Man Who Couldn’t Cry

My favorite Neil Young album is the very first, the eponymous one, the one that was re-released with a new mix not long after it hit the marketplace (you can tell the difference by the front cover, if the picture takes up the whole cover, it’s the old, wrong one, if there’s the name "Neil Young" in black letters on a white background atop the picture, it’s the new one).  It wasn’t the first Neil Young album I was exposed to, that was "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere", with not only "Cinnamon Girl", but the exquisite "Down By The River" and the almost as magical "Cowgirl In The Sand".  You see, with the explosion of CSNY, we wanted anything attached, and that’s how I ended up with this.  After hearing it first in the room of the son of the owner of the camp I was working at.  But I bought "After The Gold Rush" before the debut, I had limited funds, we all had limited funds.  But then I heard "The Emperor Of Wyoming" and took the plunge, it was so upbeat and JAUNTY!  And there are two absolute killers on the debut, the following "The Loner", whose sledgehammer riff is first played by an organ and the desperate "I’ve Been Waiting For You", which explodes in the sky like a supernova.  But the last track on the LP, which is quiet, dark and dank compared to "Emperor Of Wyoming", has been forgotten but is the essence of Neil Young, a tune written by a man one step removed from the rest of us.  It goes on for over nine minutes.  And good luck nailing down exactly what it’s about.  "Man Who Couldn’t Cry" is the analogue to "Last Trip To Tulsa", it’s its twin brother, separated at birth, raised by different parents.  Loudon’s family contained more humor, but there was that underlying resentment nonetheless.

Loudon Wainwright III was someone you were aware of but not enamored of.  Because you never heard his records.  Almost no one heard his records.  Loudon Wainwright III would have been a bigger star, a star in fact, if he emerged on to the scene today, when journeymen artists can find their own level on the Web, when they can park their tunes at a URL and the audience can do the work, spreading the word.  But decades ago, you were dependent on radio exposure, and Loudon got almost none, so almost no one knew his music, no one could just dial up some tracks on MySpace.

But Loudon survived.  Got married, had kids, appeared in TV shows, but his music just never got traction.  He became a curio.  And now he’s decided to re-record all his great tunes from the past.  Which is kind of stupid.  Because the originals are good enough, in many cases better.  But what’s a lonely rock and roller supposed to do?

That’s a reference to my favorite Loudon Wainwright track.  You probably didn’t catch it, because you don’t know it.  And neither did I until I heard "Motel Blues" on XM.  That’s why I downloaded "Recovery", the remake album, because I wanted to hear the latest iteration of "Motel Blues".

It’s not as good as the live take.  Which I downloaded from the Web and don’t know was ever even released commercially.  It starts with Loudon insulting a heckler, and then playing the tune…  An intimate late night ditty, about loneliness, about hoping a girl from the gig, not quite a groupie, will sleep with him…

In this town television shuts off at two
What can a lonely rock and roller do
Oh the bed’s so big and the sheets are clean
And your girlfriend said that you were nineteen
The styrofoam ice bucket is full of ice
Come up to my motel room treat me nice

Can you imagine this sex?  This is not a Plaster Caster, not even Penny Lane.  This is a tentative teenager from a small town, thrilled to be this close to "fame", but anxious nonetheless.  She sits on the edge of the bed, Loudon turns her head towards his, kisses her dry lips.

She’s so young she’s got no cellulite, nothing droops.  She’s so inexperienced she doesn’t get lubricated.  When he penetrates her it’s worse than masturbation.  It’s sex in name only.  For all he knows, she might be a virgin.

There’s a Bible in the drawer don’t be afraid
I’ll put up the sign to warn the cleanup maid
Yeah there’s lots of soap and there’s lots of towels
Never mind them desk clerk scowls
I’ll buy you breakfast, they’ll think you’re my wife
Come up to my motel room, save my life
Come up to my motel room, save my life

But, like I said, the remake isn’t as good as the live take, or even the original.  But, having downloaded "Recovery", I’m listening to it as I surf the Web, and the second or third time through, certain songs started to reveal themselves.

This is the experience we had when we used to pay for albums.  Our decisions were debated endlessly in our minds, impulse purchases were for casual buyers, fans plotted out their future collections like military operations.  And having decided on an album, we played it, until we liked it.  I started to like certain songs on "Recovery".

First, "New Paint", two cuts after "Motel Blues".  And then the song after that, "Be Careful There’s A Baby In The House", then the opening cut, "Black Uncle Remus", and then the last cut, the longest on the album, at 6:05, "Man Who Couldn’t Cry".

Actually, it’s entitled "THE Man Who Couldn’t Cry" in its initial incarnation, on "Attempted Mustache".  You see I downloaded that album.  I downloaded almost all of Loudon’s catalog.  It wasn’t that difficult.  Paul McGuinness might be raving against the ISPs, but since he doesn’t download, he’s got no idea how we now do it, he’s a couple of years and a couple of changes behind us.

The original is intense.  Loudon’s vocal is a bit more affected.  It’s naked, whereas the remake has been laden with production, there are even strings.  The first is from an angry young man who is trying to get his message across via emphasis, he’s IMPLORING us to pay attention.  Whereas in the remake, Loudon is doing it for himself, he’s not sure anybody is going to listen.  And most people won’t.  But I am.  Because of "Motel Blues".

There once was a man who just couldn’t cry
He hadn’t cried for years and for years
Napalmed babies, or the movie ‘Love Story’
For instance could not produce tears

I don’t think anybody under fifty even knows what napalm is.

