Given the focus of fully two thirds of my blogs, you might have been expecting me to comment on the news that Iceman will soon be coming out as gay in All-New X-Men. Really, though, Rachel Edidin has concussed that nail so totally - poor thing must be seeing Angel and Xorn's face flying around its head right now - that there's precious little for me to add. Just read that piece, twice.
(Yes, that's a Playboy link, but obviously Edidin's article itself is smut free, and the surrounding ads are no less SFW than any other ad involving models in bikinis).
Preparation: Fill hi-ball glass halfway with ice. Add ingredients and serve.
General Comments: Apparently you're supposed to stir this, but I don't hold with such nonsense. If you stir it you spread the creme de banane through the whole drink; far better to let it pool at the bottom and let this get steadily thicker and sweeter as you go. Oddly, this also has the effect of making the first half of this drink almost indistinguishable from pineapple juice, albeit with some of the tartness replaced with alcohol.
That's a trade-off I, at least, am prepared to make. As to other factors; well, it's a bit dull to look at, and it's not very strong. On the other hand, it's the work of seconds to make, and I love the name, which combines standard pointless cocktail filth with a play on "screwdriver", the vodka and orange combination this beats into the rancid mashed potatoes it always was.
Well, not a lot happened, did it? Still, that's sort of the point.
(Game of Thrones spoilers below the fold. As always I'll not be discussing specifics of the books past the point the show is up to. I will though be talking about the tone of book four, so if that's too much for you; best skip this post.)
It's a good thing I used tentacles to rate albums rather than stars, as every stellar orb had exploded and died by the time I finished listening to all 100 songs on this "album". May these scattered thoughts on five hours of country music warm you through the endless frigid night that has begun.
1. Skid Row
This boasts a guitar which, for its time, is as filthy as the title suggests. Country’s blues roots were never more obvious.
2. Sing a Sad Song
Some slow soul/country. This is stereotypical windswept sad bastard music, except that I don't like it.
3. You Don’t Even Try
A honky-tonk staple, presumably.
4. Sam Hill
Well, it’s a tiny bit amusing, and I like the backing singers. Thought for ages the last lyric was “Eat a Snickers”, and I’m oddly disappointed that this is not the case.
5. (All My Friends Gonna Be) Strangers.
This is just "You Don’t Even Try" with less piano. Doubtless this is the last time Merle will sound like he's self-plagiarising. I hear country music is all about ringing the changes.
6. Just Between The Two Of Us
This one I like. It’s a nice little idea; we no longer love each other enough to care what the fuck the other one is doing. It's underlined by me not caring what the fuck Haggard is doing with his music. Synchronicity, bitches.
7. If I Had Left It Up To You
More sorrowful tinkling and strumming. Typically bleak country lyrics, too: if I let you leave the first time you tried I’d be over you by now anyway. Funny in its own miserable way.
8. I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can
I read somewhere that if you’re going to be an arsehole, you need to be either smart or pretty. So if you’re going to sing about being an arsehole, you need either smart lyrics or pretty music. This doesn’t manage either.
9. Swinging Doors
A song about drinking set to slide guitar. Let’s be kind and consider this a contractual obligation.
10. Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down
So of course the same damn trick immediately gets pulled again. In fairness this second iteration is much better. Who doesn’t sometimes feel the temptation to just drink until you don’t remember her (or him) anymore? Alcohol might ruin you, but at least you’ll see it coming.
11. High on a Hilltop
Here we get a sudden uptick in production quality, which is about the only way to distinguish era across this whole damn suite. This also flirts with upgrading itself to old-time spiritual. The Devil shows up, but fails to enliven the proceedings, a trick previously achieved only by Liz Hurley.
12. I’ll Look Over You
The diminishing returns are definitely kicking in now. It's strumming and bar-room piano. Again. His woman is going to leave him. Again. The problem with repetitive music over so long a period is that the definition of madness ends up also being its primary transmission vector.
13. The Fugitive
What is it about country music and trying to get us to feel sorry for criminals? At least gangstas make it clear they don’t give two shits about what you think of them. I like the guitar here, at least.
14. House of Memories
A classic cut from Haggard’s “House” phase, a period in which the instrumentation and vocals were exactly the same as always, but he was always miserable in houses.
15. All of Me Belongs To You
A perfect example of one of country music’s very best and hence most enduring tricks: a miserable song set to jaunty music. Not exactly a stand-out example of it, alas, but it performs its role.
16. Mary’s Mine
Everything is blurring badly at this point. This is kind of the photo negative of the last song; reasonably happy lyrics over standard blues-spawned country. Which is to say that this is pretty much everything we’ve hit here already. 84 songs to go.
