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The Critical Mass

Dead Skunk in the middle of the 21st century

Loudon Wainwright and Greg Leisz prepare to bring a Dead Skunk into the room.

Loudon Wainwright and Greg Leisz prepare to bring a Dead Skunk into the room.

Loudon Wainwright III was nearing the end of his show when someone in the audience shouted out a request: “Dead Skunk!”

“I need more money for ‘Dead Skunk,’ ” Wainwright said, shaking his head with mock disapproval. No, he rarely plays his novelty hit from 1972, the only genuine hit he’s ever had. Guess Wainwright thinks a song about hitting a skunk while driving his station wagon is undignified. He’s moved on to some serious and beautiful music. And songs listing his medications and about being stalked by 400-pound fans and lamenting the loss of his sex life, the latter played while wearing a red stripper’s bra that had been left in the dressing room. So novelty is in the eye of the songwriter.

Well, that was Monday. And every man has his price. Friday night, as Wainwright was again nearing the end of his show, he paused to recall how a few nights earlier he’d dismissed his eager fan’s call for “Dead Skunk.” But Sixthman, the group that assembles Cayamo, this week-long Caribbean cruise of singer-songwriters, had approached Wainwright and basically said, “OK, we’re putting the money where your mouth is. Now play it.”

And he did. With help from his sister, Sloan Wainwright, renowned dobro stud Greg Leisz and the enthusiastic crowd that packed the Norwegian Pearl’s Stardust Theater. These people knew the words. They bought the 45 rpm single back in the day. I’m sure mine is in the attic.

A very specific generation dominates this event. Young acts like the Ryan Montbleau Band are rocking out on the pool deck. But older acts like the Richard Thompson Trio out-rocked them. I sometimes get the feeling that my music’s getting quieter as I age. But I haven’t lost the rage. And neither have a lot of the people I see around me.

Glen Phillips is a nice songwriter, sings well and has an incredibly winning stage persona. He’ll do a song or two by his old ’90s pop band, Toad the Wet Sprocket, but he’s been filling his sets here with lots of new material. You get the feeling this guy never stops writing. But Thursday evening, after a few pointed comments about the horrific field of un-presidential candidates being showcased by the Republican Party this season, Phillips played an old song that offered a vision of what American foreign policy might be like under one of these out-of-touch cowboys: Randy Newman’s “Political Science,” and the self-explanatory lines about “Let’s drop the Big One.”

A lot of people here knew that one as well.

I’ve seen Lucinda Williams a couple of times in the past year, and she’s been dredging up an old protest song from the ’60s, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”  She did it again Thursday night, explaining how it seemed relevant again today. She’s thinking about the Occupy movement. It’s quieted down a bit, as the northern cities become less forgiving with winter. Most of the Occupy news these days seems to come from mayors who decide to send in cops to hit their fellow Americans with sticks. Mayors who haven’t read the Constitution, and its guarantees of free speech and the right of assembly. Mayors who allow their local governments to chew away at the edges of those basic freedoms with local statutes that limit Americans’ use of their public spaces. Yes, Mayor, freedom is a messy thing. Lucinda Williams knows the Occupy folks will be back in the spring, and the movement will be messier than ever. Cops will hit their fellow Americans with sticks. Because, as both sides have seen, Occupy works.

I’ve included the lyrics to “For What It’s Worth” at the end of this post, so you can remind yourself of how relevant those old words remain.

Maybe revolution was in the ocean air because Thursday was tie-dye night on the ship, and some of the old hippie clothes came out. Including guys who didn’t need a peace-sign headband to keep their short, gray hair in place, but they wore one anyway. The past is a good thing to keep close at hand. It helps to remember that a dead skunk smells the same in1972 as it does today.

Friday night, after his show, Wainwright was eating at the Brazilian red-meat overload restaurant, sitting at a table just a few yards away from us. I make it a point to not bother celebrities when they’re trying to enjoy a private moment, but I did run into Sloan Wainwright and Leisz at the salad bar. “How much did they pay Loudon to sing ‘Dead Skunk?’ ” I asked.

Both pleaded ignorance. “He didn’t tell us,” Leisz insisted.

“You mean, he didn’t say, ‘Here’s your half, now let’s go out and embarrass ourselves?’ ” Leisz shook his head no. The secret was safe.

A half an hour later, a familiar song came over the ship’s PA system; they’ve been playing music by all of the artists on the cruise. This song was a young-sounding Wainwright, singing about a dead skunk in the middle of the road. Wainwright’s table erupted in laughter.

FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH

There’s somethin’ happenin’ here

What it is ain’t exactly clear

There’s a man with a gun over there

Tellin’ me, I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound

Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn

Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong

Young people speakin’ their minds

Gettin’ so much resistance from behind

I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?

