US singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams has revealed she had a stroke in November. The 68-year-old is recovering and although currently unable to play guitar is expected to make a full recovery.
That is good news, because Williams is not just a great songwriter, but a great human. She was expelled from high school in the late 60s for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Alliegence in opposition to the Vietnam War and has remained outspoken in song and beyond all her life (her most recent album is filled with fury about racism and misogyny and the state of her country).
By coincidence, the news of her stroke came just after I went on one of my periodic Lucinda Williams binges, specifically repeatedly watching her brilliant Austin City Limits show from 1998, just after the release of her career-defining album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
The reason was a debate that flared once more on The Very Long Thread (VLT). This is a thread on my facebook wall whose only goal is to generate as many comments as possible. Having started in 2013, so far the VLT has more than 365k comments at an often meandering pace by arguing about such topics as "are song lyrics a form of poetry?".
Now, I argued no. Although obviously similar, the nature of the forms means different pressures and contraints on the writing. It is a semantic argument that can't be resolved because you can just keep shiftng the boundaries and definitions until you finally finally after eight fucking years reach the 500,000 comment milestone (we can only dream).
But inspired by talk about poetry and lyrics, I put on Lucinda Williams. The country/blues/folk/rock (I hate the term "Americana") icon being one of the more poetic and poetry-influenced songwriters that US has produced in recent generations.
The result was I conceded straight away. Williams' ACL show is just song after song of fucking poetry put to a raw mix of country/folk/blues/rock (yes I know "Americana" is less words) played by a tight-as-anything band.
Song after song I found myself yelling "IT'S MORE FUCKING POETRY!" then commented to that effect on the VLT because, after all, we need the comments. God knows when we'll reach 500K and if we can even beat the rapidly escalating climate apocalypse.
It is an incredible show of a great artist at her peak. It deserves more recognition as one of the great live shows that you can find while on a drunken YouTube music binge. Williams' performance features a range of songs that can loosely be divided into three categories: death songs, "fuck you, arsehole!" songs, and deeply felt longing for a lost love songs.
I saw his mama, she was standin' there
His sister, she was there too
I saw them look at us standin' around the grave
And not a soul they knew
They say start as you intend to contnue, and Williams starts with a tough bluesey song about a friend committing suicide. This will not be the last song about the death of a friend nor suicide, not by a long shot!
The song is very well-summed up in this Time magazine piece in which it features on a list of "100 songs of enduring beauty, power and inventiveness". It deserves it's place.
2. Metal Firecracker (5:00)
We'd put on ZZ Top
And turn 'em up real loud
I used to think you were strong
I used to think you were proud
I used to think nothing could go wrong
All I ask
Don't tell anybody the secrets...
Sittin' in the kitchen, a house in Macon
Loretta's singing on the radio
Smell of coffee, eggs and bacon
Car wheels on a gravel road
Williams' signature song, or at least the glorious title track from her best album. A catchy honky tonk tune through which Williams evokes nostalgia with imagery of the minutia of daily life. It's key line comes right at the end: "A little bit of dirt, mixed with tears". This would be Lucinda Williams' best song if "Drunken Angels" didn't exist.
4. Right in Time (13:19)
Not a day goes by I don't think about you
You left your mark on me it's permanent a tattoo
Pierce the skin and the blood runs through
Oh my baby...
This is definitely a cheerier song and that's because this folk-rocker is all about masturbation! More specifically, it's a vividly poetic and gleeful account of taking the time to pleasure yourself as you think of someone who.... well of some who "moves right in time with me".
Anyway, I think we shoud move on, not ... ahaha... because I am in any way unfomcortable with an open embrace of sexuality and self-delivered pleasure or anything. God no! It's just... what's the next song?
5. Drunken Angel (17:58)
Sun came up it was another dayBack on the familiar ground of death! This is a souring anthematic epic about her friend, little known Texas-based country singer Blaze Foley who was killed in tragic circumstances. Foley was shot trying to defend a friend from being robbed by his own son, with the jury aquiting the son of murdering Foley apparantly on the basis no one could understand what a white guy like Foley was doing in the home of his Black friend in a Black part of town in Austin, Texas.
And the sun went down
You were blown away
Why'd you let go of your guitar
Why'd you ever let it go that far...
The notoriously down-and-out Foley, who never got far career-wise due to a mix of bad luck and drunken self-sabotage, has since become cult figure with a documentary and film staring Ethan Hawke about his life. The fact John Prine and Merle Haggard recorded him is a sure sign Blaze Foley could write a song. And as this song shows, so can Lucinda Williams.
Empty bottles and broken glassThis is a superficially tender-sounding country ballad. Don't be decieved. It's the first of the "fuck you, arsehole" songs! And it is certainly not tender in its sentiments towards to bloke to whom she repeatedly insists "just go on back to Greenville".
