Friday, April 23, 2004

Terrell's Tune-up: All the Fame of Jonboy Langford

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, April 23, 2004

On his new solo album, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds, Jon Langford tackles one of his favorite themes, both in his music and his paintings — the travails and temptations of country singers in post-war America.

The Welshman Langford has played “Lost Highway” with The Mekons and sung of “The Death of Country Music” with The Waco Brothers. As a visual artist, he’s known for his disturbing depiction of Hank Williams as a Saint Sebastian-like martyr — arrows sticking into his body, ribs sticking out of his skin — and Bob Wills signing a recording contract. A few years ago he did a series of granite tombstones with his favorite deceased country stars surrounded by skulls and rattlesnakes and booze bottles.

So once again Langford tells the story, which seems to be a distillation of everything that makes America attractive and everything that makes it repulsive.

It’s a story we’ve all heard, a tale of the farm boy Faust. It’s the story of Hank Williams, the story of Elvis Presley. The story of George Jones channeling his demon duck. It’s the myth of Johnny B. Goode, who’s grown old and jaded after seeing the inside of too many jail cells and divorce courts, seeing too many close views of too many barroom floors.

It might be the story of Faron Young, who took his own life decades after he broke the promise he made when he sang, “I’m gonna live fast, love hard, die young and leave a beautiful memory.” But Faron’s final chapter doesn’t seem to match the character of Langford’s hero, Lofty Deeds. After all, the last song on the album is a rousing cover of the blues/country classic “Trouble in Mind,” where, in spite of the singer’s threat to lay his head on the railroad tracks, the singer holds out the faith that “the sun’s gonna shine on my backdoor someday.”

But Langford’s album isn’t just an account of bad luck and human weaknesses. It’s a subtle indictment of a society that would drive its greatest voices to drink, drugs and despair.

Lofty Deeds is a man of his time, and his time was the Cold War era.
The song “Sputnik 57,” with its chunka chunka Johnny Cash rhythm, tells of the paranoia of those times, linking the Russians’ launching of the sputnik satellite to the Vietnam war to Neil Armstrong. “That’s one small step for man/One giant leap from Vietnam,” Langford growls.

And yet Langford, who has lived in the U.S. for a decade or so and is raising his children here, doesn’t get overly strident. In “The Country is Young,” a slow gospelish country tune, he is forgiving, and more than a little paternalistic about his adopted homeland: “So big and so clumsy .. You gotta wipe its fat ass and buy it some toys …”

Although the story he’s telling is tragic, this is hardly a dour album. Langford captures the joy of Lofty’s career as well as the tragedy. There’s a crazy Cold War cowboy bravado in the face of certain disaster in happy sounding songs like “Hard Times” and “Over the Cliff.” The ride in that song, with its driving honky tonk piano, sounds like so much fun, you’ll want to go over the cliff with him.

But in the dirge-like title song the consequences start to manifest:
“When the candles snuff and things get rough your enemies will seek your company/ When you’re all alone, pick up the phone/ I’m skull and bones/ remember me.”

This song is followed by one of Langford’s greatest tunes, “Nashville Radio,” done here in an up-tempo style. With a melody similar to “Rocky Top,” the narrator here is the ghost of Hank Williams, who sings of getting kicked off the Grand Old Opry and getting arrested only to have a jailer ask for his autograph.

“Doctor, doctor, please sign my prescription/ I’m in trouble again/Ever since I was a little tiny baby/ I just couldn’t get rid of the pain.”

This version has a power of its own. But the definitive “Nashville Radio” is found on an obscure limited edition EP called Gravestone. (Now out of print. I own copy number 368.) In its previous incarnation it was slow and dreamy with an electric sitar and a reggae-like bass, done as the first part of a medley with “The Death of Country Music.”

You’ll sympathize with Lofty’s plight and wonder why our favorite doomed entertainers keep making the same bad choices and stupid mistakes. You question why the entertainment industry seems to always create stars only to chew them up and spit them out. You wonder about a public that is thrilled to see some star go over the cliff. You wonder about yourself.

But in the end, Lofty’s story only begs the question. Would the music of Hank Williams — or Robert Johnson or Kurt Cobain — be as haunting or powerful if not for their pain? To steal a line from Tom Waits, if we could exorcize their demons, would their angels leave too?

Drink and Pills and Langford Radio:
Tune into The Santa Fe Opry for a lengthy set of Lofty Deeds and other Jon Langford music, 10 p.m. tonight (Friday) on KSFR, 90.7 FM.

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