Wednesday, March 15, 2006

T-Bone Burnett

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.


Cowtown Pattie said...

Why, yes, I love T-Bone!

If I am not mistaken, one of his compositions plays at the end of a Deadwood episode.

If you are not a fan of HBO's Deadwood, I will enlighten - the series always ends and rolls credits with a different song each time. Every song I have heard has been this haunting, odd tune and perfectly suited to the episode's meaning. I think Amazon might have Season 1 music available on cd....

Whisky Prajer said...

Ha! I wondered if this mightn't get a response from "a certain Texan"! Thanks for the Deadwood tip - I'd lost track. I'm off to me video store right now...

DarkoV said...

Even though I had a chance to see T Bone while he was still performing (when he did the Rolling Thunder Tour w/ Bob Dylan in the '70's), I never got into his individual playing, for whatever reason. It was his musical production that caught my ear, and that fairly late. His soundtrack for Oh Brother Where Art Thou? was especially exhilirating. His "Proof Through the Night" sounds interesting since it also featured guests Pete Townshend, Ry Cooder, and Richard Thompson. What's your extended opinion on that one, WP?

Whisky Prajer said...

Well, I had to unlock the door to the cellar, warm up the vacuum tubes on the old hi-fi, then drop the stylus on some vinyl, but I did it! Here's what we have, track by track:

Side One

The Murder Weapon
- The album opens ominously with some psycho whiffling on a pan flute. After a bit more of this, we finally get the snap of a snare, and the two-string-rhythm that's become Burnett's signature. For most listeners (including me), the song is all too ominous - is the whole album going to be devoted to meditations about ... whatever this is about? Rating: meh.

Fatally Beautiful
- the first of several songs co-written by Pete Townshend and focussing on the life of (ahem) a centrefold. Has a snappy, bouncy method to its madness, but is wordy, wordy, wordy - giving me pause to wonder if every song on this album wants to attain "Great American Novel" status. Rating: meh.

After All These Years
- has "Marilyn" all over it. And it works! When I saw T-Bone perform at The Horseshoe (one of a handful of concerts he gave following Criminal), he trotted this out mid-list. Even though this was the 90s, a time when the Marilyn mystique was finally beginning to dissipate, the song sounded as fresh as ever. It's about misplaced longing, and that never gets old. Rating: Great(!)

Baby Fall Down
- charts the progress of a "girl's" nervous breakdown. Searchie has more compelling things to say on the subject. Rating: meh.

The Sixties
- "Keep all the bad/Destroy all the good". This used to be one of my favourite tracks, but no longer. It's preachy and supercilious, and the attempt at self-implication in the final verse is clumsy and unconvincing (Playboy magazine gets named - this is the third song to fuss over girls who take their clothes off for the camera). Three guys (Ronson, Townshend and Burnett) who think they're better than everyone else in the room. Rating: Interesting failure.

Side Two:

- it took three people (TBB, Stan Lynch, Andy Williams) to write a song this oblique and annoying? Incredible! meh.

- finally, a song we can dance to! And a mission statement, of sorts. "I will hold on to this hope / That life is not some gruesome joke / and love is not some wretched lie" Thumbs way up! Great(!)

Hula Hoop
- a friend who saw T-Bone perform at the El Mocombo in the 80s said he absolutely killed with this song, strumming and jumping into the audience. That was a much younger T-Bone, and the thought of him being so goofy makes this song a treat to hear again. Really good.

When The Night Falls
- Ry Cooder finally arrives! He and T-Bone deliver the album's one true heartbreaker. This time the guilt and anguish isn't teased up over some semantic concern. It's for real: "When the night falls / it falls on me / and when the day breaks / I'm in pieces" Darn, if I'd only warmed up the hi-fi before I did that list... Great (obviously)

Hefner & Disney - what if we traded the names of these two American Originals, attributing the "achievements" of the one to the other's name? Preachy, yes, but I like it - even if it doesn't do much to dispell my fondness for the work of Disney or, for that matter, Hefner. Say, this is the fourth song to get vexed at Playboy ... and Townshend gets another writing credit. Hmm. Still: Really good.