17. Someone Told My Story
OK, props for this one. The music is the same as it ever was; unenthusiastic strumming sprinkled with oddly stuttering guitar licks. But I at least love the concept of the song, involving as it does the singer realising someone else has written a song that perfectly describes incidents in his own life. We’ve all stumbled across songs that sound to us like they were written specifically to soundtrack our past, and it’s nice to see a singer come at things from that angle rather than all that sniffy bullshit about how “this song isn’t about you”. We find meaning where we can, arsehole; you don’t get to gate-keep that. And don’t even get me started on that Carly Simon tune.
18. Go Home
In which a man can't live with his Mexican wife because his friends are racist dicks. As oppose to racist disks, of course. That's what the racist dicks are guesting on.
19. Whatever Happened To Me
Merle's woman has stopped calling him and he's collapsed into a swamp of self-pity. Reeeeeeeeally slowly.
20. Loneliness is Eating Me Alive
Christ, he’s miserable in a house again. It’s always a house, or a bar. Can’t he try being miserable in a discotheque, or a tepidarium, or Sweden?
21. I Threw Away the Rose
A tale of how a man had a choice between booze and romance, and went through door number 1. You can see his point. I should mention the music too, I guess. There is music. It is definitely there. I’m beginning to think it’ll always be there. Waiting for me in the night, two guitars and approximately that many chords, playing forever at the same tempo. Sound with no fury, signifying nothing.
22. Branded Man
On how tough it is for an ex-con in America. Points for message. And the backing singers. No points for anything else. Well, maybe brevity, I guess.
23. You Don’t Have Very Far to Go
A rather bitterly ironic title, considering. Most interesting guitar since we started, though. There’s even brief flashes of the sort of thing Pete Townsend used to come up with when he couldn’t be bothered to plug his guitar in. Then the classic guitar kicks in, and it all hangs together quite well. Lyrics? He’s miserable, obviously.
24. Somewhere Between
Oh Gods whatever I’ve stopped caring. Is this still going on? It’s still going on.
25. Sing Me Back Me Home
And then all of a sudden it becomes rather lovely. It’s another song about feeling sympathy for a criminal, but the dude’s about to get executed, so fair enough. Plus, I always have a soft spot for songs about being taken away to die on, well, songs. Also too the harmonies are good, the guitar here remains simple but is no longer desultory, and there’s a gorgeous horn kiss-off that – appropriately enough – dies away just as you’ve realised it’s there.
26. Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp
A change of pace here: now he’s miserable in a house for economic rather than romantic reasons.
27. Seeing Eye Dog
Merle’s last-minute swerve into intense elation is somewhat ruined by his belief that being blinded by a woman’s beauty constitutes sufficient cause to apply for a guide dog. Other people genuinely need animal helpers, you selfish prick.
28. The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde
A fiddle! I loves me a fiddle. So this one gets some points, even if we’re once again in “let’s chinwag about murderers” territory.
29. Today I Started Loving You Again
One of Haggard’s best-loved platters, and so a perfect illustration of the problem here: it’s well-crafted and heartfelt, but it’s only a minor deviation from a dozen other slow country ballads I’ve had to wade through already. This box-set really should be called “How To Prove Diminishing Returns Are A Thing”. I mean, that’s kind of long as a title, but you can’t say that’s inappropriate, not after almost eighty minutes of Merle already.
There are seventy-one more songs to go.
30. Is This the Beginning of the End
If only. This is barely the end of the beginning. It will never end. Haggard will always be here, a blue slow river beneath a sky of slide guitar, moaning forever. I am in the stream. I am the stream. Merle is the stream. It will never end.
31. I’ll Always Know
New tempo, same concerns. This time Merle’s woman is cheating on him, and he knows. Oh, he knows. But apparently he won’t actually do anything about it other than write passive-aggressive songs about it. Man up, Merle.
32. Mama Tried
A bewildering chimera of a song. Gorgeous acoustic picking and a standard but spirited vocal (about, obviously, feeling sorry for someone in prison) are all ruined by an appalling series of electric guitar licks that are less welcome or necessary as a spray-painted gushing dick on the Bayeux Tapestry.
33. In the Good Old Days When Times Were Bad
An important corrective to nostalgia. We can remember our pasts fondly and simultaneously be fully aware that it would be goddamn awful to actually have to live through it again. This song also has the benefit of not involving a white man longing for the days when everyone else had it so much worse than they do now.
34. Teach Me to Forget
When I spent three weeks in Slovenia on a research trip my host would sometimes play me local radio whilst we drove around, helpfully summarising the lyrics of each song so I could understand. I still remember his summation of a slow mournful tune we heard on the way to Bled. “Ah,” he said dismissively. “He is sad. His woman has left him”.
