Sunday, 11 March 2012

Jim REEVES: 40 Golden Greats

(#160: 25 October 1975, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Distant Drums/Bimbo/Am I Losing You/Mexican Joe/The Blizzard/Gypsy Feet/I Fall To Pieces/But You Love Me Daddy/Guilty/Missing You/I Won’t Forget You/The Hawaiian Wedding Song/When You Are Gone/The Storm/One Dozen Roses/Not Until The Next Time/Penny Candy/Anna Marie/He’ll Have To Go/Four Walls/Welcome To My World/Scarlet Ribbons/According To My Heart/Make The World Go Away/Crying In My Sleep/Deep Dark Water/I Won’t Come In While He’s There/Golden Memories Silver Tears/Roses Are Red (My Love)/Memories Are Made Of This/You’re The Only Good Thing (That’s Happened To Me)/The Wreck Of The Number Nine/Yonder Comes A Sucker/How Can I Write On Paper (What I Feel In My Heart)/Have I Told You Lately That I Love You/Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart/Missing Angel/Is This Me?/Angels Don’t Lie/Is It Really Over

“The week that the Sex Pistols played their first performance, the six-year-old ‘Space Oddity’ by David Bowie took over the number one UK single slot from Art Garfunkel’s version of a sixteen-year-old song (sic), ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’. The number one album was the TV-advertised 40 Golden Greats by Jim Reeves, who had died in 1964. In returning, the 1960s showed up the poverty of the present.”
(Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols And Punk Rock, London: Faber and Faber, 2001 revised edition, Chapter 2: “August 1975 to December 1976,” p 130)

“[The Heartbreakers] had Christmas dinner with the Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned at the journalist Caroline Coon’s house, eating Christmas pudding and listening to old Jim Reeves records.”
(Will Hermes, Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years In New York That Changed Music Forever, NYC: Faber and Faber Inc., 2011, Chapter 4: “1976: These Are The Days, My Friends,” p 215)

In our preparations for this piece, Lena pointed me in the direction of “The Painted Door,” a short story by the Canadian writer Sinclair Ross. It is an extremely short story – it takes up barely seven pages – but I’d agree with Lena that it’s one of the best. Set, as was all of Ross’ work, in an unnamed Canadian prairie (Ross was a native of Saskatchewan, but it could just as easily be Alberta), it tells the story of a married farming couple, John and Ann. From the descriptions given – “slow,” “unambitious” and “dull-witted” are some of the more generous adjectives – John is a bit of a Gabriel Oak figure, solid, reliable and deadly boring and sexless. Without meaning to, he makes his wife feel less of a woman. In the meantime, she has been seeing another farmer, Steven, who awakens something dormant in her – desire? Femininity? Life? – but hasn’t dared take things any further. One day John decides to make a long trip to help out on his father’s farm; Ann doesn’t want him to go away and leave her alone but he is insistent. A grim blizzard is coming. He leaves, and while he is away Ann gets on with her current pastime of painting doors, specifically in this case the bedroom door. One has to do something. Steven is due to pay a visit; she is uncertain whether he can make it through the storm but he turns up. As things develop, they end up sleeping together; she awakens first, looks at his motionless, dozing face and suddenly realises the mistake she’s made. She imagines that she dreamt John came through the door, but of him there is no sign. The storm breaks, and John’s frozen body is found in a field not far from the farm. How could he have missed the farmhouse when he was so close? But Ann looks more closely at his palm, and with a gathering horror sees that it contains a scrap of paint. The painted bedroom door had not yet dried properly; he evidently came in, saw what was there and decided to turn away again, back towards his death.

I don’t want to undersell the continuing need for and influence of Celtic sentimentality in popular music, but there is more than something of John in the art of Jim Reeves. Forever gallant and dumbly faithful, forever cheated on and abandoned, the character of Reeves remains centred in a lot of ways; he is completely self-contained to the point of hermeticism, and not once in these forty songs does he make any attempt to understand the woman who keeps cheating on him, walking out on him. There is also a thin line between being self-contained and being motionless, as in stationary, as in bereft of life; in these songs he often seems perversely content to do little or nothing – without even trying, he acts as though the world revolves around him.

