When I don’t hear your voice for a while, I seek it out. When others come around who remind me of you, I don’t give them a chance. They wear cowboy boots, smoke cigarettes, and sing the blues. Erika Wennerstrom’s voice is golden, but she and her band, Heartless Bastards, fail to stir emotions in me in the same way that you can. The Detroit Cobras’ lead-singer copies your style, but she seems to be enjoying herself a bit too much. It’s your aching whiskey-warm voice that I need to put me right when I’m wrong. No woman sings the blues the way you do.
Lucinda, you see, there’s just no place for me to share my love for you with others these days. Your music isn’t in jukeboxes, and it isn’t on the radio. So I settle for Patsy and Loretta, because I know that when I get home, you’ll be there waiting for me. You sing for me, my friends, and the lost souls without footing, who wander about, searching. You are an angel, you are a saint – you are love breathing and the heart beating. And so, here’s my letter and my plea to those unfamiliar with your warm genius to experience it. Lucinda, the last one standing at the bar, with love and warmth, with a voice and guitar like a healer’s pills that calm souls and bodies and cleanse our sins. Lucinda, I have faith in you.
I was five in 1988 when Lucinda Williams was released and twenty-five when I bought it from Atomic Records on their very last day of business in Milwaukee. I guess it made sense, buying it from Atomic – a local business burnt out by the shining onslaught of technological advances in music-sharing. It was in a poor position – a side-road off main street – just far enough that nobody was just going to happen upon the store. Patrons of Atomic, like patrons of Lucinda’s music, sought out the local music store. Atomic represented something in me and my fellow Milwaukeeans, who yearned for an informed physical communal space for people to buy and share music – clearly a dying trend. I urge you to make a departure from main street and seek out the wonderful Lucinda Williams. I urge you to hear some of her best songs from her best albums:
“Crescent City” – Lucinda Williams (1988) – Rough Trade
Lucinda plays both observer and participant on this track. It starts out, “Everybody’s had a few, now they’re talking about who knows who,” painting a portrait of a stagnant bar culture, in which patrons tell the same stories night after night about the glory of the past. The track goes on, “I’m going back to the Crescent City where everything’s still the same / This town has said what it has to say / Now I’m after that back highway.” It seems that the singer is put off by the aforementioned bar life and wants to move on to bigger and better things, but in fact she just wants to get back to the place where she can talk about who knows who – back to a place that is familiar. She sings, “My brother knows where the best bars are / … / We used to dance the night away, me and my sister, me and my brother / We used to walk down by the river.” Lucinda creates images on this track the way that author Denis Johnson does in Jesus’ Son (1992) or Padgett Powell in Typical (1991), except she paints images with lyrics and makes them move and tremble with exacting melodies, a crying violin, and perfect rhythmic cadence.
“Memphis Pearl” – Sweet Old World (1992) – Chameleon
On this track Lucinda reaches out to all the small town girls who married too young and had children, never to experience any of the necessary catharsis of post-high school non-sense and hi-jinks that make domestic life seem like a safe place. She sings, “She married a man when she left home, she wanted someone she could call her own / He was good to her when he wasn’t drunk / He’d hold her and tell her how pretty she looked.” Now trapped in a domestic hell, the girl’s “eyes have a vacant stare.” Lucinda taps into the collective plight of those who never experience individuality like the stars and musicians on television who float down red carpets without a worry in the world. “She thought one day she’d own the world / She looked at the TV and magazines / And she believed all the pictures she’d seen / She’d be wearing silk and perfume so sweet / But those things don’t mean much out here on the street.”
The girl’s longing for something luxurious and star-like manifests itself in the darkest essence, as she returns to Memphis and tries to sell her beauty for the sake of both vanity and her baby: “Back in Memphis she had fun, going around telling everyone / She was going to buy dresses that zip up the side / And wear red lipstick with a nice car to drive / She bounces her baby on her knee / Saying maybe today we’ll get lucky you’ll see / I promise it won’t always be like this / Come here, sugar, give mama a kiss.” Whether or not the girl is actually selling her body or just trying to meet a man to take care of her and her baby is beyond the point. She no longer lives for herself (she never had a chance to) – she can only live for her baby.
“Drunken Angel” – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998) – Mercury/Polygram
This song is Lucinda’s obituary and love letter for departed country-blues musician and drifter Blaze Foley. She sings, “The sun came up, it was another day / And the sun went down, you were blown away,” referencing the incident of Blaze’s death, in which he was shot dead by the son of a friend. She goes on to plead with Foley, “Why’d you let go of your guitar, why’d you ever let it go that far / … / Could of held on to that long smooth neck, let your hand remember fret / Fingers touching each shining string, but you let go of everything.” Lucinda can’t understand how Blaze could make such beautiful, heartfelt music, which people admire, and yet allow himself to give it all up for earthly trifles. She hesitantly sings, “Drunken Angel, you’re on the other side.” Thinking that maybe Lucinda could have helped Blaze in his day in the way that June Carter Cash helped Johnny Cash get sober is what makes the song so devastating.
“Are You Alright?” – West (2007) – Lost Highway
Released in the fifth decade of her life, Lucinda’s “Are You Alright?” is tender and matronly. She seems to be checking in on all of us who recede into our shells every now and again. She bluntly sings, “Are you alright? All of a sudden you went away / … / I hope you come back around someday / … / Could you give me some kind of sign?” It’s coincidental because I want to ask her the same. Her delivery sounds sedated, as if she’s recording alone in a basement studio, where she’s self-medicating with drugs. But her down-and-out rendering never seems pretentious or false, and the music’s genuineness allows the listener to be sitting there with her. Her music is synergistic in the best possible way: it’s not just that the listener identifies with Lucinda’s themes, but rather, because she’s so sensitive to the needs and wants of others, it’s as if both she and the listener are singing together as one, swaying in the night and the feeling.
Even if I’m not alright, her asking is enough to get me by.
“Do you have someone to hold you tight? Do you have someone to hang out with? Do you have someone to hug and kiss you? To hug and kiss you? Are you alright?”