Jeff Spevak, Writer

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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

The Norwegian Pearl awaits our return from St. Croix. Photo by Margaret Spevak.

The Norwegian Pearl awaits our return from St. Croix. Photo by Margaret Spevak.

The alien craft lands at St. Croix

I am back. Two weeks ago, I was enjoying 80-degree temperatures. This morning it was 9 degrees outside the window at home. I feel like I have made a horrible mistake. Returning to this part of the world, I mean.

After seven days at sea aboard the Norwegian Pearl, our bar tab was higher than the Gross National Product of the three Caribbean islands where our ship stopped: Tortolo, St. Croix and the private island that Norwegian Cruise Lines is creating out of what appears to have once been a Bahamas sand bar.

These touristy moments didn’t keep me from nearly overdosing on John Prine and Steve Earle on the Cayamo singer-songwriter theme cruise. Trapped aboard the ship, they joined each other onstage for unique fusions of song: Earle with Prine. Loudon Wainwright II with Richard Thompson. Patty Griffin with Buddy Miller. Earle with his wife Allison Moorer. Dar Williams with Brandi Carlile. But I did need to step off the boat for a moment to grab a local beer at St. Croix.

“What’ll you have?” the guy behind the bar bellowed.

“Uhhhhh,” I said, thinking.

“We don’t have that one.”

A tempting-looking bistro on St. Croix.

A tempting-looking bistro on St. Croix.

Wise asses are universal. We had breakfast sitting at a table next to a window looking off the back of the ship, a restaurant called the “Palace Garden.” Its décor is Czarist Russia, with reproduction Faberge eggs on the staircase, double-headed regal war birds on the chair backs and huge oil paintings of Czar Alexander and his family at play. There are no depictions of these ill-fated Romanovs imprisoned and awaiting execution by their communist captors; that one’s probably hanging in the kitchen.

I’m uncomfortable with having all of these people picking up after me, like I’m some kind of royalty. They wouldn’t even let you re-use a coffee cup. Seeing our magnificent new cruise ship parked within walking distance of islands populated by roosters and people scraping together a living by selling T-shirts makes me feel uneasy as well. We’re like aliens from another galaxy parking our starship on the White House lawn, then taking a cab to the Smithsonian to buy cute trinkets for our friends on Altair 7.

I was talking to an expatriate American working at a gallery in a crisply renovated old building on St. Croix, and told him I felt a real difference between St. Croix, which is the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Tortolo of the British Virgin Islands. Yes, he said, the British are better at colonizing. They leave the local culture more intact.

That’s admirable, but it’s also not what I meant. He was working in a building that was the very epitome of gentrification, a clean, breezy-feeling gallery, with a charming courtyard out back that’s being developed for community events, with a stage for musicians. Like many of the old buildings on the waterfront, it had been restored after taking a battering by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. St. Croix was the hardest-hit of any of Hugo’s victims, with 140-mph winds damaging 90 percent of the buildings on the island.

The gallery was owned by an American woman. We encountered other Americans who had moved here for the slower pace of island life. “All you have to do is pack a bag and your pets and come down,” said a guy who was selling jewelry. “You just move right into a house that’s already furnished and has silverware in the drawers.”

This fusing of cultures is trickier than John Prine bringing out Steve Earle for an old Johnnie & Jack song. When Earle’s done, he leaves the stage and Prine goes about singing his own great old songs. However, I’m sure St. Croix’s waterfront doesn’t look like it did a decade ago, and I’m sure it never will look like that again.

But Tortolo is new to this cruise ship game. The town where we docked, Road Town, felt weary and without energy, or much hope for economic development. If selling Bob Marley T-shirts along the roadside is your idea of preserving the local culture, then fine. But cultures move forward if they’re going to serve their people. Because the world changes. I get the feeling that the people of Road Town would like a larger piece of that cruise-ship economy.

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