Nothing more needed to be said then. Nothing more need be said now. More songs should have laconic Slovenian summaries. There’s a Youtube show I could get behind.
35. I’m Looking for My Mind
Ah. He is sad. His woman has left him.
36. The Day the Rains Came
A pretty song about boning in a cave whilst hiding from the world outside. They should have used this to soundtrack Jon Snow finally getting his crow cawed. I don’t know why Merle’s so insistent on referring to the woman’s love as “strange”, though. Dude, you’re doing the nasty underground. Inside a giant rock vagina. Let’s be careful about chucking around accusations of weirdness, huh?
37. California Blues
Because in 1969 you weren’t allowed to call a song “Fuck You, Bitch, I’m Moving To The Coast And You Ain’t Invited”. The subtextual cussing here really isn’t deep beneath the slate,though.
38. I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am
A fiddle and a banjo? With added harmonica? This is more like it. A respectful nod to America’s transients, and a reminder that no-one gets to tell you what you chose to feel proud about.
39. I’m Bringing Home Good News
Another entry in Haggard’s favourite sub-genre of booting a lady-friend done him wrong. After
getting drunk, obviously. Better this than the endless moping, at least, and letting your about-to-be-ex know she doesn’t have to hide the milkman’s slippers anymore is one of my all-time favourite ways of letting someone know you know they’ve been unfaithful.
40. I Can’t Hold Myself in Line
A drinking song for depressed alcoholics who’d rather give up on a relationship than face the uphill battle to sort themselves out and be worth the love they’re getting. Guitar, harmonica, self-indulgent misery. But then self-indulgent misery is what alcoholism is frequently all about, so if nothing else I can’t fault this for cohesion.
41. It Meant Goodbye To Me When You Said Hello to Him
Ah, he is sad etc. Seriously, if Haggard generally had lost a partner every time he did a song about it, his average relationship must be done faster than black people clapping Patricia Arquette (a joke which was topical when I was wading though this). Has he considered just not being a terrible boyfriend?
(Love the rhythmic “ahums” here, though; even if it does sound like an elderly Tory lord politely clearing his throat before announcing we could save money be reclassifying poor people as renewable fuel.)
42. Hungry Eyes
A sad song about a poor man trying to provide for his wife, who never says a word that’s anything but understanding, but whose eyes betray just how much more she was hoping for. There are potentially gender issues to untangle here, but I’m not inclined to dig too deep into the gender politics of the working poor in 1940s America. Not when this song is so melancholy, and when it genuinely touches on a universal theme: the sadness you feel when you realise you’ll never give your partner what you know they deserve.
43. Silver Wings
This time the woman leaving Merle is leaving him on a plane. It’s the little variations we have to focus on. Speaking of which, there’s a nice piano riff here, and plenty of lovely strings.
44. Waiting for a Train
Boz Scaggs’ version is better. This needs more yodelling.
45.Blue Yodel #6 (Midnight Turning Day Blues)
A brilliant name like that is hard to live up to, and taking the fucking yodelling out is not the way to do it.
46. California Cottonfields
A stern reminder that if you’re trying to convince yourself the grass is greener elsewhere, you might not want to pick a state renowned for being mostly desert. Another example of a song that sounds far more jaunty than its lyrics suggest, though there’s a repeated two-bar stretch here that Eels seemingly built their entire later career upon. Which is an odd link, but then this is kind of a weird song, comparatively speaking. But it’s still about Merle being poor and his family being miserable, and thus is one more reminder that the biggest difference between blues and country was always the colour if the guy complaining how hard it is to make a buck.
47. White Line Fever
Misery on an endless road. Nothing but the same lines and pauses stretching out in front of you forever. Nothing and nowhere you’ve not seen before. Just the trail you’re partway along, always, chasing a destination that keeps receding and you can’t remember the name of in anyway.
Ironically that's is what this song is about too.
48. Working Man Blues
I’m sure I’d have loved this fast-rolling slice of Cash-esque blues-country forty-seven songs ago.
49. Okie from Muskogee
Bullshit conservative hectoring set to an appropriately tired strum. Fuck every single piece of this.
50. I Can’t Stop Loving You
Another song so steeped in the fake past nostalgia draws for us – a long-gone ex this time – that the best one can say is that the miserably tired music is appropriate. But so what? Having red-hot shards of broken glass ground into your genitals is appropriate during an eternity of torture in the everlasting fires of Hell. It doesn’t mean I should consider it entertaining.
Another above-average musical cut (those guitar riffs are genuinely lovely) spoiled by how little I care about the subject matter. This time Merle’s complaining about having been given two life sentences for planning a bank job because he he's not a fan of menial labour. You don’t have to be a rabid defender of property rights to not give two shits on this one.
