Wednesday 18 July 2012

Slim WHITMAN: Red River Valley

(#180: 22 January 1977, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Rhinestone Cowboy/Mr. Ting-A-Ling (Steel Guitar Man)/Too Young/Let Me Call You Sweetheart/(It’s A) Small World/Somewhere My Love – Lara’s Theme From “Dr. Zhivago”/Una Paloma Blanca/Red River Valley/My Elusive Dreams/Cara Mia/When The Moon Comes Over The Mountain/Now Is The Hour

“Play me a shadow of my lonely room.”

His fans were all expecting something. But no one was expecting this.

“All by myself at twilight, watching the day depart;
And in the fading twilight, happiness fills my heart.”

It is a time, thirty-five years ago now, but a time very much like our time. A time when it was felt the human species was slowly being done for, when the old ways had dissipated and no one was sure what to replace them with. A time when the consensus – if something like a consensus can still be said to exist more than thirty years after a war – had abstracted itself into the vaguest of particles. Everybody was slowly, courteously, sealing themselves off from everybody else, content in their own self-imposed privacies, their own private villages, with nothing to connect them to the rest of the world except a computer.

“The grief you are causing me to see.”

Dehumanisation, mass production. These were terms bandied about freely in those days, when globalisation was revealing itself as a potential strangler of little worlds and the notion of “the whole Earth as the Village” was becoming gradually more persuasive to many. A majority, content with uniform mediocrity, capable of socialising only on the most basic of scales; the same music, the same games, the same politics, the same lives, if lives they could still be said to be. One big disco hit of the time was “Welcome To Our World Of Merry Music” by Mass Production; the label itself was sufficiently scary.

What happens to the individual faced with such dwindling prospects of world, and society? How do they manage to live without certainty yet not be paralysed by fear? One way is to…escape. But escape can take many forms. A popular British television situation comedy of the period was The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin where Leonard Rossiter portrayed an outwardly satisfied man internally on the verge of falling apart. Sickened of his non-life – as he, and perhaps only he, sees it – he fakes his own death on a beach, walking off to start a new life, only to find, by happenstance and design, that he ends up exactly in the same place where he started.

Many happy returns?

Or can you pull off the supreme trick – of disappearing, before the very eyes of your audience?

What other response is there to the modern world than erasing oneself from it?

As I say, no one was expecting such a response from, of all people, Slim Whitman, although the cover alone should have made buyers rethink; there he is, in full profile, against an oddly desolate-looking orange landscape, clearly the Red River, but his smile is strangely uncertain and his picture looks as though pasted onto the background on a computer. Slim Whitman, from Florida, and perhaps it took some people until his appearance in Mars Attacks! to work through the idea of his being an alien who falls into the West, but the impression is already more than apparent here. He does not look unambiguously happy; indeed, he looks a little distracted, as though wishing to be somewhere else completely, including nowhere else.

Most of the album was recorded in Britain under the production team of Ken Barnes – who in seventies Britain specialised in reviving careers of pre-rock entertainers, including Johnny Mercer, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Peter Sellers – and Alan Warner, with Whitman himself and Pete Moore collaborating on the arrangements. Three of the tracks, however – “Somewhere My Love,” “My Elusive Dreams” and “Now Is The Hour” – come from an American recording session in 1975, overseen by pedal steel guitarist Pete Drake, a name we’ve not seen here since the days when Dylan was a TPL regular. The title of its parent album? Everything Leads Back To You.

And some of it was recorded in front of a wall.

The record gets off to an ebullient, if slightly cheesy, start with Whitman’s reading of “Rhinestone Cowboy.” He sings it as though it were indeed a song of the Old West with yodels and even an accordion. But other dynamics break through the song’s fabric; an incongruous rock guitar and a disturbing, descending electronic whoosh, repeated again and again, like a Stones backing track left on autopilot, interrupted by icy cuboids of string synthesiser.

His version of “Una Paloma Blanca” – no, this is not the running order, but trust me, it makes more sense this way – is even more alarming. He allows himself one extra bar in each chorus so he can yodel, and there are also two key changes. Despite the questionable backing singers, his celebrations of freedom are not quite untethered – he puts special emphasis on the couplet “Yes, they tried to break my power/Oh, I still can feel the pain.” But the song staggers around itself like a collapsed Hendrix jam, glued together with fire alarm analogue synthesisers, and he reveals that what he has been breaking is glass. “You’re such a wonderful person,” he concludes, “but you’ve got problems.” He asks to touch (but does not want her, or him, to see what he’s done) and then he’s gone in an instant.

“(It’s A) Small World” is a bracing run through the Sherman brothers’ Disneyland jingle, its yodel-heavy gallop only slightly detoured by the inhuman electronic gargle, like a ceaselessly dripping tap, which runs through the entire song, where the small world is demonstrated to be a room which the singer’s subject never leaves, and eventually he resorts to quoting the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” with the sinister midway whisper: “I’m just a little bit afraid of you/’Cause love won’t make you cry.”