Ah, yes, understanding:

”I love you because you understand, dear…”

A cursory look at the track listing at the top of this page reveals that this is not quite the straightforward greatest hits collection it pretends to be. Yes, there is no typing error; the song most readily and famously associated with Reeves, though not his biggest hit, is absent. I can’t imagine a Jim Reeves collection without “I Love You Because,” but this is one; nor is there room for things like “Adios Amigo,” “There’s A Heartache Following Me,” “It Hurts So Much (To See You Go),” “When Two Worlds Collide” or even “Moonlight And Roses.”

How did this happen? Why “A COLLECTORS TWO ALBUM SET” which bears no photographs of the artist, but rather a series of drawings of the man and an anonymous American Midwest whose landscape, despite the “Coca Cola” and “AMERICAN GAS” signs, bears more resemblance to the A40 Lewknor turn-off? Despite this being, ostensibly, an Arcade/RCA collaboration, it has to be said that extensive delving into the history has revealed no clearcut answers. Unlike Arcade’s contemporaneous and not dissimilar Elvis Presley 40 Greatest collection – and more about that in the fullness of time – this was not a handy collation of two previously existing anthologies. Was it a question of Arcade taking whatever RCA, or Mary Reeves, or whoever, was prepared to license out? Again, there is no clear answer except that in 1975 the Reeves copyright/licensing situation was in something of a mess; RCA were not at the time prepared to sort it out, feeling that the Reeves legend was a peculiar (i.e. non-American) phenomenon whose appeal was steadily diminishing (this being the era of major forward moves like Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger). In 1992, Arcade did attempt to make amends by issuing a new 2CD collection, The Definitive Jim Reeves, which featured some of the omitted songs but was otherwise an almost completely different forty-song set. If RCA were holding back on some tracks in anticipation of a second 40 More Golden Greats set, they would be disappointed since no such record was ever released, despite the huge success of this one.

But to get back to “The Painted Door,” my referring to this story does have direct relevance to Reeves insofar as this album includes a song entitled “The Blizzard.” Against a backdrop of wind effects, the singer sets up the scenario; he has been caught up in a major storm (“The wind…seems mighty like a woman’s screams”) and is trying to get himself and his pony back to Mary Anne at the farm. They are only seven miles away but his hands are already frozen; still he knows “If we don’t get home, we’ll die.” He imagines Mary Anne cooking hot biscuits in the stove pan – the heat nicely contrasting with the cold – and they steadily get closer and closer to home. Before they can reach home, however, the pony gives up and drops on the ground. “Damn, get up, you ornery cuss,” mutters Reeves, perhaps already knowing his fate; the blizzard passes and they find his body, still tethered to the pony’s reins – they were only a hundred yards from home. I must admit that if I knew I was only a hundred yards from home – and throughout the song Reeves is always careful to let us know that he knows exactly where he is – I’d get in, eat and sleep, and bury the pony in the field next morning; but there is a fatal fatalism in Reeves’ voice that suggests a sacrifice as encyclopaedically pointless as that of John.

Another, earlier, song, “The Wreck Of The Number Nine,” similarly plays games with listeners’ expectations, but in both the abrupt jump cuts to the discovery of the dead protagonist are as swift and shocking as anything in the work of Cormac McCarthy. And when he’s not musing about death, Reeves is either preparing for his own (“Distant Drums”) or endlessly dreaming about the past. There is a will to extinction here which is present and active enough to be disturbing.

Not that Reeves was never anything less than imperturbable; he stands there, as solid, untouchable and mechanical as Ayers Rock or Rushmore. This is why his attempt to do Patsy Cline (“I Go To Pieces,” and other tributary works like “Guilty,” “Missing You” and the bamboozling “Is This Me?”) fails; marble statues don’t fall to pieces and Reeves’ practiced nonchalance provides an impermeable barrier to those who might otherwise empathise (although the palais band sax section on his “Pieces” doesn’t help either). Cline’s acting thing, her rhetorical genius, was to go to pieces – her “She’s Got You” is Ophelia in dungarees – but Reeves’ thing was to stay in one piece.

