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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.


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

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.

The Critical Mass

Allison Moorer, Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Scott Miller and Dar Williams.

Allison Moorer, Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Scott Miller and Dar Williams.

Your grandparents’ sex life

The Caribbean is calm, after a noticeably rough day Friday aboard the Norwegian Pearl. The ship had been pitching about, sashaying across the sea, and the captain thoughtfully ordered barf bags to be left by the elevators, within easy reach of queasy passengers.

On this fourth annual Cayamo cruise, as this boatload of musicians is called, hand-tooled, built-to-last, road-tested Americana music is heard in every corner of the Pearl. Even the PA system and its Yanni vibes has been over-ridden by Willie Nelson. It was a little disconcerting to hear the 1970s Maureen McGovern pop hit “The Morning After,” but I suppose that theme song from The Poseidon Adventure, the classic adventure film of a ocean liner flipped over by a giant wave, merely shows that our tour organizers have a sense of humor.

There’s been some good interaction between musicians and audience. The lead singer of the Celtic rockers Enter the Haggis jumped into the pool during one number. The singer-songwriter Ellis Paul showed off a very funny short song, “Heckler,” written for the moment someone shouts out “Free Bird” when he calls for requests. Unfortunately, Paul confessed, the song’s had the reverse effect. People are screaming “Free Bird” whenever they want to hear “Heckler.”

At Bingo Friday morning, Margaret won a Baby Taylor guitar illegibly signed by 18 of the musicians on board: Loudon Wainwright III, Ellis Paul, maybe a dozen others I can’t figure out. Could be Steve Earle, or someone else with an E in his or her name. I suppose the airline will give us hell for our good luck when we try to take the guitar on board the plane on the way home.

The comedy and guitar duo of Loudon Wainwright III and Richard Thompson,  "Loud and Rich."

The comedy and guitar duo of Loudon Wainwright III and Richard Thompson, "Loud and Rich."

Rank-and-file guitar amateurs commandeer every corner of the ship. The afternoon following a duet by John Prine and Brandi Carlile on “In Spite of Ourselves,” we walked past a group of our shipmates sitting on benches at the tidy St. Croix seashore, strumming guitars and singing their version of the song. But when it’s a sunburned woman in her late 50s warbling a line about catching her man “sniffing my undies,” the song loses a little of its roguish charm.

No matter. That evening, Prine had moved on to “Sam Stone,” Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons” – which is as perfect a Prine song as Prine’s ever written – and dusted off “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven,” an old Vietnam anti-war song of his that rings true today. He also told a hilarious story about his time as the head of a construction crew in the army when, afraid they’d get in trouble because their unit had accidentally acquired an extra bulldozer, “we took it out back and buried it,” he said. “Just thought you’d want to know about your tax dollars.”

I’ve been stalking Prine. After Thursday’s show, he and his wife were sitting in the restaurant a couple of tables away, but I didn’t feel like bothering them. Even though I had half a mind – my usual condition – to walk up to Prine and tell him, “I saw all three of your shows and you made me cry at every one of them, you sonofabitch.” The woman at the table right next to him was not nearly as shy, inviting the Prines to come stay with her in Florida. “We have a really nice house…,” she insisted. Yeah, I can imagine the day Prine says to his wife, “Honey, when we’re in Florida next week, let’s call up the lady we met for five minutes on the ship and hang out. She’ll look like less of a loser to the neighbors.”

Not all of the performers stay for the entire cruise. At St. Croix, we traded Prine for Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin. So now I’m stalking those two. Miller, a superstar in the alt-country realm, is the guru of the Pearl. His shows were the hottest tickets of the cruise the last two nights, with people packing Shawn Mullins’ show just so they could have a seat for Miller afterward.

Griffin closed out Thursday night with a bunch of the old gospel tunes from her latest album, which won a Grammy last week, some great new songs she’d written about her father returning from the navy after World War II, and another inspired by a photo of her grandparents on their wedding day. “Yes, I’ve written a song about my grandparents’ sex life,” Griffin said. “I’m challenging all of those folk singers out there to write one about their grandparents’ sex life, too.”

No one’s followed her into that forbidden territory yet, but Scott Miller came close. Friday afternoon, Griffin headed a songwriters-in-the-round session with Dar Williams, Allison Moorer, Buddy Miller and Scott Miller, who I didn’t know at all. Turns out he writes some nice tunes, and he’s wickedly self-deprecatingly funny about his hillbilly upbringing. And he has no interest in the reproductive sciences. “I really don’t like babies,” Miller said. “I don’t mean people who complain. I mean those little things that burn up all your money and drive away your friends.”

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