Saturday, July 02, 2016

Things we like: Michael Herr, Laurence Gonzales, Shawn James

Since the writer Michael Herr (1940-2016) passed a few days ago, I've re-read his 1977 Vietnam memoir Dispatches -- maybe the best book to come out of that cataclysm, with an episodic narrative style that sucks you in like a fever dream -- and realized how many phrases of his Namspeak ("Tits on a bull," "I've been scaled and now I'm smooth") have made their way into my vocabulary without my realizing it. Only Dylan has been more subliminally influential on my spiel. Because of Herr's involvement in films (Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket), his voice has seeped into our collective unconscious in the same way. His greatness as a writer was in realizing that "war stories" are just stories about people, and in bearing true witness for the ordinary soldiers he met during his time in country.

The novel I'm re-reading now -- Laurence Gonzales' Jambeaux, a fictitious rockaroll saga pubbed a couple of years later, in 1979 -- is unimaginable without that voice (sincerest form of flattery). Its main characters, the musos Page and Link, are Nam vets who speak the same language as Herr's grunts, but find themselves in the rockaroll wars on the Gulf Coast in the mid-'70s. It's redolent of a time when The Music Biz was still a thing, and as such, it's kind of a period piece now, but it actually does a good job of detailing why the Big Buck/Big Record/Big Show model was unsustainable. Gonzales' characters are all archetypes, but he's good on process, whether it's playing a show, flying a plane, making a record, or taking a fix, and it's that gift for description that makes Jambeaux feel authentic.

Shawn James' voice reminds me of the way I imagine Page's might: it stings like the bite of tobacco smoke in your eyes, or straight whiskey on your palate. James hails from Fayetteville, Arkansas, and fronts a band called the Shapeshifters whom I haven't heard, but on his solo album On the Shoulders of Giants, recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis, he reimagines Delta blues -- the kind Son House, Bukka White, and Charlie Patton played -- as a kind of minimalist doom metal. James sings as though from the bottoms of his feet, roaring his masculinity like an illegitimate son of House (whose ghost is most present here on the closing acapella "Preacher Foretold"), or at least a second cousin of Paul Rodgers, creating an atmosphere replete with the heavy funk of sex, swamp water, and Spanish moss hanging from ancient trees. Somehow, with just voice, resophonic guitar, kick drum and tambourine, he manages to achieve something seldom heard: a genuinely heavy acoustic music. Sure, he's a one-man band, but unlike most of his contemporaries who work in that format, he doesn't play it even partly for laughs. Rather, the sound carries the same sense of dread and menace as the original Delta blues: music to chase down demons by.


Post a Comment

<< Home