Broadly speaking, the album, though not chronologically arranged, traces a specific story of Reeves from his early fifties Louisiana Hayride days to virtually his last days (the closing “Is It Really Over” came from his final recording session in 1964). The early stuff is essentially hoedown hokum; “According To My Heart” makes a return appearance (the only overlap between this and the 1969 budget collection previously reviewed) and I’m still awaiting a Status Quo cover, but otherwise it’s mostly nonsense about kids with candy on their faces (the Junior Choice favourite “Bimbo” where the toddler already looks to be facing a better future with the opposite sex than Reeves will ever enjoy, the ludicrous “Penny Candy” with its Phil Harris-like talkovers – “She eats that messy kind!” – and its dubious association of blackface with happiness). Even at this stage, however, there are portents of the future; Reeves’ own song “Yonder Comes A Sucker” introduces his favourite subject, the Cheating Woman, fully formed. Other tracks – “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” (Van Morrison must have been listening), “Crying In My Sleep,” “How Can I Write On Paper” – attempt to fuse the post-Hank fiddles with his later, smoother approach, but it wasn’t until “Four Walls,” another Reeves composition, that the formula was perfected – small group, vibes, electric bass, more echo on the voice. “Four Walls” is a foreboding piece of work, as he imagines his home “closing in on me” while desperately trying to convince himself that “my walls have nothing to say.” If it sounds as though this song is closing in on a 1977 RCA release, then it is; this is an embryonic “Sound And Vision” in subject matter, tone and delivery.

“He’ll Have To Go,” from 1960, was the big commercial breakthrough, of course, and what a crouched, wary shadow of a song it is; he pleads with her to whisper into the ‘phone, knowing full well she’s there with his successor, and he is most likely standing directly across the street. Yet the singer’s reserve, his reluctance to engage or argue, is what repeatedly does for him. Consider “I Won’t Come In While He’s There,” an unexpected Top 20 addition to the paranoias of 1967; about to leave town, he decides he’ll call in on his ex one last time, but as he approaches her house he notes “his” car in the driveway, the curtain drawn. He decides against a “Delilah” scenario (“I might do something I’d be sorry for later”) but is burning with resentment; “Does he know my whole world is in there with him/That he’s king while he sits there in my chair?” The whole thing takes just eight lines but is as beautifully and coldly drawn a portrait as anything by Raymond Carver; “he” has won, yet not once does Reeves face “him” in the eye, and you get the idea that this is exactly why women keep walking out on him; does the protagonist in “He’ll Have To Go” secretly ache for Reeves to come barging into the bar, seize the guy by his shirt collar, roar “Why I oughta…” and finish him off? Just to provide some excitement and life…just to prove that he’s a man?

But no. Reeves didn’t get to number one over a decade after his death on the Scottish and Irish votes alone; he was loved in England precisely because of his “Gentleman Jim” status, that he was indeed the personification of the “Keep Calm And Carry On” anti-ethos, that he didn’t resort to crude tactics, that he heroically stood there while all kinds of shit were heaped upon his head. His happiness, when it exists, is measured, never wild or wayward. One could easily imagine him being the last man on Earth, and not knowing it. It’s all about whispers (his UK follow-up hit to “He’ll Have To Go,” and not included here, was entitled “Whispering Hope”); whispers on the ‘phone, whispers in the walls, never raising one’s voice, always retaining…well, what? Dignity? Humanity?

A few songs go more happily than others. Well, there’s “The Hawaiian Wedding Song,” which is as bad as any of the cover versions here (the track listing alone should tell you the picture). There’s his first gold disc, “Mexican Joe,” which basically provides “Hey Joe” with a happy ending despite rhyming “peso” with “say so.” And there’s a certain proto-reggae jauntiness to tracks like “How Can I Write On Paper” and “Have I Told You Lately” which reminds us why Reeves was so idolised in Jamaica (apart from the clear signal they got from Nashville radio stations); pain and steadfastness are things universally empathised with (I hesitate to call them virtues, since this is the combination of failings which can only block humanity’s progress).

