The Complicatist : Cindy Walker, Roy Orbison & Nick Cave

Orbison rules, Cave doesn’t

by Gordon Campbell

Film and television have done well by Roy Orbison, and the operatic sentimentality in his voice…In Blue Velvet, Dean Stockwell and David Lynch added a genuinely creepy dimension to the old Orbison hit “In Dreams.” and just last year, the people responsible for Mad Men chose to end season three with a fairly obscure Orbison song from his exotica phase, called “ Shahdaroba.” The song brilliantly conveyed the dread permeating Don Draper’s life, with the collapse of his marriage :

Shahadaroba, Shahadaroba
Means the future
Is much better than the past

So when tears flow
And you don’t know
What on earth to do
And your world is blue
When your dream dies
And your heart cries
Fate knows what’s best for you

Shahadaroba, Shahadaroba
Face the future
And forget about the past

Not bad, for a song written forty years before the drama that it underscores. For old times sake, the Blue Velvet clip of ‘In Dreams’ can be revisited here.

These days, the oddest thing about the Stockwell/Lynch interpretation is that it now seems the only way of hearing the song. It seems like the soundtrack to a nightmare, and not just a plaintive dream about one’s beloved. Orbison’s version of “Shahdaroba’ can be found here, behind some stray pieces of Mad Men footage. The song was composed by the great country music songwriter Cindy Walker (pictured above), who also wrote “Dream Baby” for Orbison. Two decades beforehand, she also wrote a beautifully wistful dustbowl ballad called “Dusty Skies” for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

If you want an even better example of magisterial regret, Cindy Walker was also responsible for “You Don’t Know Me,” which Ray Charles made his own. As songs of unrequited love go, its hard to beat a couplet like: “To you, I’m just a friend / that’s all I’ve ever been / but you don’t know me…” In 2006, Willie Nelson also recorded a great version of the same song, in an album devoted entirely to Cindy Walker compositions.

Later this month the Catholic Church is gearing up to recognise Australia’s very first saint, a nun called Mary MacKillop. Unofficially though, Australia has been striving for a decade or more to canonize Nick Cave.

Late last year, Anwyn Crawford wrote an extremely pissed off essay about Cave, and his alleged crimes against creativity. Trite, pretentious, avid for acclaim…as long ago as 1987, Crawfor wrote, even Cave had seemed bored ‘by his own crazy-man schtick, the half-Byron, half-werewolf sideshow act – already as threadbare as an old suit.” Yet down the years, nothing much has changed in Cave’s creative stance – although the cartoon nature of his later incarnations has insulated him from criticism, in the usual pomo fashion. He’s aware of the ironies, he’s conscious of the whole sham shamanic schtick – didn’t you notice?

Well, Crawford did notice alright, but that didn’t stop her from nailing Cave’s pretensions solidly to the wall. As a former fan, she has watched his ascension to the rank of Serious Artist, Novelist and Renaissance Man with some incredulity – and as the title of her essay indicates (“The Monarch Of Middlebrow”), she isn’t buying it. Though written in 2009, the essay seems to predate Cave’s recent Grinderman persona, which is probably just as well :

Cave is both a rampant misogynist and an arch-snob but it’s actually his snobbery that bothers me more – or rather, the way that his snobbery, amplified and encouraged by others, lends to his misogyny an air of respectability, as if it were something to be admired.

Like many women, I have a troubled relationship with the sexism and, yes, misogyny that continues to shape popular music. On the one hand I abhor it and it makes me tired and angry; on the other I love plenty of artists whose sexual politics could at best be described as dubious. Cave was once among them.

That’s the basic territory. Most of the time, Crawford doesn’t let her anger in the way of making the case for the prosecution. In a telling aside, she takes Cave to task for his description of song-writing as’ women’s work.’ ie, bloody, laboured and messy. So unlike novel-writing which must be men’s work – a superior, coolly cerebral form of data processing, perhaps. Cave’s oft-stated position on the essence of desire – that women are rendered no longer desirable by the act of possession, so killing them is the only way to render them perpetually desirable – also comes in for a fair amount of stick.

Are Cave’s ideas about women, lust and murder really transgressive and challenging – or just silly and offensive? Political correctness doesn’t come into it. Yes, the blood and lust elements are a schtick – we got that already – but he seems to want it both ways : shock value for the plebs, nods and winks to flatter the art crowd. It ends up covering the bases, in the same way that transgression by musicians has always been as much about marketing as anything else, well before Lady Gaga. Only rarely has popular music managed to escape being a revolutionary playground lodged inside the corporate walls, where its fantasies of release can be safely and profitably enacted. Crawford again :

A great part of pop’s thrill lies in its creation of a space for highly ritualised transgression: it is one of capitalism’s great safety valves. In song and in image, ordinary people recreate themselves on a global stage as aliens or rebel soldiers, runaways or murderers, and such escapist fantasies make many a dull day bearable. Self-consciously ‘right-on’ artists like Ani DiFranco or Michael Franti, beloved among a certain hippie-ish subsection of the Left, seem to me to entirely miss the point: pop music is not a health spa for the soul but a space for self-mythologising and emotional excess.

