Ah, spring has sprung, and the dead are rising here on the Redneck Riviera where I spend winters raising a ruckus with my old buddies Florida Man and the resurrected corpse that is Jimmy Buffet. In celebration of our recent acoustic release Disc With No Name, I am sitting on the beach with my hooves in the sand, coked out of my mind, eating a parrot and thinking about acoustic music.
The truth is, before I wrote this article, I didn't realize I liked acoustic music. The Eagles' "Best of My Love," for instance, has always made me want to put on a tube top and roller skates and stick my head in an oven. Besides, I live in the world of heavy metal and punk rock, and let's face it — a lot can go wrong when rock & roll dum-dums get introspective.
In fact, rock acoustic records don't all suck as bad as the coy phony baloney showboating of Extreme's "More Than Words." While there are a lot of turds in the acoustic punch bowl, there is some great acoustic music, especially when you take a historical approach as I've done here. In somewhat chronological order, here are my picks:
Without this record, heavy metal would not exist as it does today. Fight me about it. Recorded in Texas in 1936, Johnson tears through original material as well as his interpretation of songs that were kicking around among the Mississippi Delta blues men of the time. Three decades later, British teenagers would project onto the songs a sense of alienation and fascination with the occult in songs like "Cross Road Blues" and Johnson's masterpiece "Come On in My Kitchen." Along with the latter-day work of Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and others, a British idea of Johnson's aesthetic would be distilled, electrified, hybridized and basically just ripped off as the least objectionable element of Led Zeppelin's prancing hobbit rock, and the spooky blues of Black Sabbath.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's not really acoustic, just has acoustic guitar, but it is the guitar of one of the baddest proto-rock motherfuckers to ever walk the line. The original release of At San Quentin stands as one of the best live records in history. It presents Cash at his defiant, cantankerous best. It is from this concert, in fact, that we get the famous image of Cash giving the camera the middle finger. Throughout the recording, Johnny yucks it up with the prisoners and takes potshots at the screws, much to the delight of his audience of criminal sociopaths who are losing their minds with enthusiasm. Talk about a captive audience! It is a mesmerizing performance, and sure, Cash used the gig and the reaction of the prisoners to build his own reputation and mystique. But he followed through on his efforts at prison reform. And for that, I will raise a glass of toilet wine!
Of course, this is on the list. Imagine patrolling the streets of New York City's East Village and wandering into a little coffeehouse to see Dylan caterwauling like a dying cat and just leveling the room with "Masters of War." Or "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." "It's a hard…" Yes! "It's a haard…" Yeahyeaheyeah! "It's a haaaarrdd…" Oh hell yeah? "...rain gonna fall." You've gotta be kidding me? Utterly deflated. Dylan's heartfelt, simple approach to folk music recorded on Freewheelin' was not only wildly successful, it was fresh and new — and even aggressive coming as it did in the context of annoying folk-revival barbershop, baby-food acts like the Kingston Trio. Plus, Dylan hated hippies, and I like that about him.
Dylan makes the list twice, once for recording the album that set off a new age of the folk revival and music as protest, and again for telling the people who made him a symbolic hero of the civil rights movement to go ahead and fuck right off. This was the show where Dylan plugged in, assembled a backing band, and launched into "Maggie's Farm" to the horror of about half of the crowd. They wanted Dylan to be a folk singer and a voice of protest, he wanted to do cocaine and have heart attacks like all the other rock stars. As for me, I just admire his ability to be a grouchy old coot even before his pubic hair came in. Newport wasn't an acoustic record, but an anti-acoustic moment that suggested the political potential of popular music didn't depend on the plinking and plunking of acoustic folk purists and bullshit notions of authenticity (a lesson certain metal hipsters could learn from today), it could be loud and rocking and maintain its transformative power.
This record has stompers on it, such as the high seas Viking swagger of the "Immigrant Song." But the album winds up being a hallmark of the band's hybridized vision of folk music and rock & roll. The tunes are driven by Jimmy Page's alternate tunings and explorations of folk blues and European folk melodies blended with ambitious exotic harmony. "Friends," for example, is a killer Eastern-sounding chord progression over a weird, almost Delta blues pick-hand rhythm. "Gallows Pole" is an example of the mixed up, circuitous nature of music, as pioneers of hard rock, play what is essentially a version of an old European folk tune filtered through the 12-string blues of Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) and his tune "The Gallis Pole." Elsewhere, the band makes liberal use of Bukka White's "Shake 'em on Down" for "Hats Off to (Roy) Harper," a tune nonetheless credited to a nom de plume of Jimmy Page. Hmmmm. Curious choice, almost like he knew it was sort of fucked up. Great band, but these guys stole more music than Winona Ryder at a Tower Records.
