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The Last Waltz: Mark Linkous

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“Songwriting’s lonely
songwriting hurts
a relentless itching
bed-bug curse
songwriting costs
it doesn’t come free

ask Elliott Smith
ask Richie Lee
ask Mark Linkous
ask Shannon Hoon

to get up on stage
and sing you a tune
this business is troubling”

—Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon, ‘Track Number 8’)

Words & Illustration: Craig Carry

marklinkous_craigcarry

Last year’s latest Mark Kozelek release (Sun Kil Moon’s ‘Among The Leaves’) contained a haunting and timely reminder of the many gifted songwriters whose lives were tragically cut short. Of course, the list of ‘troubled songwriters’ who left the world much too early down the years is, very sadly, much too long indeed.

As Kozelek writes, songwriting is lonely. The songwriter’s (writing) life is essentially a solitary one. The process involves dedication and perseverance. And demands seclusion.

What struck me most of all, on listening to ‘Among The Leaves’ was Kozelek’s inclusion of Mark Linkous in the song. While listening to ‘Track Number 8’ – for a split second at least – it seemed to me as though Linkous was still here. Why has he been included in Kozelek’s song? But then, after collecting myself, I realized that, yes, he has indeed left us. This March will be the third anniversary of Linkous’s death, who took his own life, aged 47.

Perhaps why I had been so slow to realize Linkous’s passing is the simple fact that – like so many music fans – the music of Sparklehorse is always so close at hand. Those fragile songs; haunting melodies; deeply intimate words; are never far away. Linkous’s albums, through his Sparklehorse pseudonym, not so much spoke to his listeners – but whispered, soothed, comforted. He wrote from a dark place, at times a deeply unsettling place. The kind of music that simply had to be written and recorded in the dead of the night. He went to the darkest places so we wouldn’t have to venture there ourselves. Perhaps that darkness got too much to bear, like Bob Dylan’s ‘Not Dark Yet’:

“I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies
I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes
Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”

(‘Not Dark Yet’, taken from Bob Dylan’s 1997 album ‘Time out Of Mind’)

It is sad – as is the case for so many songwriters – that the music of Sparklehorse did not spread to a bigger audience during Linkous’s life. Sure – he had the “critically acclaimed” tag forever associated to his name, but his audience would be best described as “of a cult following” variety. Yet these devoted fans worshipped their hero. They sought solace and wisdom (and still do) from his beautiful country-folk songs. And whose to say, Linkous would have necessarily liked – or wanted – a “bigger” audience anyway?

A scene from the recent documentary on Sixto Rodriguez (‘Waiting For Sugar Man’) comes to mind. Rodriguez, who had become (unknown to him) a phenomenon in apartheid South Africa, is asked “You weren’t aware of something that could have changed your life completely, I mean, probably for the better…” To which Rodriguez shyly smiles and responds: “Well, I don’t know whether it would have been for the better…but it’s certainly an interesting thought.”

————

On hearing ‘Swordfish Trombones’ by Tom Waits, Linkous would be inspired to start on a new musical path. Previously, Linkous had put out two albums with his band The Dancing Hoods (in ’86 and ’88). Linkous – still in his twenties – moved from his Virginia homeplace to New York City and later to Los Angeles in the hope of securing a major label deal – but to no avail. Linkous would return home to Virginia and start afresh and, by 1995, he had formed a musical project entitled ‘Sparklehorse.’

The beloved Sparklehorse debut album ‘Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot’ was put out in ’95 and a European tour supporting Radiohead would happen the following year. However, Linkous’s lifelong fight against depression would resurface while on tour with Radiohead. Linkous was wheelchair-bound for six months (and needing dialysis for acute kidney failure while also requiring seven operations to save his legs) after taking an overdose of Valium and antidepressant medication in a London hotel room. Later, after his recovery, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Linkous said: “For a while there I was really scared that when I technically died – which I guess I did for a few minutes – that the part of my brain that allowed me my ability to write songs would be damaged.”