52. Irma Jackson
A repeated slice of finger-picking that has the rhythm and momentum of an oncoming train underlines this yelp of confusion about why a white boy can be friends with a black girl, but once they grow up and fall in love the whole fucking world goes nuts. In amongst literally dozens of songs about how Merle can’t have the woman he wants, this is the very least hackneyed, and the tremendous simplicity of the lyrics – never much one for many words, is our Merle – renders the theme universal rather than cliché.
53. The Fightin’ Side of Me
Merle takes some time out of his busy schedule tongue-bathing the criminal element to threaten his fellow citizens who criticise US foreign policy with a dose of fisticuffs. Twenty quid says he’s named those hams after infamous Western outlaws, or possibly women who refused to sleep with him. Haggard looked back at over a decade of American losses in Vietnam and decided he should lend his voice to the people insisting the anti-war movement was going to destroy America. File under “Go fuck yourself, forever”.
54. I’ll Be a Hero (When I Strike)
Christ, Merle, who are you punching now? I can’t be sure, but I think he’s claiming to be a ninja here.
55. Right Or Wrong
Featuring the welcome return of the Fiddle of Jauntiness. All is well within earshot of the Fiddle of Jauntiness. Even “Cotton-Eye Joe” could not dampen its enthusiasm, nor negate its charm. Nor can this, an ol’fashioned stomp that, despite being once again about some woman who’s left Merle, is actually pretty fun. There’s no need for it to go on for four minutes, mind.
56. Trouble in Mind
Tasty New Orleans horns take up the guest spot this time. What’s happening here? Suddenly Merle is branching out, and the clouds are parting to reveal light at the end of this tunnel. Which isn’t a mixed metaphor; the tunnel is transparent. And, er, in the sky.
57. Stay a Little Longer
A dedication to Bob Mills, ostensibly the greatest fiddle player in the world, from the album also dedicated to him. And it’s beautiful, one of Mill’s own tracks adapted by Haggard and featuring ecstatic fiddle and joyous piano. This third disc is actually turning out to be something to hear. The grim death march through the criminals and conservatives of a region forever insane has become an almost pleasant stroll – a stroll through a region forever insane still, but that’s how it goes.
But can the remaining 87.5% live up to this storming opening?
58. The Farmer’s Daughter
No. Not when Merle’s farmer refers to his daughter as “my only possession”. As Phil Sandifer once said, the worst stuff is the bigoted crap, it’s the bigoted crap that doesn’t even have the decency to be interesting. And this doesn’t even have the decency to reach above soporific.
59. Tulare Dust
It’s strange how completely intertwined are country music’s twin obsessions with the drawn-out misery of the hardscrabble life and the general awesomeness of the petty criminal, as though the latter had no effect on the former. As though everyone Pancho and Lefty shot at could afford a bullet-proof vest spun from pure gold. America, like everywhere else, has its Great Lies, and one of them is that you can do whatever the fuck you like and the only people who’ll get hurt are those that deserve to be. That’s how half a country ends up cannibalising itself whilst the other half grins and rakes in the diner takings. When you fire in every direction, the rich don’t get hit any more often than the poor do, and they feel it a damn sight less, too.
It’s not the rebel’s urge for freedom I have a problem with. It’s their target selection.
(Oh, this song: boring.)
Merle is channelling early Cohen here, though the difference between the two is pretty obvious; here the lush backing vocals wander into the mawkish, and the whole piece is overloaded with strings, though in truth I rather like that bit. The big problem here is – no surprise – the lyrics, in which Merle explains men will always go to another city and fuck another woman if they’re being treated bad at home. Because why discuss your problems when you can step out, right lads? As if I didn’t have enough problems with Merle’s politics, now he’s straight up telling women it’s their fault if their men cheat. Which GT-entire-FO.
61. Someday We’ll Look Back
We’re definitely coasting again. At least Merle’s moved on to talking about how the hard times with his women are something to ride out until they can reach their sunset years and pretend they enjoyed themselves. Sure, that's a pretty depressing idea, but it's still better than twelveteen-hundred songs about how his woman is gone, or treating him wrong, or making him fuck someone else because she’s just so mean.
62. Daddy Frank
This both sounds and reads like a strange alternate-universe Brady Bunch theme, where instead of everything being brilliant smiles, a family of vagrants help out their blind dad busk for change. Which is a cute idea crying out for a clever 60-second video, but rather slight for its three-minutes-plus runtime.
63. Grandma Harp
*Puts on best Hound scowl*
“Are you going to do all seven of the fuckers?”
Just kidding. A song for his departed grandmother. Frankly it’s the least a grandson can do.
