While "Jo-Ann," recorded by the Playmates in 1958, still stands as my all-time favorite rock and roll single, a girl and a song (and a girlsong) so formidable that I once devoted an entire chapter in a book to it, my musical sensibility cannot be fully appreciated unless the appropriate reverent nod be given also to 'The Hungry Dogs of New Mexico," as recorded on an album by Happy & Artie Traum, circa 1968. Nowhere near as openly sentimental (and yet poignantly bouncy) as 'Jo-Ann," this other epic's sad meaning in my life is perhaps even more touching. I don't recall the album it is from, and I heard the song only once or twice on the radio. That it was played on the radio at all, this mournful, eerie plaint, wild as the empty, violet, airless, howling New Mexican night itself, is a testament-to others an indictment, those who detest such howling, airless, purple plaints, sung to an acoustic guitar and blues harp to the nature of radio programming in those days, the wild, sometimes airless, sometimes purple cross-section of musical epiphanies available for the discerning listener out for more than merely the Monkees and the Mamas & the Papas.
There was a lot of music out there, roughly the equivalent in texture and feel-the rawhide urgency and backwoods simplicity-of 'The Hungry Dogs of New Mexico.' If a fan club could have been established for followers of that sort of homespun sound it might have included roughly every college kid in the country, everyone who considered him or herself authentic, substantive, worthy, or, at a lower level, bohemian, trendy, hip. It wasn't fluff, in any sense of the word, it was the very music of life, not perhaps as you might ever want to live it-without appliances, designer sneakers-but as you sometimes experienced it in the deepest moments of your private desolation. It wasn't life as you might want to live it for very long, but a part of life you wanted to, know you still had in you, despite!' whatever grandeur the socialization process had heaped upon you. A lot of people wanted to hear that music, and to know that those eerie, airless, purple feelings, set to a blues harp and a lone guitar, a couple of yodeling, eerie voices that had been there, were valid.
As Dave Van Ronk once said, 'It's a damn shame pop music is so ephemeral. But sometimes, when I hear my old recordings, I think it isn't ephemeral enough.' Or words to that effect. The point being that not only do the songs change, the players, the instruments and the times a-changin' change. The feelings leave just as easily, or at least the notion that those feelings once commonly shared are at all valid in the present. For instance, who recently has written any songs that could evoke that mad, dusty, airless purple passion of 'The Hungry Dogs of New Mexico'? Who among us will admit to feeling those howling passions deep in the empty urban nightmare that passes for musical life nowadays?
A sound rekindled
Danny & Dusty, that's who. I know little beyond the information contained on the cover of their album, The Lost Weekend. The band was in a story that I read in The New York Times a few months ago and have for the most part forgotten.
These seven guys from three Los Angeles bands, the Dream Syndicate, Green on Red, and the Long Ryders, got together one night to put this record out as a down and dirty jam session, song-swap, no-holds-barred soiree of country-punk/folk-soul. There are songs on this album that rattle the bones of Any hungry dog east of godforsaken New Mexico. I would be willing to wager that at least one of these guys knows the chords to that long lost lament-or at least knows Happy and/Or Artie Traum personally, or someone who does. -Miracle Mile' alone is like a windy time-trip back to some of the senses I thought was into a golf course long ago. Hearing the creaky croak of the lead singer-maybe Dan Stuart (of Green on Red), maybe Steve Wynn (of the Dream Syndicate), who wrote all the incredible songs on this album, save one-is like revisiting a sacred waterfall, where the sound of purity has been unchanged by even the corroded sunlight.
There are people who continue to sing like this, I realized then; this music still exists. which means the sensibility must yet exist, the validity of those feelings. "Down to the Bone" and "Song for the Dreamers" reinforced my observation, along with the beer-barrel joviality of 'The Word Is Out" and 'Baby, We All Gotta Go Down." It's beer-barrel joviality with a crushing edge, though, a sense of doom implanted like an artificial rock and roll heart. To cap it off, literally, to conclude the album, they offer this tip-of-the-cap to the one-time top-cat, Bob Dylan, with a faithful and still chilling 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door," with a couple of verses I have never heard before. These are musicians who have seen The Last Waltz, probably more than once. They know time, the ephemerality of Robbie Robertson, the times how they a-changed Bobby Dylan almost into an embarrassment, and a whole generation's memories with him.
Beyond that, these are players from three Los Angeles handswhich means that not only is there a group out there, but a group of groups, a scene, a sound rekindled, lots of characters into country/folk/bluegrass changes and the high lonesome howl of the desert wind on a night in New Mexico.
You might want to seek out some records by Green on Red (Enigma Records) or the Long Ryders (Frontier Records) or the Dream Syndicate. You may also want to look into Neil Young's latest flirtation with country changes, from Warner Brothers. If you really want to call this a trend, how about listening to the latest by the ultimate L.A. biker-punk band, X, those ruffians of rococo rockabilly, led by John Doe, Billy Zoom, and Exene Cervenka. The bluegrass howl has always been part of their signature, but now on Ain't Love Grand it's become their indelible essence. Then, to wrap it up, you will have to traverse the map, go back to the wild, wild east, to pick up the new disc by the Talking Heads, the very model of effete Eastern intellectual chic, and check out some of the changes on Little Creatures. The malaise has become palpable. It is good enough to eat.