‘Good Morning Spider’ (1998) was the second Sparklehorse lp, seemed to draw inspiration directly from his near-death experience. Although subsequently Linkous said most of the album had been written prior to his attempted suicide. The album is a haunting and heartbreaking set of songs. On the track ‘Ghost Of His Smile’ Linkous’s poetry of everyday life can be found in all its beauty:

“Dogs will wag their tails
And birds will sing
Hell it’s a hard world
For little things”

Most heartbreaking of all (and proves an all-so-difficult listening experience now) is the song’s chorus:

“And we thought that he was doing alright

I can’t forget the ghost

I can’t forget the ghost

I can’t forget the ghost

Of his smile”

2001 would see the release of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, an album Linkous would collaborate with one of his own musical heroes – Tom Waits (Waits and Kathleen Brennan co-wrote ‘Dog Door’ with Linkous). Also guesting – on the sublime ‘Piano Fire’- was Polly Jean Harvey on vocals. The album – twelve tracks in length – was produced by Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips) whose collaboration would beautifully bring Linkous’s eerie words to life.

Poignantly, Linkous would add “borrowed lines” from his dear friend Vic Chesnutt to the tenth track, ‘Little Fat Baby.’ The Vic Chesnutt song in question was ‘Myrtle’. The following is ‘Myrtle’s last verse:

“I’m not an optimist, I’m not a realist
I might be a subrealist but I can’t substantiate
It was bigger than me and I felt like a sick child
Dragged by a donkey, through the myrtle”
(‘Myrtle’, taken from Vic Chesnutt’s 1996 album ‘About to Choke’)

Linkous would incorporate ‘Myrtle’ (across each verse) into ‘Little Fat Baby’:

“He got dragged by a donkey
Through the dust and the myrtle
But he was once a little fat baby”
(Little Fat Baby’, taken from the Sparklehorse 2001 album ‘It’s A Wonderful Life)

Tragically, Chesnutt – Linkous’s close friend – (and another gifted songwriter) would – some years later – take his own life, by an overdose of muscle relaxers, and died on Christmas Day 2009. Only barely three months later, Linkous would himself take his own life, on 6 March 2010. On that day, the Linkous family made the following statement which will also be forever felt in the hearts of his many fans:

“We are thankful for his time with us and will hold him forever in our hearts. May his journey be peaceful, happy and free. There’s a heaven and there’s a star for you.”

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For more information on the music of Sparklehorse please visit:
http://www.sparklehorse.com

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January 15, 2013 at 7:22 pm

The Last Waltz: Rainer Ptacek

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Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry

Singer Songwriter, Guitarist (born East Germany on June 7 1951), died of brain cancer, aged 46.

Singer, songwriter and guitarist, Rainer Ptacek passed away on November 12, 1997 after succumbing to brain cancer. He left behind a musical legacy and an unrivalled reputation as a “musician’s musician.” His progressive approach to guitar playing was wholly unique and revolutionary. His unique guitar technique, which incorporated slide, finger-picking, tape loops and electronic manipulation won him huge critical acclaim from luminaries such as Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris and PJ Harvey. Earlier this year, ‘The Inner Flame’ was released on Fire Records which is a tribute record celebrating the talented life and music of the great musician and songwriter. ‘The Inner Flame’ features a whole host of rock ‘n’ roll greats. ‘The Farm’ is reinterpreted by Lucinda Williams, ‘Rude World’ is covered by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and PJ Harvey, Emmylou Harris, Evan Dando, Vic Chesnutt, Grandaddy and Chuck Prophet amongst others also feature. The special spark arrives at the end in the shape of ‘Be Prepared’, performed live by Rainer, alongside Joey Burns and John Convertino (of Calexico/Giant Sand fame). The compilation opens with the title track ‘Inner Flame’, where Giant Sand alongside Rainer deliver one of Americana’s defining moments ever put to tape. The benefit album ‘Inner Flame’ was originally released in 1997 with the proceeds going towards Ptacek’s medical bills. The re-released version contains many extras not featured on the original release. It is reissued now in 2012, to pay tribute and celebrate the remarkable artist. In the words of Howe Gelb: “We offer up this new version to pay tribute and celebrate the man, the likes of whom I’ve yet to ever encounter again, and allowing a glimpse now of what he had done here on the planet and to share that embrace for ever having known him at all.”