64. It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)
On the benefits of no longer being an idiot chasing after what your heart insists you want while all available evidence demonstrates it’s making you miserable. How far I can endorse the idea of choosing someone that makes you happy over someone who gives you butterflies rather depends on how well-informed your choice of partner is, of course.
(Music level: whatever)
65. I Wonder If They Ever Think Of Me
Hah. This is a nice twist. It starts in the same faded woe-is-me territory Merle’s been moping through for almost seventy songs now; just one more lament from a man who done wrong as he rots in prison and dreams of his past. Then, halfway through the second verse, we learn the narrator isn’t in the hoosegow, but a POW camp in ‘Nam. Which I respect as a fake-out, and appreciate as a vastly better take on the Vietnam War than Merle managed with “I Punch All Commies!” or whatever it was.
There’s still not much here but another standard chord progression strolling forward with grim inevitability, but again, at least such well-trodden minimalism at least makes sense as the underpinnings of unalloyed nostalgic yearning. Plus, there’s a fiddle, which at this point seems unassailable in its position as most welcome instrument in a Merle Haggard cut.
66. If We Make It Through December
“It’s the coldest time of winter” Merle announces, presumably meaning he spends each January and February regenerating in an underground pod. Or maybe he’s just referring to the cold shoulder he’s getting from his daughter, who’s furious that lay-offs at the factory has meant Merle can’t afford to buy her any presents. Kids: just the worst.
67. The Emptiest Arms in the World
Science demands this song should be about a heartsbroken octopus, of course, but Merle isn’t going to let trivialities like biology or arithmetic get in the way of another self-involved mope about Losing His Woman. Which is a real shame. I bet cephalopods and country music would go really well together.
68. Everybody’s Had the Blues
Yes, they have. What they haven’t had is the urge to write a song about Every Damn Time. Nice harmonica though.
69. Things Aren’t Funny Anymore
Some chilled-out noodling towards the end helps to at least partially redeem another song about how the passage of time has sapped joy from Merle’s life. The fact that this slowest of songs is also the most exciting this disc has managed for at least the last half-dozen tracks is a rather stark reminder of the importance of varying your tempo, especially if you refuse to vary your complaining.
70. Honky-Tonk Night Time Man
A rather Cash-like stomp about tossing aside your blues so you can get your fun on. Which is nice. You know four hours from now Merle will be staring into an empty glass crooning sadly about the loss of Woman #473, but for now the raised knees and lifted expectations are rather nice. Cracking fade-out, too.
71. Holding Things Together
Another minor variation on the formula; this time the woman who’s left Merle has done so after they had kids, so he has to mope on their behalf as well as his own. Naturally, none of this is as depressing as how stilted and lifeless the song itself is. Even the fiddle is starting to get old.
72. Here In Frisco
Still more complaining about not having a woman, obviously, but at least it works at achieving a mood, the laid-back guitars and background crooning summoning up the lonely night Merle is spending beside the Pacific. It sounds like someone’s brought a mandolin along too, though only to play the same damn note over and over. Which is so wonderful a comment on Haggard’s approach I can only assume it’s a moment of truly hilarious self-deprecation.
73. Kentucky Gambler
Some kind of savant-born song about the perils of gambling that somehow manages to hit the most obvious idea every single time. Every line, every chord, every beat is exactly what you think it will be, where it will be. If you tried to test AIs by having computers write pieces about the perils of compulsive gambling, this song would just be dismissed as elementary pattern recognition.
Of course, it might just be that after four hours in Merle’s company I can’t avoid seeing the underlying processes. I’ve hacked into the mainframe. I don’t even see the code; all I see is divorce, drinking, criminality.
Gods be good, have I gone native?
Twenty-seven songs to go.
74. Always Wanting You
Wants woman. Can’t have her. Guitar. Crooning. They will play this on my lift-ride to Hell, and it will be a relief to get to the bottom floor of the basement. Each twist of the red-hot poker, each sizzling rip as my innards are torn and charred, will sound nothing like this song, and I will weep with joy.
75. Living With The Shades Pulled Down
An unexpected slice of New Orleans swing celebrating falling for a prostitute and fucking all day. All grins, yelps and horns, plus filthy guitar in the gaps. Glorious.
76. The Running Kind
A more spirited and full sound behind another standard Haggard trope; the need to get away from stability. “Every front door had me hopin’ the back door would be open” is one of his best lines, though.
77. It’s All In The Movies
OK, I proper love this one. An atypical crooning melody and a laid-back Bacharach vibe that manages to sound precise rather than disinterested. Layered sound and the occasional arrival of a seductive saxophone combine to create a damn fine slice of easy listening, as well as song that warns us about getting too lost in movies whilst itself being the most obvious choice for a film soundtrack imaginable. As CJ Cregg once said; that’s how I like my irony served, my friend.
