American Gothic #5: American Gothic Music
Now we come to the infant of this breed: American Gothic Music. Compared to fiction, art and even film American Gothic Music is a recent phenomenon indeed, going back at most to the late 60’s, and even then only as a hint in the musical wing of this American Gothic museum, which is still under-construction.
It’s interesting to ask why. Why would the music take such a long time to develop when the literature began in the late 1700’s? One would imagine that with all of the other work that had been done in American Gothic Culture by 1950 that there would have been a serious attempt to construct some sort of decayed variation on the themes in American Music. In classical music only Charles Ives Unanswered Question seems to have any Gothic links, yet that seems somewhat incidental. Certainly there are spooky blues and country tunes just ripe for use in an American Gothic context. Think of Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightnin’ or Hank William’s Ramblin’ Man or especially Tommy Johnson’s strange falsetto in Cool Drink of Water Blues. The context of these songs make them potent compost for the roots of an American Gothic Music, but they are only visions of personal trouble not the broader, sadder, vision of an America in decay. But make no mistake about it these are the roots of the tone of American Gothic Music to come.
Perhaps we can point to something in Screamin’ Jay Hawkins crazed Fifties sounds: Frenzy or I Put a Spell On You. He started his stage show by emerging from a coffin with a skull scepter and a cape. But this was more Halloween than American Gothic. He certainly is an influence. You can feel Hawkins in Tom Waits’ Eighties oeuvre.
The first real sense of American Gothic probably comes from what would also be considered the first band with real Gothic overtones: The Doors. Although one can indeed hear a Gothic funereal quality in their music, nevertheless most of the Doors references are philosophically European, only tinged by the blues. Nevertheless I think we have to consider their dark epic, The End, a true milestone in American Gothic Music. Lyrically Morrison refers to Greyhound buses, ‘the West is the best’, ‘weird scenes inside the goldmine’ all of which puts us directly in California and the ghost towns and hippie dreams of a golden consciousness. But the biggest shock in the song isn’t the Oedipal violence, rather it is the growing revelation that the singer is the killer and that the listener is the next victim of this Manson-like figure. The message of the song essentially boils down to this: Come to the West and be killed. And this was a huge record in 1967, during the hyped Summer of Love, two years before Manson’s cult followers would slaughter several Californians.
But musically the Doors are rarely American Gothic. They borrow from Modern Jazz, German Cabaret, Indian Ragas and Spanish Flamenco. And, of course, often borrow from the blues. But we will have to look elsewhere for a real American Gothic style.
The first American Gothic album has to go to the man who is seemingly so often first: Bob Dylan. After his motorcycle accident Dylan stepped back from the cultural upheavals partly unleashed by his own work. I have gotten the feeling that he never could quite stare into the heart of those changes. Many of them seemed repellent to him later on. So during the media fabricated Summer of Love Dylan hid out in Woodstock and played a lot of country-flavored songs with The Band. Eventually these recordings would come out in the 1970’s as The Basement Tapes. And one can hear a growing American Gothicism in songs like This Wheel’s on Fire.
But the real American Gothic Music was what came out next: his most enigmatic album, John Wesley Harding. An odd sort of country music, biblical allusions and a sense of humility haunted the album, which was released without much hullabaloo in December 1967. In a moment of psychedelic excess Dylan released this strange record of autumnally oblique fables: All Along the Watchtower, I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine and the extraordinarily puzzling The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. I think we can call this the first true work in the musical wing of American Gothic.
The Eagles bordered on American Gothic territory with songs like the Hotel California, which has a bit more of a rootsy approach to the music than the Doors. And of course lyrically Hotel California is nearly as fascinating as The End, especially the lines about not having had ‘that spirit here since 1969’. But the Eagles are far too commercial a band to really be considered an American Gothic band.
A mention must be made here of Ry Cooder’s haunted slide guitar sound, especially as heard in his scores for films like Southern Comfort and Paris, Texas. This is not a sound found directly in the blues. Cooder’s specialty was to translate the older slide guitar sound into something much more capable of capturing the desolation of the vast American landscape.
Tom Waits, an Asylum Records stable mate of the Eagles, meanwhile had been known mostly for his songwriting skills and his neo-Beat persona on stage. But evidently something else had been brewing beneath the surface. In 1983 for his first recording on Island Records Waits came out with the LP Swordfishtrombones. This was something quite else with a vengeance. With Waits in a carnival scenario on the cover, complete with midget, the album was a new template for a new kind of music that would take years for anyone to really emulate: This was a fully realized American Gothic album. The sense of musical decay was palpable. The dark carnival pervades the album as well as a sense of undefined queasiness. The music hovers between traveling sideshow and film noir with bits of rural morbidity thrown in for good measure: 16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six. The album occasionally detours towards pop standards and odes to bacon and eggs yet the central impression is of a lizard’s blue belly to the American dream. ‘I’m goin’ to whittle you into kindling’!