‘Inner Flame’ and Giant Sand was how I first discovered Rainer. I remember picking up Giant Sand’s ‘Selections Circa 1990-2000’ compilation in Plugd and immediately became utterly transfixed by their visionary and beguiling sound. Classics such as ‘Shiver’, ‘Inner Flame’, ‘Corridor’, ‘Yer Ropes’ and ‘Temptation Of Egg’ introduced me to the sound of Americana. ‘Inner Flame’ was my first glimpse of Rainer. His slide guitar and vocals on the song is awe-inspiring. The weight of the song is staggering, with a force to be reckoned with. It’s the spark of musicianship between frontman Howe Gelb and Rainer, together with the rhythm backbone of Joey Burns and John Convertino, that makes for a truly special sonic landscape. It’s cinematic blues covering the plains of Arizona and beyond. The lyric ‘Everything should come from the deepest place’ is one of my favourite moments from the stellar Giant Sand songbook. In fact, it’s the essence of Rainer’s music, where his songs transcend space and time.

Over the years, several releases featured the songs of Rainer, of which I only realized a good time later. One of those such songs is ‘Square’, which was taken from one of Howe Gelb’s many off-shoot projects, The Band of Blacky Ranchette. The album was entitled ‘Still Lookin’ Good To Me’. The album features everyone from Kurt Wagner and Cat Power to M. Ward and Grandaddy. ‘Square’ is a gem of a song, which was co-written by Howe Gelb and Rainer Ptacek. The version of the song found here is recorded live in Austin, Texas and the magical trio of Howe Gelb (vocals, guitar), John Convertino (drums) and Joey Burns (cello) weave their magic. Howe Gelb’s vocal delivery hits you deep and hard, amidst the heart wrenching bowed cello of Burns and Convertino’s evocative drumming. The song is achingly beautiful. A lyric on the opening verse: ‘Times spent with you is always way too few. Finer than the finest dream well displayed on the silver screen.’ The lyrics of the chorus, for me, epitomizes the life and music of Rainer: ‘You’re way too real for wide appeal/You’re one of the last of a kind/Out of the past and right in time.’ Listening to the lyrics echoes Howe Gelb’s words for his best friend, ‘the likes of whom I’ve yet to ever encounter again.’ Certainly, Rainer is just that, ‘one of the last few one of a kind.’ It is only fitting in 2012, fifteen years since Rainer’s passing, that we see his music being released again, where Rainer’s music will be introduced to new audiences.

My favourite Rainer song must be ‘Rudy With A Flashlight’. Funnily enough, five or six years passed before I heard the original version of Rainer’s! The song was beautifully covered by Evan Dando (featuring Howe Gelb) on The Lemonheads’ ‘Best Of’ compilation. ‘Rudy With A Flashlight’ always strikes me with its powerful emotion and its immediacy and directness. The guitar playing by Rainer is astounding. You can hear John Fahey, Ry Cooder and Richard Thompson all at once in his unique style of guitar playing. The opening verse recounts watching his son playing in the yard, ‘Rudy with a flashlight, playing out in the yard, shining it straight up, right at the stars.’ In a later verse, Rainer sings ‘Some times all we need/Is right in front of us/Right in front of us.’ I can visualize Rainer singing with his guitar, while watching his son playing in the yard and in the process writing ‘Rudy With A Flashlight.’ A very special song, that pours with a father’s love.