78. The Way It Was In ‘51
Ugh. Another lethargic drunken crawl through a past that never existed, and sounds like it was awful anyway. If your historical insight is at the level where the best word you can summon to describe the Korean War is “bad”, maybe the problem isn’t that times haven’t changed, so much as you never grasped what the fuck the times were in the first place.
Also, too; if I were endlessly recycling the structure of a music genre ripped almost full-grown from African Americans, I’d be damn careful about complaining that New York got hold of it too.
79. I Never Go Around Mirrors
A song about hiding your face from mirrors because your woman has left you (of course she has) and you’ve turned to booze (of course you have) and now can’t stand to see how awful you look. Musically, there’s at least forty other songs here that do the same job, but you can at least get a bit of a chuckle from the lyrics if you assume the singer is an alcoholic vampire who’s in denial about draining his own girlfriend as a chaser.
80. What Have You Got Planned Tonight, Diana?
A sweet little song about the importance of asking for dates with your partner even after you’re married, after you’re parents, and after they've died and you're about to meet up again in the afterlife. It’s actually a wee bit lovely. A smart song to end a disc on.
81. If We’re Not Back In Love By Monday
By now I’ve exhaustively detailed how much of Merle’s sad-bastard shtick is depressing only by its mediocrity and repetitiveness. This though is properly tragic, the sad tale of a man trying for a last-ditch swerve away from his marriage disintegrating. As though a quick trip to Florida without the kids can save the whole shebang. As though car crashes look any better in the Atlantic sun. “Before we bury our love, let’s make sure it’s really died” Haggard begs, and it’s just the right kind of pathetic statement from someone not yet ready to accept the inevitable. The music couldn’t be more different, but I can’t shake the thought of John Darnielle's Tallahassee when I listen to this, and there’s never a time when that isn’t a compliment.
82. It’s Been A Great Afternoon
A song Merle is singing about finally coming out of the fug of a hangover, which by the laws of time means the song must have been written during the fug of a hangover. Which is pretty much what it sounds like.
83. Ramblin’ Fever
“I can’t stand to hear the same old song”, Merle croons. Fuck you Merle. Now you’re just trolling me.
84. Red Bandana
I’ve had much less patience for songs about not being able to fit in with the expectations of others since I realised obsessing over your individuality is what you cling to when you fail at the actual goal of life: not being a total prick. Whomever Merle is failing to commit to here is better off without him, and it’s a mark of her classiness that she didn’t try to garrotte him with that damn red bandana before he reached the middle eight.
Sounds like nothing else Haggard has offered up in the last 84 songs, and as such it could be a song about how my mother is a puppy-eating slut and I’d still feel relieved. It’s the slow flourish of keys that makes it, setting up Haggard’s melancholy better than could any number of minor-key strums or complaints about women. And if the subject matter of the loneliness of the singer-songwriter has probably been getting eye-rolls since the invention of the man-portable lute, at least the quality of this demonstrates Merle has gained something from the process.
86. My Own Kind Of Hat
A violin-driven, dusty waltz on the importance of idiosyncratic millinery. A noble sentiment.
87. Misery And Gin
Built around a rising piano riff and a similarly lifting melody, this is another classic warm-music sad-lyrics switcheroo, which fits in rather nicely with the general theme of people in bars not being nearly so full of fun as they might seem to be from a distance. Simple, short, and surprisingly lush.
It’s hard not to respect someone who uses one of their best songs to sing about how much they owe to one of their former songwriters, especially when the song isn’t a hagiography but an admission of how screwed up their friend was. Plus “Somehow I had to write a song for old Tommy, if just to see the smilin’ faces in the band” has to rank as one of the sweetest lines Haggard ever wrote. Nice.
89. I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink
Using booze as armour against women upsetting you, failing to live up to your expectations, or really being anything other than exactly what you demand of them. How could that go wrong? A song so uncompromising Haggard refuses to even find words that rhyme with “drink”. The booze will just be there and goddamn anything that can’t make room for it.
It’s got some tasty boot-stomp guitar to it, though, underpinned by the kind of piano-as-percussion that drives many a fine song for dark bars and lonely experts in self-delusion. As tasty and bad for you as the liquor that drips off every line.
90. Rainbow Stew
I don’t care we’ll never eat rainbow stew. I only care that I finish this box-set before it breaks me. Just eat normal stew, Merle! Normal stew is perfectly palatable! Don’t come round here complaining it doesn’t draw from the full colour wheel. Sooner or later you just got to let shit go, you know?
