Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Here's a guy I miss: T-Bone Burnett. This guy once made music that was as spastically charming as the freaky-looking dude himself. His most recent disc, The Criminal Under My Own Hat still gets airplay in my house. So does Truth Decay, and T-Bone Burnett. If I had Trap Door and Behind The Trap Door, those would receive regular spins, too. Although it can be a bit spotty, there's undeniable fun and pathos to be had on Proof Through The Night, as well. And say what you will about Talking Animals, it's still ... well, okay, it's a misfire. But I bought it anyway -- and I played it. Because I'm just plain fond of the big galoot.
These days he seems content to give his listening public his version of mixed tapes: the critically lauded soundtrack. That is, when he's not releasing his second ex-wife from her spousely ties, and producing the best record of her career. Supposedly, he's got a vault of over 50 original songs which he's considering releasing to the public. That could amount to roughly five Truth Decays (or five Talking Animals. Either way, I'm buyin').
I get the impression that the most unsuspecting people get a real charge out of working with him. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon were reportedly hesitant to put their voices to tape for the recent Johnny Cash biopic -- until they spent some time with T-Bone. What does he do? Does he sit the artist down and say, "Look, you signed on to this picture: there's gotta be something in you that suspects you've got the chops. Let's bring it out, and give it a spin!" Does he say, "Hey, what's the craziest idea you've ever had? The one you never want people to see? If you've got it, why not lay it down? Just for kicks! Get it out and over with, then we move on to the fun."
I'm guessing he's a little like that. The only interview I've heard with him was over 20 years ago, when he was slated to play a club close to the Bible college I was attending. The DJ of the local Christian Rock Hour called up T-Bone and asked him about this, that and the other thing (Burnett has publically admitted he's Christian, and borne the sort of burden that comes with being simultaneously suspicious of the Evangelical kulture-juggernaut). Burnett's response was friendly, and weirdly opportunistic. "Hey, it's great you called me -- I just finished writing this poem. Let me read it to you..." There followed a long and rambling meditation on flowers, laughter, his wife's painted toenails (or were they his wife's?), mushrooms, mushroom clouds, nuclear thermal inversion ... I lost track of what all else, but the befuddled interviewer was completely in the dark ("Huh. Well, that's great, brother. I mean ... I guess I gotta think about that. Uh, let's talk about Jesus for second...").
He looks like he's having the most fun when he's in on the joke -- his brief cameo appearance on Larry Sanders being a prime example. He looks like he's having the least fun when he's walking the red carpet -- which he's doing a lot these days. Well, alimony is expensive. And what he's doing now, he's doing very well. But I do hope he pulls together a few of his own punchlines, and tries them out on the rest of us. Sometime soon would be good.