From here on Waits is never far from the seedy vision of a carnivalesque American nightmare. Albums like Rain Dogs and Bone Machine are drenched in the same sensibility. His carnival barker introduction to The Black Rider is as pure American Gothic as Nightmare Alley or the art of Bernie Wrightson.
Another of the pioneers of American Gothic Music was Australian Nick Cave. After the demise of the rabid Birthday Party, Cave moved into a style all his own. One can hear Jim Morrison and Johnny Rotten in there. But one can also hear the deep blues and chain gang music as well. After songs like Saint Huck showed up on From Her To Eternity Cave then released The First Born Is Dead: Perhaps the least appreciated of his Bad Seeds albums. I find it to be an American Gothic cornerstone. Scarecrows, blind blues singers, Mississippi flood’s and the myth of Elvis Presley all show up in heartfelt and heart burnt songs ranging from Knocking On Joe, Tupelo, The Black Crow King and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Stunning stuff.
And Cave, like Waits, no matter where else he wandered was ever too far from Gothic Americana. Even his novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, was pure American Gothic. That he would align himself with filmmaker John Hillcoat for Australian Gothic film The Proposition and later The Road underscores this.
The 80’s gave birth to another sound that would be instrumental to the growth of American Gothic Music. And that would be Folk Punk. What the Pogues glued together, traditional folk music and punk, has proved to be a rather hardy plant giving birth to bands like The Ukrainians, Gogol Bordello, Devotchka, and more germane to our point American bands like O’Death playing a kind of Country Punk. The fusing of traditional music with a punk spirit has done more than all the Folkies from the 1960’s to propagate the music of the past.
And in this spirit I think the work of Gordon Gano and the Violent Femmes deserve a special citation as well. Much of the current crop of American Gothic bands can be seen as a triangulation between Tom Waits, Gordon Gano and Folk Punk. Gano’s reedy voice and occasional forays into traditional American music played with manic acoustic guitars have been highly influential.
And yes, dear reader, there is indeed a current crop of American Gothic bands. And it is that fact alone that caused me to write this whole American Gothic series. In fact, for those with ears to hear this is the moment for American Gothic Music. No it isn’t flavor du jour at what remains of the pop charts. (Interestingly it does come during a period where Americana is also one of the reigning trends.) But much of the most exciting music of the hour is coming from a decaying vision of America. Artists like the Blind Willies, the Whiskey Folk Ramblers, Nicole Atkins, Liz Tormes, The Born Again Floozies, The Black Heart Procession, Harmonious Wail, Ezra Fuhrman & the Harpoons, the astounding Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas and the great Reverend Glasseye have been making vital music for this lost American time.
I believe it was the bands forming in Denver in the mid-90’s that kicked off this wave (the first wave really) of American Gothic Music. 16 Horsepower and Devotchka were both quite influential. David Eugene Edwards from 16 Horsepower and more recently Woven Hand deserves real recognition here. Like a circuit riding preacher in a storm, his musical talents connect the worlds of antique Western Music, Christian hymns, Johnny Cash, Nick Cave and the early American Gothic Music to the many bands of the present. His use of the unusual instrumentation, following Tom Waits, would become a hallmark of the new American Gothic bands. Listen to any of his versions of American Wheeze. Tubas, harmonicas, accordions, musical saws, trombones, violins and many other instruments not found in standard rock bands permeate the new music.
While all of these artists are worth a paragraph two stand out and need special attention: Reverend Glasseye and Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas. Glasseye has two albums to his name. His music is located somewhere between a Wild West saloon, a circus tent and a revival meeting. (Ry Cooder’s music for The Long Riders is a worthy antecedent.) His archaic lyrics and jaunty tunes have a demented Shakespearean grandeur to them. Sleep Sweet Countrymen is an American Gothic masterpiece.
Jessica Hernandez, from the Detroit area, is fairly obscure as of this writing. But I doubt she will remain that way. A combination of Mexican heritage (Detroit also gave us ? Mark & the Mysterians), a deep dose of Tom Waits and a swooping passionate vocal style, not to mention killer instincts in the dynamic tune department, cause Jessica’s music to pop out in 3-D. Find a recording of her singing Gone in Two Seconds or Moonstruck. She’s so good I hate to think of her getting discovered by the commercial machinery that so loves to suck the life from everything till dead. But I suspect she’s got as much musical integrity as she does talent.
Curiously not one artist who has ever made American Gothic Music has ever sold their soul for success. I wonder why? It might have something to do with the worldview that has to accompany the style to some degree.
Allow me the indulgence of trying to summarize this American Gothic sensibility… next time.
(Oh… I thought about connecting this to musical links. But you know your way around. Go listen!)