91. Big City
You’re not going to get me onside by suggesting people should give up on steady work because the city is dirty and social security is bullshit. By all accounts Haggard pissed his teenage years away, but it turned out not to matter because he was crazy talented. Not everyone gets as many second chances, or can rely on quite so shiny an ace in the hole. Fortunately, the song’s pretty boring too, so at least I don’t have to feel conflicted.
92. Are The Good Times Really Over
Not a bad tune, but it’s just more reactionary nostalgic bullshit about how everything was better before the ‘60s ruined it all with their laziness and their rock’n’roll and their women’s lib and now America is weak and damned and no-one loves the flag anymore and FUCK RIGHT OFF.
(He’s right about Nixon, though. Not that that's hard.)
93. You Take Me For Granted
Piano and string ballad about how Merle’s lady doesn’t give him enough love no more. The almost total banishment of guitars (just a lonely slide guitar haunting the mix) makes for a nice change of pace, but the overall effect is rather ephemeral; less a tragedy than a brief flash of slight sympathy, written on a spider-web.
94. Pancho And Lefty
One of the best Townes Van Zandt songs I’ve ever heard (and I’ve not heard nearly enough), Merle has Willie Nelson along for the ride here, and between them if anything they improve on the near-flawless original. This will be on my mental playlist forever. Most of this I suspect is down to Nelson, who had the idea for the collaboration and sang the first two verses because Haggard complained there were too many vocals.
Too many vocals. The greatest song Haggard took on in this entire 100 song set, a masterpiece that outshines every moment of Haggard’s hot-and-cold writing career by an order of magnitude, and he’s worried it’d involve too many words. What a doofus.
(Though that seeming dislike of too much singing might be what led to him barely showing up for that “Politically Uncorrect” aural and political nightmare which Gretchen Wilson vomited forth upon the world. That was definitely the best choice ol’ Hag could’ve made, short of refusing to return Wilson’s calls entirely.)
95. That’s The Way Love Goes
Basically a rewrite of “Misery and Gin” with less booze and more sulking about another woman who’s left him. Pass.
96. Someday When Things Are Good
More lounge piano; when did Merle decide this needed to be a thing? Actually, I kind of like it, though already it’s starting to feel a little hollowed-out. Merle Haggard: musical strip-miner.
Still, I like the sentiment. Rather than complaining once again about someone leaving him or doing him wrong, Merle quietly admits he’s going to leave his other half once she starts feeling better about life. It’s sad, but it’s calm, an acceptance of how life works out sometimes and how you have to not be all about yourself for a while.
(Mind you, I have to ask: does Haggard’s partner know that’s the deal he’s offering? Maybe she wouldn’t be keen on him hanging around purely out of pity. Just sayin’.)
97. Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room Tonight
Not, as you might have hoped, a southern-fried country-blues cover of the Benny Hill theme. Still, whilst the music might be a disappointment, at least the overall effect is much less rapey as a result. And really, it’s not too bad; an up-tempo stomp with plenty of spirited fiddle. One for oldie dancefloors and un-ironic wedding discos.
98. Kern River
In which Merle channels his inner Leonard Cohen one last time for a slow, sorrowful story of a drowned girl and a fear of moving water, set to a mournful dobro and the distant wailing of Haggard’s love. Simplistic but genuinely atmospheric.
99. Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star
Oh Gods, no. The sound of teenagers dancing slow and chaste in at the high-school dance of nostalgia-addicts never-was past. As schmaltzy and saccharine as it is nonsensical. Even the horns are awful.
100. In My Next Life
Chiming guitars and the best riff Haggard ever got his hands on, Merle suddenly goes all Garth Brooks, and it’s a great fit. And it’s not even morally or politically objectionable. It ends, at least, on a high.
Which is more than can be said for this post, I guess. That can only end with tentacles. Four of them, in this case. It's not that all that much of this is bad - or at least the problem isn't the music but the politics. It's that the best scenery in the world to walk through is going to get boring before your marathon is even halfway done.
At long last, after almost seven months and nearly 6000 words, I'm almost finished with my review of Down Every Road, the 100-song behemoth of a box-set Rolling Stone insists on referring to as an album. To celebrate the upcoming arrival of this entirely unnecessary beast of a post, let's listen to the one percent of those songs that I properly adore.
Nelson was on the recorded version to - it was his idea for him and Haggard to tackle this song, which Townes Van Zandt wrote. Toby Keith is up there too, for whatever reason.
Special bonus song: this horrific slice of White American Christian sulking about how somehow it's them who don't get sufficient respect in the US. Think of this as the merest taste of the politics I've been bombarded with across four discs and more than half a year.
With the Twin Peaks resurrection seemingly only days away from complete collapse, it seems a good time to talk about a show that's put a truly impressive amount of effort into running its play-book: Fortitude.