Everybody look what’s going down

What a field day for the heat (Hmm, hmm, hmm)

A thousand people in the street (Hmm, hmm, hmm)

Singing songs and carrying signs (Hmm, hmm, hmm)

Mostly say, hooray for our side (Hmm, hmm, hmm)

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound

Everybody look what’s going down

Paranoia strikes deep

Into your life it will creep

It starts when you’re always afraid

You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?

Everybody look what’s going down

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?

Everybody look what’s going down

We better stop, now, what’s that sound?

Everybody look what’s going down

We better stop, children, what’s that sound?

Everybody look what’s going down


The Critical Mass

How James McMurtry and Mitt Romney see, and don’t see, the poor

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt live on the high seas.

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt live on the high seas.

Here’s how much Sunday’s John Prine show got to me: Monday morning at breakfast I was assembling a fist-sized pile of smoked salmon at the breakfast buffet while singing to myself, “I am an old woman….”

It’s now Wednesday, Day Four of the Cayamo music cruise through the Caribbean. The music has been crazy and beautiful. We’ve already seen Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt performing their two-man, songwriters-in-the-round thing, joined for a bit by fiddler Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek. James McMurtry dedicated his Oklahoma white-trash epic “Choctaw Bingo” to “The First United Crystal Methodist Church.” McMurtry finished his set with “We Can’t Make it Here Anymore,” his ode to the working man cut adrift by this economy. The guy sitting on the floor nearby looked our way and shouted of the roars of approval, “ ‘I don’t care about the very poor.’ ” That’s a Mitt Romney quote, as you know.

You could get a pretty good argument going as to who looks more out of place on a cruise ship, McMurtry or Greg Brown. You don’t expect to see such weedy-looking guys walking around the pool deck unless they have a wrench in their hands, disappearing behind some unmarked door. Prine brought out Brown’s wife, Iris Dement, for duets on “In Spite of Ourselves” and “Muhlenburg County.” What a great hillbilly voice she has. I mean that as a compliment. Loudon Wainwright III continued with his amusing themes of “death and decay” and “shitty love.” The Civil Wars were the biggest surprise, a charismatic duo blending imaginative harmonies with very unusual songwriting. But Lucinda Williams was no surprise. She’s a blonde again, if you’re keeping score, and brought out Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller to help her “Get Right With God.” We’ve been hearing so much great music, it’s easy for an audience to sit back and say, “Yeah, here’s another good one.” But Williams had that crowd up and out of its comfy seats, howling.

Williams said her manager had to actually go into her cabin at 5:30 in the afternoon to wake her up for her 8 p.m. show. It’s easy to sleep here. Almost too easy.

Yet I live in fear of missing something. Richard Thompson described his band as a “folk power trio” that fell “somewhere between The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Peter, Paul & Mary.” The former far more than the latter, as they rocked the boat with what Thompson described as a new genre of music, “death lounge.” Then, mindful of what cruise line we were on, he amended that to “Norwegian death lounge.”

Hermetically sealed on a cruise ship with three dozen musical acts. I haven’t even seen Keb’ Mo’ or Enter the Haggis yet. In the spa, we walked around in white robes like Greek gods. And after all of that smoked salmon, my breath may smell like the hold of a Norwegian fishing boat, but I do expect my math skills to improve dramatically by the time we get back to Miami.

The news? I don’t know what’s going on right now. The only reason I know who won the Super Bowl was I happened to be walking through a bar during the final minute of the game, and stopped to see what all of the shouting was about. That’s a pretty good way to get it done. You may have spent 12 hours on Sunday watching pre-game, game and post-game analysis. I watched 51 seconds and got the whole story.

Here’s my tip on pre-game football shows: The keys to winning the Super Bowl are the same things those experts will tell you are the keys to winning an insignificant Cleveland Browns-Jacksonville Jaguars game.

This morning, good southern boy that he is, John Prine was standing in the fried-breakfast line in the cafeteria – a mass-nutrition event that last year one of the musicians called “the food tube.” So I went up to Prine, with my plate-load of salmon, and said “ ‘Lake Marie’ always makes me cry.” He smiled and said thank you. “I’ll bet I’m not the only person to say that to you,” I said. “No,” he replied, smiling humbly. “You’re not.”

I’ve been ashore, too. It feels strange. The first port of call was The Dominican Republic. It’s lush and mountainous, populated by the most relaxed dogs on the planet. I bought some cigars, of course, for my two- to three-a-year habit. I saw a cow using its hind leg to scratch behind its ear. I’d never seen that before. I guess Dominican cows are more limber than American cows. We took a bus up into the mountains. Racing along those narrow roads, all I could think of was the two words that see to appear most often in newspaper headlines from that end of the world: Bus plunge. We passed a crew laying some asphalt; a kid, maybe 14 years old, was pushing a wheelbarrow. At the police station, I saw men with automatic weapons, wearing fatigues. Sure, The Dominican Republic has a lot of trees and ferns. But if you really want to camouflage your troops in a place like that, disguise them as a mud hole. Or a dog.

