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Monday, May 9, 2011

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive/Steve Earle

Steve Earle wears more hats than Bartholomew Cubbins: Singer and songwriter, of course, but also actor (The Wire, Meme), activist, and author (Doghouse Roses, a collection of short stories published in 2001). Last week he released a new album called I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive. This week, his first novel comes out--also called I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive.

The title for both projects comes from a song by Hank Williams--one of the last singles the country singer released before he died in 1953. (Interestlingly, Earle does not cover the song on the new album.) A spectral Williams appears in Earle's novel, haunting the main character, Doc Ebersole, a disgraced physician who was among the last people to see Williams alive and may have provided the morphine dose that killed him. The novel takes place around the time of JFK's assassination and finds Doc living on the seedy side San Antonio. No longer allowed to practice medicine, and a morphine addict himself, he gets by performing abortions. Then a young woman named Graciela comes seeking his services, and changes his life--for she is able to miraculously heal with the touch of her hand.

Shared title aside, there is no hard-and-fast connection between novel and album except that, according to Earle, they address similar themes. In a recent interview with Publishers Weekly he was asked if the album was a companion piece to the book. Earle said:

Normally I know what I'm going to call an album when I start recording it. There's a title track or I have a bone to pick. This time I didn't. I was just writing the best songs I could write. I recorded it in five days with T Bone Burnett. When I got it all done, I thought, "Oh my God, this album is about the same fucking thing the book is about." It ended up being about mortality, an experience we all have to go through. Not a final experience. Not necessarily a period, but a comma.

In an interview with The Telegraph in the U.K., Earle said that it took him about eight years to write the novel, "in six or eight separate marches." Earle also talked about his own reading preferences: "I mainly read non-fiction, and that's probably because I have a huge amount of insecurity about my lack of education and the things I don't know. But I loved the Harry Potter books." He cites Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter as another favorite and a big influence on his own novel. He also tends to go back to the fiction he loved as a child, such as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. "Fiction is what I read least and then it tends to take the place of drugs," Earle says. "I get addicted and go back to things like Tolkien"

See Steve Earle discussing his new album and novel here.

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive (Kindle Edition)
Doghouse Roses (Kindle Edition)
Coming Through Slaughter (Kindle Edition)

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite/R.E.M.

The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite, from R.E.M.'s 1992 album Automatic for the People, features one of the great misheard song lyrics of all time: Call me when you try to wake her up. Delivered in a rushed, compressed style, the line has inspired a variety of incorrect interpretations, from "Calling Jamaica" to "Coney jah waker" to "Come and eat your bacon now." In fact, it ranked as the #1 misheard song lyric in a poll conducted in the United Kingdom last year.

The song also features a shoutout to beloved children's author Dr. Seuss. "Automatic for the People finds [lyricist Michael Stipe] in the attic, opening boxes containing all the souvenirs and reminders of his childhood and adolescence," writes Marcus Gray in his 1997 book It Crawled from the South: An R.E.M. Companion. "Among the paraphernalia he rediscovers, in 'The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,' is Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Published in the late Fifties, it is the second in the Doctor's Beginner Books series, and a relatively modern example of the anthropomorphic fable."

The song's narrator, who has fallen on hard times and appears to be living in a phone booth, sings about some things he'd like to have, including A can of beans or blackeyed peas, some Nescafe on ice/A candy bar, a falling star, or a reading from Dr. Seuss. The song then goes on to reference the specific book featuring Seuss's best-known character:

The cat in the hat came back, wrecked a lot of havoc on the way
Always had a smile and a reason to pretend.
But their world has flat backgrounds and little need to sleep but to dream.

On the recording, Stipe can be heard to laugh following the mention of Dr. Seuss. Gray quotes bandmember Mike Mills explaining the levity: "I kept trying to get Michael to say 'Seuss' [hard s], not 'Zeuss' and he couldn't do it."

Stipe used the 1961 Tokens hit The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh) as a jumping off point for the song, though little of the original survives ("To acknowledge the debt, Michael yodels a brief snatch of the melody during the introduction," Gray writes). There is a lot of conjecture regarding the meaning of the song, with theories ranging from drug use to a soured relationship to telephones. In his 2004 book Reveal: The Story of R.E.M., Johnny Black quotes Stipe on the subject: "I have no idea what the song is about. It's a little bit of a cartoon song to me and it took place in a world of flat surfaces and clear delineation of no depth of field, it's all about cartoons. That's what I saw when I wrote it."

If the song really is nonsense, there's no better way to signal that than with a reference to the master of nonsense himself, Dr. Seuss.