Shut It Tight
- co-written with Richard Thompson. I love this song. It's impossible to tell which guy contributed what to this song - right down to T-Bone's wincing extension of the final word into "tyyyyyyyyyyit" (the closing "T" releasing a shower of spittle) - the merging of talent is just that immaculate. Another "mission" song, another winner:

Sometimes I want to stop and crawl back into the womb
Sometimes I cannot tell wrong from right
But I ain't gonna quit until I'm laid in my tomb
And even then they better shut it tight

So, final tally: four great songs, two really good ones, one interesting failure, and four "meh"s.

DarkoV said...

You are tops in my book for reader service!
Just blown away with your humour, insight, and festidium (word, this? Sounds convincing.). Thanks for the info.
This thing, though, with Playboy and three (or is it four) guys going on and on about this topic? Weren't there groupies in those days or was the thought of nudity much more interesting than the disappointing reality of it?
Hmmmm. Perhaps, I'll write a song about that too.

Thanks again for warming up the tubes.

Whisky Prajer said...

I should add: I doubt you can beat the O Brother soundtrack (which took pre-eminence on the charts so shortly after 9/11), but the soundtrack to The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is pretty sassy.

If O Brother T-Bone is what you're after, however, T Bone Burnett and Behind The Trap Door are your best bets.

john r. williamson said...

t bone is great (he hasn't hyphenated his name since 1990 or so--or so he told me). the first album i bought was the self-titled Dot release. for the first 3 years, i couldn't listen to it at all. then suddenly i was totally hooked. it became one of my favorite albums of his. i like everything he has done. i agree with you about the trap door ep. amazing. i remember hearing him do a version of "trap door" around 1989 or so at a club in san juan capistrano (jonathan richman opened---how cool is that?). and t bone had a few extra lines that he hadn't done on the ep. very special.

wish i could remember them.

t bone is one of the greatest people i have ever met. i haven't seen him in a couple of years, but i still dream about him quite a bit and he comes up in conversations with my producer, daniel mccoy, who worked as an apprentice for t bone for about 6 months.

i once opened for him in santa barbara and i noticed that every song he was singing was about murder or something approaching murder.

he is the james ellroy of music.

a poe.

anyway, i love him.

he's a charming man and always great to be with.

i miss him...

hoping he'll call me out of the blue again someday...

Whisky Prajer said...

JRW - what a genuine treat! Thanks for dropping by!

Derek Lowe said...

So, am I right in thinking that "Proof Through the Night" has never been released on CD? I've looked for it on and off over the years, and can't understand why it hasn't been more available.

BTW, Burnett said in an interview around that time that "The Murder Weapon" was the human tongue (gossip). I wouldn't have been able to figure it out. . .

As for "The Talking Animals", the only song I remember playing more than once or twice was "The Wild Truth".

Whisky Prajer said...

DL - "The Murder Weapon" - go figure. A short footnote would certainly have helped sell that song. I don't think "Proof" was ever released on CD. In the mid-90s I asked a specialty store to order what we thought might be a Japanese listing, but nothing ever came from it. I haven't seen such a beast make an appearance on eBay, either (though if it ever did, it would fetch some pretty hefty bucks).

Anonymous said...

I bought Proof, goodness I guess about '82 on cassette. I wore that album out. I adored it. I used to listen to it over and over walking to work, along with lots of Joan Armatrading, Renaissance, Flock of Seagulls and Neil Young. LOL. My review is kinder, although I do agree that When the Night Falls is a bit of a masterpiece. It is hard to find his music esp. in MP3s (sigh). Music was a major part of my life then

Whisky Prajer said...

Burnett's absence in the MP3 circuit (legal or otherwise) is a bit of a mystery. I think an outfit like eMusic is the perfect platform for his music. He's a very busy guy, obviously.

But, uh, "Flock of Seagulls" you say? I'm having second thoughts about my "Hall of Shame" songlist!