That’s what makes it fun. It is a theatre in which to act out a spectacular, petty revenge upon a world that doesn’t give a shit, that probably teased you at school for being fat and wearing glasses. Pop stardom is not a noble pursuit, but that isn’t to say that it can’t at times become political. The best artists can bring about a paradigm shift because they reflect and magnify the frustrations of a given era. Hence the self-renewing public obsession with punk, out of which artists like Nick Cave were born: the last gasp of a critically wounded body politic before neo-liberalism turned the world into a purgatory of the living dead.-

I’ll leave you to read Crawford’s explanation of how Cave’s evolution from junkie brat to Cultural Icon has come about. En route, she offers a sharp assessment of who gained most out from Cave’s creative liaison with Kylie Minogue. (Conclusion : he needed her to expand his audience, much more than she needed him for artistic cred.) Oddly though, Crawford presents her argument in a curiously conservative fashion.

Her own true romance with punk for instance, looks like a generational accident – given that classic punk’s political illusions have been no more enduring than those of the hippie bands ten years before. More to the point, self mythologising excess ceased being the best option in the funhouse many moons ago. That’s why Crawford citing poor old Ani DiFranco as a liberal contrast to rawk’n’roll excess seems dated. Better options have always existed.

You want examples ? My own prime reference is somewhat dated now too, but it still makes the point. One reason a lot of people – male and female alike – loved Sleater-Kinney so much during the 2000s was that they didn’t partake in the pantomine of anarchy that so many male control freaks of a certain age have always specialized in. (When Cave, Iggy and Mick offer release, it is by way of subjugation and surrender.)

That’s not how it needs to be. Sleater-Kinney’s live shows were as close to a meeting ground of equals as you could find, and Animal Collective’s communal joy has been yet another alternative to the misogynistic tropes that bother and bore Crawford so much. There are others : Kurt Vile, Crystal Castles, Broken Social Scene, Girl Talk, No Age, Los Campesinos! Fang Island….even in theirt weay, Tegan and Sara. Literally, there are dozens of bands that choose to stand on more or less equal terms with their audience, without suffering any loss in sensual buzz or the capacity for liberation.

Crawford is right though, about Nick Cave having the middlebrow market locked up. If that tired old blood, sex and rock’n’roll carnival belongs on stage at all these days, it is probably within an Andrew Lloyd Webber production.

Orbison footnote

A few months ago, I did a column that looked at the competing claims about whether it was Paul Burlison or the session guitarist Grady Martin who played the influential lead guitar part on the Johnny Burnette version of “Train Kept A- Rollin.” That track went on to inspire a whole generation of guitarists who came afterwards, including Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen. The general consensus, as I explained in the article, now attributes that guitar part to Grady Martin. Some time later though, I received an email from one of Burlison’s children . It read : :

P. Burlison’s son here…As to the trio’s “Train Kept Rollin” and “Honey Hush” it was P. Burlison playing the fuzz/distortion octaves on these 1956 single tracks..You can easily hear two guitars on “Train” and my dad playing the same fuzz/distortion octaves on ” Honey Hush” and “Train Kept Rollin” The distortion sound enhanced by the studio engineers.

Grady Martin’s own web pages say his first attempt and success at a fuzz tone sound was [in] 1961..[on Marty]Robbins ” Don’t Worry”..Never before or after the [Johnny Burnette Rock’Roll] trio did GM create the fuzz/distortion unique to the trio album..

That particular controversy will never die, it seems. Here’s a slightly newer one . Who was responsible for the guitar riff that drives Roy Orbison’s hit “Oh, Pretty Woman? ” I say ‘responsible’, because that includes (a) who devised it and (b) who played it. At last count, the contenders for ‘who played it’ were : Grady Martin, Jerry Kennedy (cited as the guitarist responsible in Ellis Amburn’s biography of Orbison) or Billy Sanford. It seems agreed that Orbison and his producer Fred Foster devised the lick and….one of the three contenders then played it on the record, though there’s now strong reason to believe it was Sanford. On the record you’ll recall, the guitar riff and drums work beautifully in unison.

So, next question…. who played the drums? On the best available evidence, it is most likely to have been Buddy Harman – who also played on classic country and pop hit records such as “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, “Bye Bye Love” for the Everly Brothers, “Ring of Fire” for Johnny Cash, “Stand By Your Man” for Tammy Wynette, “King of the Road” for Roger Miller, on both sides of “His Latest Flame/Little Sister” single for Elvis Presley and on many other great tracks in the course of an estimated 18,000 recording sessions racked up by Harman a 40 year career. Allegedly, the same pile-driving drum part that Harman contributed to “Pretty Woman” was re-used on the Bobby Goldsboro hit “Little Things.”

Such details may seem the height of nerdiness, but they’re part of the tapestry. Though as Cindy Walker wrote at the time, there’s also a case for facing the future and forgetting about the past.