There are a lot of poor people out there. It’s a world of poor people. I could see them through the window of our bus. Their houses look empty, their businesses look like sheds. It’s not like they’re choosing to live any way in particular. This is what they have. I was embarrassed, sitting in that air-conditioned vehicle, splashing down their muddy dirt roads, on vacation from our cruise-ship vacation. Ships that hold wonders these people will never see. Like $60 bottles of smooth single-malt scotch in the duty-free shop.

I have stuff. But I’m not a rich man. Seeing all of that poverty makes me wonder: How does a guy like Mitt Romney sleep at night?

The Critical Mass

Young American Wanderlust

From Rochester west to Chicago, and then south to Austin, the railroad tracks wind through the backyards of America. It’s as though the country’s turned its back on Amtrak.

We’re traveling to the South by Southwest Music Festival. I can hear Scott plucking on his new ukulele in the sleeper car across the aisle. This may be a long trip indeed.

Or perhaps not. Traveling by train is not cheaper than flying. It’s merely a different form of travel. One in which you choose to abandon the rush wait rush of airports in favor of being in the company of folks who want to feel like they’re moving about the country.  No one’s pissed off. You strike up conversations. You look out the window. You read. Big books. In the lounge car the first night, a young woman is reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. A young guy is deep into Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He is halfway through it. I’ve brought along David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. That’s more than 1,000 pages. But I can’t focus on it right now. Not with Scott plucking away on that uke. Is that the first song they teach everyone, “Dueling Banjos?”

So I’m looking out the window, at the highway. We’re moving a little slower than the cars out there, but not much. I don’t understand the critics of Amtrak, complaining it loses money. The Republicans keep trying to cut its funding, stomp it out of existence. But what mass public transportation makes money? Certainly not that highway out there.

Our porter – a nice, arcane idea – has just handed me a copy of The New York Times (More timeless relics are the glass insulators on the creosote-soaked telephone poles following alongside the tracks, oblivious to the cell phone towers looming in distant farm fields). One of the first Times stories I read is about the great blueswoman Carolyn Wonderland marrying the comic and one-time Saturday Night Live writer A. Whitney Brown. I think to myself: I’ve interviewed both of them.

We change trains in Chicago, with time for a walk around downtown, where some fellow selling the magazine produced by the homeless points out a sign across from the art museum that reads, “Historic Route 66 begins here.” I wonder aloud how they decided that’s where it started, rather than where it ended. From Chicago and through much of Illinois, the train follows the iconic road, symbol of young American wanderlust, before we loose it somewhere north of Springfield, and one of the most architecturally interesting state capitol buildings I’ve seen. If Route 66 is an American landmark, it is one in need of serious Federal dollars. The surface here is cracked and cratered with potholes. Few cars are on this stretch of 66, preferring the much smoother road running parallel to it.

Amtrak gives you a little brochure with information about the communities you see passing outside the windows. When we arrive at South Bend, Ind., our brochure eagerly points out that it is primarily known as the home of Notre Dame University. “To others,” it tells us, “it is virtually defined by the Studebaker Corporation, which started making wagons here in 1852, came to prominence, and finally ceased auto making here in 1963.”

A few miles down the rails from South Bend, I am sad to read in the Times that the great contrarian folk singer Jack Hardy has passed away from lung cancer. I saw Hardy play at my friends Rick and Monica’s house concert about 1½ years ago. He wrote protest songs, political songs. I’ll bet he was a fan of rail travel. The Times points out that he was born in South Bend. His full name was John Studebaker Hardy.

I’ve heard critics of Amtrak suggest that public rail systems are un-American, that they’re socialist programs that train the population to think in lockstep. Actually, I think the authorities fear anything where people gather and have time to read books and play musical instruments and exchange ideas and complain about the authorities.

I stare out the train windows, looking into the back yards of Americans. I see their kids, their gas grills, the places where they’ve buried their dead pets and the American Dream. It is this way everywhere. Not too many rich folks live alongside the tracks. One year, during an early-morning train ride up the California coast, I saw a naked man standing on his back porch, watching the train as he drank his coffee. These Americans tend to fill their backyards with broken major appliances, stacks of warped lumber, abandoned dog houses, collapsed tool sheds, children whacking each other with sticks and rusting car fenders tossed aside like corn husks.

Deep in Texas, while sitting in the observation car in a late-afternoon sunshine, we speed past a woman taking her laundry down from the backyard clothesline. In the yard next to her house, I spot something big lying on its side, legs sticking out like a child’s plastic toy tossed aside. Rigor mortis has set in. “Oh my god, A DEAD HORSE!” I shout. Shriek, actually, like a little girl. It was the first dead horse I’ve ever seen.

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