Busted down doors and borrowed cash
Borrowed cash, oh the borrowed cash
Go back to Greenville, just go on back to Greenville
I know that I shouldn't but I want you so badA straight up tender country ballad! No death, no suicide, no murder and seemingly no arseholes! I mean it's still sad of course. It's about a desperate longing for someone you can no longer have. This is, after all, country music. But it's possibly the most convention love song on here and it's fucking great, the band really go to town with this one.
I know it couldn't be but I want what we had
I know our love is gone
And I can't bring it back
Still I long for your kiss
He was born in NacogdochesOh my God this is another death song. It's about an ex-lover and I beg of you, for the love of God, do not listen to this song if you've been drinking whiskey. Or at least waterproof your house from the tears that will flow should you be so reckless.
That's in East Texas
Not far from the border
But he liked to tell everybody
He was from Lake Charles
This song is truly poetry put to music. A strong challenger to "Drunken Angels" and "Car Wheels" for "best Lucinda Williams song ever". Fuck it's a heart-breaker.
9. Changed the Locks (35:42)
I changed the kind of clothes I wear so you can't find me anywhereThis is another "fuck you, arsehole" song, with the guitars unleashed. Williams is determined to get a toxic guy out of her life, but for a while I struggled to get the full signficance of all the lines. I think because it's take on complex personal gender politics from a female perspective it is just a little above the head of another dumb man.
And you can't spot me in a crowd, and you can't call my name out loud
I changed the kind of clothes I wear
Bascially, this song isn't just saying "fuck off" to a former lover, but acknowleging ongoing feelings of attraction. It took me while to fully get that this is because 1) people are complicated and therefore can still feel attraction to someone they no longer want anything to do with; and 2) this is something toxic arseholes try to cynically manipulate.
When Williams sings she changed her phone number so he can't call her up "and make me fall down to my knees" or change the car she drives so "you can't chase me up the street and you can't knock me off my feet", it is a statement of a refusal to have her complicated emotional life manipulated by a toxic arsehole.
Also, the song rocks.
And I go with my baby
What man like a woman with a sassy child
I won't have to ask him no questions
Man, because he knows the reason why
This is the only track in the show not written or co-written by Williams. By an old Lighting Hopkins associate Melvin Jackson, this straight up blues number is nonetheless still about saying "fuck you, aresehole". But it has a happy ending. The singer finds a man with lots of money and therefore no longer needs wake up early in the morning "coz i won't have nothin' in the world to do".
11. Jackson (42:45)
Once I get to LafayetteOh it's another tear-jerking tender country ballad. Like "Still I Long For Your Kiss", this is a relatively straight-forward tale of longing. It is, at the same time, absolutely pure and beautifully written poetry.
I'm not gonna mind one bit
12. Sweet Old World (49:02)
The breath from your own lips, the touch of fingertipsIt's another death song! Specifically, another suicide song. An almost impossible mix of grief and beauty, this is a note to a loved one to ask them the hopelessly futile question: "How could you leave?"
A sweet and tender kiss
The sound of a midnight train, wearing someone's ring
Someone calling your name
Somebody so warm cradled in your arms
Didn't you think you were worth anything
Just don't listen to it if you've had a few.
13. Passionate Kisses (54:12)
Is it too much to ask
I want a comfortable bed that won't hurt my back
Food to fill me up
And warm clothes and all that stuff
Shouldn't I have this
Shouldn't I have this
Shouldn't I have all of this, and
This very catchy track is the only hit song Williams has written to date, with Mary Chapin Carpertner's 1993 version breaking into the top 5 of the US country charts.
It is a manifesto of Williams' "personal is political" brand of feminism. Williams has essentially produced her version of the famous poem "Bread and Roses" by socialist suffragette Helen Todd, which delcared: "Yes, it is Bread we fight for—but we fight for Roses, too."
In "Passionate Kisses", Williams insists on her right to a fulfiling life and "passionate kisses too". It should not be a radical sentiment, and yet...
14. Something About What Happens When We Talk (56:54)
If I had my way,
I'd be in your town.
I might not stay, but at least I would have been around
It's another country ballad full of longing. But like all Williams' songs it doesn't just repeat a cliched formula. It's filled with little pockets of unique depictions of a very specific, personal relationship. By the time the guitar solo hits, this song has captured an emotional state best described as: "I've been drinking and listening to sad songs like this again".
15. Joy (1:00:54)
I don't want you anymore 'cause you took my joy
This is a straight-up all-out rocker of a "fuck you, arsehole" song. It's not complicated. Some areshole took her joy and she wants it back. This being a Lucinda Williams song, it also name-checks a bunch of locations across the US South.
16. Cant Let Go (1:09:33)
Says he's sorry then he pulls me out
I got a big chain around my neck
And I'm broken down like a train wreck
Well it's over I know it but I can't let go
The last song, with the band working themselves into a final frenzy as Williams delivers one her "longing" songs with a dash of "fuck you, areshole" chucked into the mix too. If only the arsehole also died it could have summed the whole thing up. Still, a fitting end.