As a child he had cried as all children will
But at some point his tear ducts all ran dry
He grew to be a man, the feces hit the fan
Things got bad but he couldn’t cry

This ain’t no Top Forty wonder.  This is a STORY song.  This is what the baby boomers wanted to do, take the essence of the novel and move it to music.  Sometimes, the sounds were enough, the note-bending of the English guitarists, but the greats had something to say in the lyrics.  Where is today’s Dylan?  He doesn’t exist.  Because that skill is not revered.  Computer programming is more important than being able to express yourself.  It’s not about learning how to think, but learning how to make money.

His dog was run over, his wife up and left him
After that he got sacked from his job
He lost his arm in the war, laughed at by a whore
Ah, but still not a sniffle or sob

What could be worse than being laughed at by a prostitute.  It’s like when your employees don’t respect you, but worse.  You can’t get it in real life, so you have to pay for it…but even that doesn’t work.

His novel was refused, his movie was panned
His big Broadway show was a flop
He was sent off to jail, yeah, you guessed it, no bail
Aw, but still not a dribble or a drop

Now you just self-publish, on the Web.  Critics, filters are irrelevant.  But, used to be you suffered to break through, and usually didn’t.  You were resigned to teaching in your home town.  And now, Broadway is spectaculars.  Just like the music business, if you think about it.  Something simple, something that can’t gross a hundred million, backers, the media, don’t care about it.  It’s not about content, but the gross.

In jail he was beaten, bullied and buggered
Made to make license plates
Water and bread was all he was fed
And not once did a tear stain his face

Jail was bad back then too.  The only difference is now everybody knows jail truly sucks, and we keep building more prisons to house the underclass without job prospects, who’ve resorted to smoking dope.

Doctors were called in and scientists too
Theologians were last and practically least
They all agreed sure enough, this is sure no cream puff
But in fact an insensitive beast

You don’t make fun of theologians anymore.  You need the votes.  And Christians are more dedicated music buyers than atheists.  They latch on to an act and support it.  Maybe that’s the key to Loudon’s future success, he’s got to be born again.

He was removed from jail and placed in a place
For the insensitive and the insane
He played lots of chess and made lots of friends
And he wept every time it would rain

Is this where the most sane people live?  Those who just can’t subjugate their true feelings and play the game?  You’ve got to go off the grid to find the honest.

Once it rained forty days and it rained forty nights
And he cried and he cried and he cried and he cried and he cried and he cried
On the forty-first day, he passed away
He just dehydrated and died

And here we have the absurdity of Neil Young’s "Last Trip To Tulsa", the non sequitur.  The unexpected.

Well he went up to heaven, located his dog
Not only that, he rejoined his arm
Down below, all the critics, they took it all back
Cancer robbed the whore of her charm

It’s kind of like that old joke, about country music.  What do you get when you play country music backwards?  Your wife returns, your pickup runs and your dog comes back.  I love that cancer robbed the whore of her charm.  But what I like most is the critics taking it all back.  Usually you have to die to be appreciated.  How fucked up is that?

His ex-wife died of stretch marks, his ex-employer went broke
The theologians were finally found out
Right down to the ground, the prison burned down
The earth suffered perpetual drought

You don’t die of stretch marks.  Theologians are found out, but religion plows on.  But what the outsider wanted most in the young adulthood of the baby boomers was retribution, the screwed over wanted their fucked up moment.  And that’s what Loudon Wainwright III is giving the public that ignored him, the middle finger.

But should he have been ignored?  Was his music mainstream enough?  When skinny English boys were wailing on their axes, when Bob Dylan had already given up protesting, were radio stations going to air the rantings of a privileged white boy?

You don’t get to choose your time.  It’s an accident of history.  If you’re lucky, at some point in your life, the stars align, and you’ll be in the right place at the right time.

I’m not sure this is Loudon Wainwright’s right time.  Loudon depends on a certain amount of education, a certain amount of reflection, and today those are for losers.  The loftiest profession is hedge fund manager, because you make all that money.  Just shut up and profit.

What’s a lonely rock and roller to do?

One who doesn’t like that today’s stars are in bed with the money, who are anything but anti-establishment, who are afraid to piss off anybody who might say something negative about their career.  One who is against groupthink, who would rather think for himself.  One who knows you need money, but once you have enough to live, maybe that’s enough.  One who wants to express himself.

We’ve beaten the individuality out of our country’s constituents.  Used to be a badge of honor to be an outsider, a self-thinker, now you want to get into the fraternity, you want to join the gang and abuse those less fortunate.  And make no mistake, Wall Street is a gang.  One more protected than those roaming the streets, whose enforcer is the government.  They decimate Bear Stearns and laugh about it, profiting all the way.

We live in fucked up times.  Used to be, when you had more questions than answers, you turned to music, to the unsullied artist to deliver answers.  Loudon Wainwright III tried to give answers, by examining his own life, those of the loose nuts and bolts surrounding him.  His music is not for everyone.  It’s not always for me.  But, when I listen to his tunes he reminds me of who I used to be, someone who felt the world was oriented incorrectly and wanted to tilt it back accordingly.  His tunes make me feel I’m more right than wrong.  Music is more powerful than the talking heads of TV news.  When done right.  And Loudon Wainwright, despite the goofy TV roles, sometimes did it right.  His music is there, frozen in time, for you to discover.  When you stop checking the SoundScan numbers, when you want to look inward, when you want a main course instead of a dessert.

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