Several of Rainer’s albums I’ve been listening to lately for the first time. My current favourite is ‘Rolling Back The Years’, which is Rainer with John Convertino and Joey Burns. Three musicians in deep communication with one another at the highest level, through music. It was recorded in late July/early August 1997 in Tucson, Arizona at the Barrio Viejo home of journalist, author and activist, Bill Carter. Rainer was at a high point in his recovery from a brain tumor when these sessions were recorded. ‘The Farm’ is another striking document of Rainer’s legacy. The sessions recorded would be the last recordings Rainer ever put to tape, before his untimely passing in November 1997. Those sessions were released in 2002, after being untouched for several years. A whole host of recordings are available across many releases, where Rainer’s phenomenal talent is showcased.

Throughout 2012, Fire Records will be releasing the vast archives of Rainer Ptacek’s works. The much beloved slide guitarist from Tucson, Arizona who originated Giant Sand’s sound from their inception to creating a stream of remarkable solo albums and with his band, Das Combo, described as mutant roots/power blues. Near the end of Rainer’s life, when asked the impossible question of what he thinks we are all doing here in this life, Rainer answered without hesitation: “to love away the pain”.
Listen to Rainer’s music and you soon feel just that.

‘Inner Flame’ is out now on Fire Records.

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September 26, 2012 at 11:14 am

The Last Waltz: Vic Chesnutt

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Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry

 

James Victor “Vic” Chesnutt
Singer-songwriter (born Jacksonville, Fla. on Nov 12, 1964), aged 45.

Earlier this year, Nashville alt country act Lambchop released their eleventh studio album ‘Mr M’ dedicated to the memory of Vic Chesnutt. The deeply personal songs on ‘Mr M’, written by Kurt Wagner, are each a tribute to a close and special friend and fellow artist. Love, loss, anger, anguish and pain thread deeply through the intimate creations. On ‘If Not I’ll Just Die’ Wagner sings ‘Uh, I adore you, and I represent you crying cause/We were born, we were born to rule’ over the ‘psych-Sinatra’ sound of Tony Crow’s piano and majestic strings. The aching ballad ‘Mr Met’ describes the flow of emotions following Chesnutt’s passing, ‘You made me spare/Like used software/It will not bring you.’ The album ‘Mr. M’ is deeply moving, personal and a fitting tribute to Wagner’s close friend and mentor. Kurt Wagner has said how the ghost of Chesnutt still lingers over his music. They first met in the early nineties and later in ’98, Lambchop themselves were the backing band for Vic Chesnutt’s ‘The Salesman and Bernadette’. I was fortunate to see Lambchop in Vicar Street, Dublin during their Mr. M tour earlier this year. The songs of Mr. M were performed from start to finish and was an utterly special and beautiful moment in time to witness.

Vic Chesnutt had many close friends and collaborators over the years, not least Michael Stipe who produced his first two albums. Michael Stipe was an early fan of Chesnutt and produced both ‘Little’ (1990) and ‘West of Rome’ (1991). The albums are dark folk masterpieces filled with a vivid realness that casts both light and dark shades of human emotion. ‘Flirted With You All My Life’ is a profoundly sad and haunting song Chesnutt wrote about his close relationship with death which deals with suicide, ‘And everywhere I go/You are always right there with me/I flirted with you all my life/Even kissed you once or twice.’ Songs can rarely strike such an emotional core like those of Vic Chesnutt’s proud songbook. His last two albums, ‘North Star Deserter’ and ‘At The Cut’ were released on Constellation Records and received unanimous critical praise. Chesnutt’s final album ‘In The Cut’ is as raw and honest as an album can get. The opener ‘Coward’ is an anthemic tour de force with crashing drums and violent strings pouring with deep emotion. Chesnutt’s refrain of ‘I am a coward’ is as powerful as Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds or Tom Waits at their best. The sparse ballad ‘When the Bottom Fell Out’ is reminiscent of Leonard Cohen. The final verse resonates powerfully:-‘So long, it’s been good to know you/But when I finally smash into that vertin grass/I will say it’s been pretty great going.’