But so much of Reeves’ work is sealed off so assuredly from the listener that you sometimes wonder how he got to be so popular. “Welcome To My World” is all Mad Men string-driven lushness, but that old familiar knock on the door motif is back (“Knock and the door will open” – is this the Village?) and it’s not until we reach the song’s epicentre that we realise that it’s all a façade, built in the hope that one day “she” will stumble across it. Elsewhere, there is an extremely thin line to be drawn between heroicism and idiocy (always two closely associated foibles); “Not Until The Next Time” finds him minutely rearranging bits of furniture on a regular basis, knowing (despite the smouldering resentment of his delivery) that he’ll always take her back. The same with “Angels Don’t Lie”; no, she doesn’t cheat, yes, he believes her every time, and Brutus is an honourable man (other songs like “Missing Angel” suggest a worrying dependence on unconditional worship when it comes to human relationships). By the time his version of “Make The World Go Away” rolls around, he’s too tired to sing any more than half the chorus (not including the title).

Much of 40 Golden Greats is meretricious trash, neither golden nor great. The blame for this lies with his widow, Mary Reeves, who after his death authorised new backing tracks to be added to demos and throwaways in the archive, thereby giving the impression of Reeves as a kind of sixties Tupac Shakur, secretly hiding away in a bunker recording all of this “previously unreleased” stuff. “But You Love Me Daddy” is beyond bad. Repeated attempts are made to turn Reeves into a kind of Ben E King/Drifters/”Spanish Harlem” figure, as evinced by the mariachi trumpets on “Gypsy Feet” (“I can’t put an acre on your gypsy feet”), “Golden Memories Silver Tears” and “Missing Angel.” Worse, however, is a legion of backing singers who effortlessly drown out Reeves whenever they can and not afford him the space that his voice needs. It is no wonder that on “When You Are Gone” he is left feeling that “there’s nothing to live for”; those warblers will not shut up (and no wonder, come to think of it, that women keep leaving him – he has to drag this bloody choir around with him like a ball and chain!). “Memories Are Made Of This” is worse than you expect. “Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart,” complete with more blasted trumpets, is listenable only for Reeves’ commendably dignified vocal, and his unexpected yet poignant upwards octave leap in the song’s last syllable.

He does better on “Roses Are Red,” the Bobby Vinton weepie, because the arrangement is kept low-key (the harp from “I Love You Because” makes an appearance) and because the song’s subject matter suits Reeves’ stoic/stolid worldview; childhood sweethearts separated by time, desire and circumstance, with a visit to see her child and wish her all the best – it is like a neutered “Disco 2000” and agrees quite well with Reeves’ staunch impassivity. But “One Dozen Roses” spoils a perfectly good vocal by plunging it into a cocktail lounge musical nightmare; whoever thought Reeves merited the ring-a-ding-ding treatment? Then again, the song itself is dubious; buy one dozen roses and put my heart in the box? Isn’t that a rather gruesome thing to contemplate, let alone do?

This leaves the majority of Reeves’ own compositions, or co-compositions, and it is here where the central interest of 40 Golden Greats lies. Ignore the clichéd arrangement of “The Storm” and listen to an unusual deconstruction of a collapsing relationship, delivered in a style not a million miles from Richard Hawley (and on the latter subject, it might be worth noting that, as far as “Missing Angel” is concerned – if you can overlook the ghastly piano work – “a million miles” are in Reeves’ world no further or closer than the “100 yards” of “The Blizzard.” It’s all perspectival, and taken from an identical perspective). “Deep Dark Water” is an ambitious and verbose attempt to describe a failed life; here, for once, is Reeves the cheater, the drunkard, the player: “Alone and so lonesome/Bored and so blue,” he ventures into hell and now he is calmly awaiting his end. “They keep sawing louder on my limb and soon I’ll have to go,” he muses, before concluding, “Don’t be a would-be king and tumble from your throne.” The music is anything but reassuring (the honky tonk piano intro notwithstanding); for once, Reeves drops the mask and sees himself as others might still see him.