Neil Young is one of the greatest American songwriters, and he's from Canada. By 1972, Young had the sense to put some distance between himself and gun-toting crackhead David Crosby. After a surgery prevented him from toting an electric guitar, he wound up making a record that was less aggro than his rock direction, returning to an acoustic-based, folky sound. Harvest is an acoustic masterwork where the mellowness of the guitars, banjos and piano underscore the frailty of Young's voice as he reckons with consequences, the fear of being alone, and growing old. Perhaps surprisingly, what I like best about this record is that Young still believes he can find love in this shitty world as demonstrated by "Heart of Gold." He also naively believes he can talk sense into old men and Southern dipshits ("Alabama"). I reckon Lynyrd Skynyrd showed him.
Don't check out now, I know how you get … this record is also by a Canadian, but is much more involved. Blue is completely brilliant and pushes melody, harmony and lyrical experimentation to a level far above that of most pop music during the Seventies or any other time. Mitchell's smart lyrics move through all sorts of moods from giddy optimism, to restless sadness buoyed by her musical sophistication. "You're a mean old daddy but I like you." I know, settle down Joni. Seriously, somehow, Mitchell is able to employ extremely inventive harmonic structures without sacrificing or obscuring emotion, using innovative strumming, tunings and chord choices to create textural beds for her lyrics in a way that really gets my udders leaking.
On the early tours of GWAR, we rode across the Mojave Desert on an old school bus like a demented Partridge Family. I will always remember Oderus' slave Dave Brockie, with a wet towel on his head to keep cool, singing this entire record, or most of it, a capella, as we hurtled through the desert night. I will always love this record. Nebraska is pretty much the epitome of Springsteen's promise as an artist, an unflinching ode to a gothic vision of America, as full of terror and despair as it is of hope for a better life. Later, Springsteen's butt in a pair of blue jeans would confuse Republicans and save the entire world. Most recently, he would get a DUI on a motorcycle, and make a confusingly long Superbowl ad for Jeep. So much for that working-man image.
As the lead singer of the 13th Floor Elevators, Roky was known for his blood-curdling rock & roll scream and spiritual psychedelic weirdness. After that, he made many acoustic recordings, including the seminal "You Don't Love Me Yet" one of the greatest acoustic rock tunes ever. Never Say Goodbye is made up mostly of cassette recordings Erickson made during incarceration at the East Texas Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane. People make music for all sorts of reasons, and most of the time, for most people in the world, it isn't to make money. It sounds to me like this is music Roky made to keep himself alive, to survive with dignity, and maintain connection to the spiritual world. It is heartbreaking music, from the pioneer of a unique brand of Texas punk rock that would be so important to bands such as Butthole Surfers, and yes ... GWAR.
Unplugged punk rock that was a major influence on GWAR. The Femmes wrapped vulgar, transgressive and hilarious lyrics in full-blooded punk rock played on acoustic instruments, and were one of the most important bands in the history of American underground music. Singer and guitarist Gordon Gano was clever, but what made the band work for me was the undeniable skill of bass player Brian Ritchie. During a time when punk was often written-off as amateurish, and when musical virtuosity was often coded as masculine by (sometimes ironically feminine) metal musicians and guitar-store dickheads, it was liberating to hear Ritchie tear it the fuck up on his acoustic bass. He also played a super-cool Ernie Ball Earthwood acoustic bass that now costs a fortune and is one of the only such basses that actually competes in acoustic volume with an acoustic guitar.
I challenge you to find a song heavier in music and emotion than Chesnutt's "Coward," the lead track on this record. Chesnutt became a hugely respected and beloved figure in music while living in a wheelchair and in constant pain. Sad and self-aware, he was able to muster a voice that was somehow at once powerful and wan. His songs were monoliths of self-effacement and darkness. A standout on this record is Chesnutt's gorgeous "Flirted With You All My Life," in which, despite living in torment, he speaks directly to death, calling out its mythical cruelty before mournfully pleading with the reaper: "Oh Death, I'm not ready."