Vic Chesnutt was paralysed from the waist down following a car accident in 1983, at the age of 18. In a recent interview, Chesnutt said ‘It was only after I broke my neck and even like maybe a year later that I really started realizing that I had something to say.’ Chesnutt wrote about a struggle for peace in a life filled with pain and on Christmas Day 2009, he tragically passed away by an overdose of muscle relaxants. Vic Chesnutt made a huge impact on so many people’s lives and his memory will forever burn brightly.

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July 29, 2012 at 8:25 pm

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The Last Waltz: Levon Helm

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Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry

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(Mark Lavon) ‘Levon’ Helm
Drummer, singer, actor (born Elaine, Arkansas, USA, May 1940), died of cancer, 19 April, aged 71.

Shortly after the sad passing of American music’s true great Levon Helm, Simone Felice (Felice Brothers) shared a toast to the audience for Levon during his Irish and European tour. Near the end of the set, Felice called for a pint of Guinness, upon which he made an impassioned and beautiful speech about his friend and hero, Levon Helm, then raised his glass. He told the audience how, as a child, he cycled his bicycle by Big Pink, how fortunate he was to play at two Rambles and even got to sing some verses of ‘The Weight’ on one occasion.

‘Levon made us think about dignity, loyalty, friendship, family’, Garth Hudson on his great Band mate. ‘He is a true hero and has left us grieving’.

Nearly to the end, Levon Helm spent his life on the band stand. ‘If it doesn’t come from your heart, music just doesn’t work’. Helm’s country tinged southern soul vocals and superbly understated drumming were at the core of The Band’s sound. He was the soul of the group. The Band’s roots music revolution which inspired the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Fairport Convention, Eric Clapton and decades later, inspired Mercury Rev, Calexico, Wilco and countless other artists and musicians. Their trademark style was later dubbed Americana, a style and genre which is still very much alive today.

In 1957, Levon Helm joined journeyman Ronnie Hawkins as a group The Hawks. His rock ‘n’ roll venture with Hawkins consisted of all The Band members-Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel. The high demands of Hawkins eventually took its toll and the Hawks broke away in ’64, which led to the formation of Levon and the Hawks. From September ’65 to May ’66, Helm and co. accompanied Bob Dylan, during the historic time when Dylan went ‘electric’. Helm quit after a time and returned to Arkansas as he ‘wasn’t made to get booed’.

In July ’66, The Hawks with Levon Helm aboard, were invited by Dylan to the Big Pink House in West Saugherties, New York. As the group were often called ‘the band’ by friends and neighbours, Helm, Robertson, Manuel, Hudson and Danko were officially The Band and soon changed the course of American music forever.The fabled Basement Tapes demos were recorded during this time. This was a double-album of infused early rock ‘n’ roll, country, Stax, soul and blues. Songs such as ‘I Shall Be Released’ and ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ were recorded here and would soon be on The Band’s debut record ‘Music From Big Pink’. In July ’68 their debut was released and follow-up ‘The Band’ was released in 1969. These two albums stand in history as some of the most vital albums ever recorded. ‘The Band’ is seen as their masterpiece including ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, ‘Up On Cripple Creek’, ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’.

In 1976, The Band staged a special farewell concert in San Francisco, The Last Waltz which is documented by many as the best live concert in music history. A string of special guests performed on the night; Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Dr John, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters among many others. This was beautifully captured on film by Martin Scorsese.

In 2007, Helm released ‘Dirt Farmer’ a haunting and beguiling set of folk and country songs. He won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk album later that year. His follow-up ‘Electric Dirt’ won him another Grammy in 2009 for Best Americana album. His last release ‘Ramble At The Ryman’, a live album, won him a third.

As Helm sung on ‘When I go Away’ from his ‘Electric Dirt’ album; ‘And then the sun’s gonna shine through the shadows when I go away’. The sun will shine brightly amidst Levon Helm’s gentle spirit and undeniable genius. He is now buried in Woodstock, next to Rick Danko.

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July 22, 2012 at 11:39 am