The concluding trio of songs comprise a harrowing sequence. “Is This Me?” finds an aghast Reeves, looking at himself crying, and then at his lover cheating, and refuses to believe his eyes; this is so not what we do. “Angels Don’t Lie” also deals with the gulf between illusion and truth. And, to cap or end it all, there’s Reeves’ “Is It Really Over” which he sings with the numbness of a man heading for the scaffold (on a similar matter, I should note here that the track “Guilty” is traditional country blues stuff, equating marriage with imprisonment – but he’s the one being dumped here, the one wearing the metaphorical noose), realising he has reached “the end of the line.” The parallels with “I Know It’s Over,” a work done by Mancunians of Irish descent, all of whom grew up with the music of Jim Reeves in their blood, need not be overstated.

At this point I ought to say that, having spent several hours in his posthumous company, and considerably more time researching his life and work (almost none of which has found its way into this piece, but it had to be done), this is almost all I intend to write about Jim Reeves; the fiftieth anniversary of his passing is only a couple of years away, and for all I know it may well be commemorated by yet another chart-topping compilation. But listening to these forty songs in succession produces a somewhat numbing effect, as in: there must be more to life than holding fast and keeping all emotion in check – look how it gets the singer nowhere (and I must also emphasise that, throughout this piece, whenever I refer to “Reeves” or “Jim Reeves,” I am clearly referring to the persona he projected on his records, rather than the man himself).

There is of course one cover version I haven’t yet mentioned, and in many ways it’s the most unexpected and astounding piece of music on these records. This is the second time I have had to write about “Scarlet Ribbons” – Val Doonican covered it, as he did “He’ll Have To Go,” on entry #50 – and Reeves does it as a completely solo performance, accompanying himself on guitar. At the start there’s a bit of chat about the song, that to his knowledge it is about 400 years old and comes from the United Kingdom, before he gets into singing the old standard. Knowing that Sinéad O’Connor was approaching her ninth birthday as this album became available, and that she must have listened to and known the performance, Reeves’ simple poignancy proves devastating. But as the song patiently winds towards its end, something strange begins to happen to Reeves’ voice; it becomes even deeper than his customary baritone (as a Texan, his style is almost the complete opposite of his compatriot Roy Orbison, for whom “Distant Drums” was originally intended, introspective as opposed to expressive. And a quick word about Reeves’ actual biggest UK single – his only number one here, in 1966, a year which proved that, despite unprecedented and unparalleled experimentation and adventure within the confines of the 45 rpm single, Celtic sentimentality would always win out – a song implicitly about Vietnam [“’cross the sea”] with tom-toms as threatening as those on Gaye’s “Grapevine” and a sudden realisation in the singer’s desperate mind that now is what matters, what has always mattered, and never mind the past, and that, given that he will probably die in action, he must marry Mary before the curtain falls); he comes closer to, breathes into, the microphone, and his vibrato becomes more and more drawn-out, exaggerated and actorly. In short, throughout “Scarlet Ribbons,” Reeves is gradually mutating – and at the song’s end, we realise that he has turned into Elvis. In pop terms it’s the equivalent of an Adams-Stokes heart murmur, but it is no less expected for that. And perhaps this is what caught the imagination of the nascent punks – for what did Reeves ever have to do with “The Sixties” anyway? He never had to live through them, grow his hair, write seven-minute concept singles...and so he is perfect, undamageable, unbreachable. He addressed matters in ways very familiar to the human heart, such that I was told separately by two members of the Blue Notes/Brotherhood of Breath how much they loved Jim Reeves’ work, because – it reminded them of home. The home John never really needed to leave, where he should have spent more time being loving and attentive towards Ann. Who knew, least of all him, that his life would have depended on it?