disturbing genre. I'd love to
know if anyone else is a fan.
The musical touchstones are as old
as the traditional Appalachian ballads of Dock Boggs and Charlie Poole,
but some of the more contemporary practitioners are The Handsome
Family, 16 Horsepower, Johnny Dowd, Those Poor Bastards, Woven Hand,
Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Jay Munly, The Builders and The Butchers, Jim
White, and The Blackeyed Susans. Anybody else follow these folks?