I haven't a great deal to add to the cold, swirling outrage spinning around the Hugo Awards getting themselves rocket-jacked by grotesque fractions of human beings so that the corpse of the awards' good name can be tanned and cut into swastikas. Adam Roberts has already covered this beat with his usual aplomb (Update: as has Abigail Nussbaum, as Jamie points out in comments) and further strong contributions have emerged from Jack Graham, Philip Sandifer and Andrew Hickey.
Those three have, in fact, slapped together an Emergency Anti-Fascist Podcast, which I can't recommend highly enough. All of it is smart and considered - I completely endorse the strategy of buying in to voting to vote "NO AWARD" across the board - but I'm particularly interested in the idea that geek culture is particularly susceptible to the kind of villainous horrors Vox Day is openly pedalling because so many of us had a genuine claim to victimhood as school-kids that we're refuse to let go of as we reach adulthood. As Sandifer points out, even at its worst the experience of a cis white male geek is unlikely to match up in the horror stakes with the ever-present threat of sexual or racist violence, but for many of us it was legitimately terrible, and having to go from years of that to suddenly be told you're now on top of the pile and owe it to others to be constantly aware of how good you have it can presumably be an awful wrench.
I wonder though if this captures the whole picture. When Sandifer points out that Vox Day's most controversial comments are so reprehensible not even FOX News or the Republican Party would put up with him, Graham notes this would only be true if those comments were public. Sandifer shoots back that Day's comments are public, but it may simply be that the sense of the word "public" is critical. It's at least arguable that what would cost Day his position at a "news" corporation or a seat in politics wouldn't be the disgust of his colleagues but the fear of the inevitable push-back from the public. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that supporting the throwing of acid in women's faces or calling black people less evolved than whites are positions you'd find much sympathy for in Ailes' world. Much as I despise those people, I'm not going to assume that level of derangement from them. What I am saying is that there seems to be at least a grudging tolerance of extreme views on the right so long as you remember what side you're supposed to be on. It may be that geekdom is not more tolerant of grotesque extremism, so much as has far less motivation to rid itself of those spouting said extremism.
That may or may not be a compelling thought. Either way though it's at least instructive, because it leads us to a potential limitation in Sandifer's argument. I think it's almost impossible to deny that conservatives have made delusions of oppression just as much a central facet of their world-view as has the post-eighteen year old geek. That the latter group can are clinging to an essentially irrelevant past rather than an entirely fictional one doesn't seem that useful a distinction: we believe what we believe. To the extent thy differ, how do we distinguish between the persecution complexes of the conservative and the geek?
Alas, I have no idea. I mean, I could quite easily take Sandifer's theory further, arguing the problem with geeks isn't just the insistence on hanging on to old grievances, however legitimate, but our (often subconscious) insistence that the battles we lost in school must be re-fought with ourselves as the victors. Attempts to marginalise geeks for not being the right sort of geeks are everywhere, because for every one of us who took from school the lesson that a war over tastes and opinions in fiction is a bogus construction , two of us concluded the only problem with the war is that we should clearly be the ones winning it.
In other words, for many of us our early life taught us to be on a hair trigger, but gave us no morally defensible process for deciding where to point the gun. And I see that as feeding the appalling unwillingness to call out people like Vox Day, who operate as "one of us" only insofar as they don't operate as one of the nebulous "them" of our shared past. We've become so caught up in a war we consider quintessential to our own being that we're seemingly prepared to forgive anything "our people" do, so long as they don't say anything that actively betrays us.
This is, without doubt, a thoroughly disgusting position to hold, and can only work so long as we define "our people" as a cabal of straight white cis men terrified that anyone else might get a turn at enjoying themselves . But I still don't see how that thoroughly disgusting position varies from the thoroughly disgusting position held by the right-wing. That so much of us operate as though we are members of the right-wing is a disgraceful and humiliating stain upon our fandom. But that's not the same as us being uniquely awful. On the contrary, the problem with our awfulness might be precisely that it's so pedestrian.
 To a point, of course. Fiction has power, and that means it can be used by the enemy. But that simply makes it all the more important that we focus on what aids the enemy, as oppose to what simply turns us off personally. Simply put, the wider we cast our complaints, the less force we can exert on what genuinely needs to be fought against.
Here at last, over two years after acquiring the Dark Vengeance box-set, I've finally painted the last cultist in my first non-Astartes unit for my Red Corsairs. Here he is, happily gambolling across the steppes of my second finished Realm of Battle tile.
And there's the whole gang, fearlessly straddling a rather alarming fissure on the surface of Skwidcowch I. That's some dedication to naughtiness right there.