Friday, 22 November 2013
D CDs #482: Getaway Driver
George Carlin once said "white people got no business playing the blues, ever... Their job is to give people the blues, not to get them, and certainly not to sing or play them". And it's not like it's hard to see his point. Louis CK puts it more delicately (not many people Louis is more delicate than, but Carlin was one of them): "I'm not trying to say that if you're white, you can't complain. I'm just saying if you're black, you get to complain more."
Guitar Town is a white guy complaining about his blues. Like, a lot. There's even a song on here called "My Old Friend The Blues", so this ain't exactly stealth misery, or anything. And this is a common theme of country music: a white guy on stage singing about how hard it is to live in the United States. Which, considering country music a) has so much of its DNA entwined with that of blues music, and b) originated from areas of America that were hotbeds of racial resentment and the violent oppression of black people, is no small concern.
That said, though, this is a dangerous game for me to play. I'm not just a white man, I'm a white middle-class British man. I'm not any closer to being able to pass comment on the struggle of being a working class white guy out on the deserted, hopeless back-roads of the American South than I am the daily experiences of African Americans. Both of them represent experiences utterly different from my own, and both represent experiences far too infrequently discussed or represented in the media likely to sail its way across the channel.
In short, a man who appropriates music born from generations of the intolerable treatment of a whole people in order to complain about how no-one understands him is someone I can frown at (for all that I'm a sucker for self-absorbed moping to a catchy tune). A man who takes that music to sketch out the shitty economic conditions that provide a backdrop for their life - well, I don't want to get into a fight with that guy about his choice of rhythm and structure.
This, in essence, is Guitar Town is all about. Living in some out-of-the-way tiny speck of civilisation ("They don't even know there's a town around here", Earle laments in "Someday") where there's nothing to do, but nor is there money to be made and, therefore, no escape to be had. The best songs on here detail this death-by-stasis; take the aforementioned "Someday", where counting out-of-state license plates constitutes the most interesting activity available, or the tight-rocking "Good Ol Boy (Getting Tough)" in which Earle tells us "I was born in the land of plenty, now there ain't enough". It's not the just the difficulty of the struggle here, though, it's the importance of it. Earle doesn't airbrush the rubble, he just won't use the rubble as an excuse to surrender. "Guitar Town" itself, aside from being a near-perfect slice of rocking country, is focused on the importance of defiant movement - "Everybody told me you can't get far On thirty-seven dollars and a jap  guitar" - and finding meaning amongst the humbleness of your own circumstances - I gotta two pack habit and a motel tan... With my back to the riser I make my stand".
And it seems to me that this is what country music is at its best; sifting through the detritus of the crumbling abandoned towns of the rural American south to find what gold it can. It isn't an easy job - the slow, sweet strum of "Little Rock 'n' Roller" is about a travelling musician's long-distance call to his young son, and could teach any number of miserable rockers a thing or two about how to write a song about the drawbacks of the musical life - but it has to be done. Somehow that realisation soaks into the steel strings and bottlenecks. Guitar Town is no exception. The title track is, as mentioned, wonderful; so too is the sharp, humming "Someday", the upbeat music/melancholy lyrics combination that gives country and western its clearest right to exist. "Fearless Heart" is pretty tasty, too, the best of three songs on the album ("Goodbye's All We've Got Left" and "Down The Road" being the other two, both of which are solid rather than inspired) which extend the metaphor of constant motion to avoid decay into the realm of the heart, with mixed results.
That's three standout joints among ten tracks, with another six entirely solid offerings, based around a simple concept, simple lyrics, and simple music; all of which is exactly what was needed. Lovely. And if "My Old Friend The Blues", the only dud on the album, seems to prove Carlin's point, my sympathies lie with Louis. White people do get to complain, as long as they do it as well as it's done here.
 I can't really frame this review around complaining rights across races and not note that this right here is pretty fucking not cool. I haven't been able to dig up anything about what the word is doing in the song; my assumption is its just a kind of nod to the "not American = bad" theory that permeates so much of the culture of our cousins across the pond. It certainly doesn't seem intended as a slur, but of course "I didn't mean to be specifically offensive, just generally dismissive of things I don't think are American" doesn't work too well as a defence.
If, indeed, that would be the defence used. Whatever else it is, though, it's an important line in the context of the album, which is why I've included it here.