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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

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

Leo Tolstoy does a duet with Allison Moorer. Photo by Margaret Spevak.

Leo Tolstoy does a duet with Allison Moorer. Photo by Margaret Spevak.

Does NPR have a penis?

Can you say “penis” on National Public Radio? Guess we’ll find out soon enough.

We’re reporting here from the Norwegian Pearl, deep in the Caribbean. Day Three of a cruise with 2,000 other passengers, although the only ones who matter as far as I’m concerned, besides the bartenders, are John Prine, Steve Earle, Loudon Wainwright III, Patty Griffin, Dar Williams, Allison Moorer, Buddy Miller, Richard Thompson and about two dozen other acts.

The first I’d ever heard of such an event was Delbert McClinton’s blues cruise, which he’s done for years now, bringing a handful of great players along to perform on balmy Caribbean nights as the ship gently rocks to the ocean swells. “I had a guitar player who got sick on one of these,” Earle told last night’s audience. “Delbert McClinton had to clean it up.”

Seven days of musicians and their acolytes, trapped together on a ship. No wonder Wainwright opened last night’s show with “My Biggest Fan,” the story of a 400-pound guy who follows Wainwright from concert to concert, and knows every detail of his professional and private life.

Just an hour or two into the cruise we dispensed with the mandatory lifeboat drill. I was pleased to see that Wainwright was at our station. He’d be a handy guy to have if this ship sank and we had to drift around awhile, waiting for rescue. So long as he remembered to grab his guitar before the ship went down, as I don’t know if he has any other life-supporting skills. Of course, if it took a while before we were rescued – say, 60 days drifting around the Caribbean – I’d hate to have to eat Wainwright.

But it’s a nice, new ship, and I doubt we’ll run into any complications. These things are vast, floating malls (not an endorsement in my way of thinking), except with a lot fewer teenagers. The exterior of the ship is done in an unfortunate paint scheme, kind of a goofy Disney-like pearls-and-flowers graphic spattered across the Norwegian Pearl’s white hull. I guess that’s supposed to signal adults at play.

I can ignore stuff like that, especially in the dark. I’m sitting in the whiskey bar as I type this; one of the lesser acts is playing on a nearby stage. The female singer sounds like Janis Joplin. The wine and champagne bar is about 20 paces away.

Most of the acts are general admission in clubs and atriums scattered around the ship, although for some of the bigger names you’re issued tickets for the performance in the large theater. So the first thing we did was pester other passengers into taking our tickets to the Brandi Carlile and Indigo Girls shows in trade for theirs for with Prine and Earle. Carlile and the Indigo Girls really have a lot of female fans on this cruise. I mean, like, half the ship.

We didn’t have tickets for the first night’s Prine show, but after a few songs they let us grab a couple of unclaimed seats. After three nights, we’ve seen those two guys and Wainwright twice each, with third shows in the nights ahead. Plus assorted other acts.

Kevn Kinney of Drivin’ N Cryin’ was a hilarious, southern-looking big fella. He’s hosting a Dylan throwdown later in the cruise. Glen Phillips was once with the pop-rock band Toad the Wet Sprocket. Now he heads a really impressive indie-songwriting collective called WPA. As in the old FDR Depression Era program, Works Progress Administration. We caught them the first night, then saw Phillips playing solo this afternoon. The restaurants here are much better than the Carnival Cruise ship that played host to our first music cruise three years ago. There are, however, still the massive and inevitable buffets. Phillips, another very funny fellow, says they call them “the food hose.”

“Welcome to my vacation,” Earle growled at the start of his first show. With that beard of his, he’s looking like Leo Tolstoy. As Monday was Valentine’s Day, everyone was doing love songs. Except Wainwright, who did a handful of his anti-love songs. And many songs focusing on his current theme, death and decay. As Wainwright says, he knows his demographic. The first couple of days here, he’s been bringing onstage his daughter, Lucy Wainwright Roche, and joining her for a few songs during her sets. It’s very charming.

Prine sounds gruff, and his melancholy, detail-laden songs are particularly poignant considering he’s been battling cancer for couple of years now. He’s been closing his sets with “Lake Marie,” his most-beautiful and elusive song. Carlile came out and sang the Iris DeMent parts of “In Spite of Myself,” then they did a beautiful duet on “Angel From Montgomery.” Prine, like Earle, did pretty much the same set each of their first two shows, but never told the same story twice. “We’re used to playing for 2½ hours, but we have to cram a lot into these hour shows,” Prine said. “So there’s a little less bullshit between songs.” In the first show he mentioned “Souvenirs” had been a song he and Steve Goodman often played together. The bullshit introducing “Souvenirs” for his second show, Valentine’s Day, was particularly moving. He described how it was his mother’s favorite song, and how she’d always feed him after he played her a few numbers: Her middle name was Valentine, and she was born on Valentine’s Day. “What’s for dinner, mom?” Prine called out as he brought the song to a close.

Some business is being conducted here. Earle is using the cruise as a practice run for a new version of his band, The Dukes, that includes his wife, Allison Moorer. And he couldn’t help but toss a few grenades at the crowd, which surely contained a lot of wealthy Republicans who probably aren’t tipping our Filipino waiters: “This song is for the state of Arizona,” he said, introducing “City of Immigrants.”

Wednesday afternoon, David Dye taped an interview session for later broadcast with Moorer and Dar Williams for his NPR show, World Café. Dye sounds like a very hip dude, but that’s radio. He actually looks like that graying middle-aged guy who knocks on your door and asks if he can mow your lawn because he got laid off from Kodak almost two years ago and now the unemployment is running out. But, as I look around the ship at all the wanna-be aging hipsters, perhaps that look makes Dye all the more authentic.

Allison and Williams were very funny, picking through their catalogs for songs that addressed Dye’s questions. Favorite cover songs? Williams played Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” Moore’s husband, Earle, sat offstage wearing one of those front-end baby carriers, with their 10-month old dozing in it. There’s a scene of domesticity for the old rebel. Dye asked Moore what it was like writing songs in Nashville. She paused, and then explained that the Nashville songwriting factory really wasn’t interested in your work “unless you have a penis.”

Dye looked stunned for a moment. He must have been thinking the same thing the rest of us were thinking, except we were laughing as well: Can you say that on NPR?

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