“Too Young” does not resemble anybody’s idea of a hit single by a major artist. The song rambles along like a kind of robotic disco discharge, clearly evolving from a funk jam. Again the string synthesiser descends on the scene like atomic snow before abruptly cutting off. There is a female voice – one wordless line, and a hugely poignant moment; a reminder of memory, of the days that those once were. Then a puffing walrus of a baritone sax, and it is not until almost two minutes that the singer, in his lowest register, booms into the picture; even now, it remains a shocking moment. The lyric, as such, is like a series of Beckettian cue cards resembling a pop song – “Don’t you wonder sometimes?,” “Nothing to read, nothing to say.” And then, almost as quickly as it started, the “song” ends and fades into artillery snare drum fire; a profoundly disturbing addition to any top three singles chart, and one which certainly made this thirteen-year-old observer think that it was true; everybody was cutting themselves off from everybody else.

Gollancz’s Science Fiction Argosy, edited by Damon Knight, no cover but a huge single burgundy volume, borrowed on repeat from the local library, was my staple read of that time. I’d stretch out on my used chaise longue in my bedroom, with innumerable pieces of paper and notes scattered around its fabric, and read; it was an enormous compilation of “the greatest” science fiction stories, so big that it incorporated two novels, Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human. I couldn’t get enough of it, read everything into and out of it. It added to my general internal picture of a politely disintegrating world.

“My Elusive Dreams” is perhaps the album’s stand-out track; a far more emotionally involved and generous reading than that of Tom Jones on the Delilah album, but still the most desolate of songs – Whitman is truly incredulous that his wife is still willing to follow him around with his possibly imaginary quest (his “And still you won’t let me go it alone” is considerably more compassionate than Jones’), despite the fact that in the course of their endless moving on in the search for “it,” a third party is born and dies. And yet he won’t give up; he can’t give up, and Drake’s matchless pedal steel accompaniment makes you feel the chill in his soul as well as the warmth of his companion.

But this “it” – what is it? “Every chance/Every chance that I take,” he sings, “I take it on the road.” Always the same crashing end, the soaring guitar representing his futile hopes of escape. Then again, who decided they were futile? In “Cara Mia” – an old song played here like Abba performing “Oliver’s Army,” with fast piano, argumentative pedal steel and near-power pop drums – Whitman is so desperate to hold onto his lover that his “’Til the end of time” hovers like the ghost of Ophelia.

And, deep in the surface ebullience, a confession: “Sometimes you get so lonely.” An admission: “I’ve left every place.” A prayer: “Share my life.” Isn’t that what both Bobby Bland and Richard Manuel wanted once upon a time, when they separately sang “Share My Love" (Whitman's very dignified and affecting reading of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," much later to be used as the soundtrack to a television advertisement for a telephone company, addresses the same plea from the opposite angle)? Following which, a near-androgynous reading of “Somewhere My Love,” thinking of that endless pumped-in snow of David Lean’s, the desperation in Sharif’s eyes as he sees Christie in the trolley bus, and the shock which then really kills him – and yet, all around this snowy scenario, there is revolution and blood and death – but Whitman’s sustained falsetto makes me think of Antony Hegarty. And somewhere there is the harmonica from “Groovin’ With Mr Bloe,” taking off again, the protagonist wandering off again, into himself…and away from us.

“Somewhere my love/They might let me meet you/Perhaps.”

And yet, for me, this was my “it.” The two reviews in the NME; there’s a good idea which thereafter never really got exploited. Good cop and bad cop. Oh, they’re still there to read in Rock’s Back Pages for a small and not unreasonable annual fee, but I don’t want to reread them.

Why? Well, for a first, the reviews embedded themselves so deeply in my mind that I can still quote them virtually word-for-word. And, for a second, the issue itself is still in my mother’s attic in Scotland and I only have to go there and recover it. But, for a third, I fear if I did reread them now their quaintness and ridiculousness might embarrass me. I worry that I might not get the same feeling from reading the pieces now that I did when they were new and fresh. I remember that Ian MacDonald’s piece used then-hip terms like “kulchur” which would now make me squirm. And that Charles Shaar Murray’s opposite (not opposing) view was a necessary correlation to and illumination against MacDonald’s extremely bleak outlook. And who’s to say CSM wasn’t right – after all, he is still with us, a much-respected veteran music writer happy to churn out 300 stock words on 50 years of the Stones for
ShortList magazine to subsidise the harder stuff, whereas MacDonald, (in)famously, is not. And given in mind that the singer himself was to release the antidote, and coda, to this record later that same year – look, this is far down we can sink, but look, I have dragged myself out of the wallow and once more embrace the world (even if just for one day) – the argument is almost incontrovertibly in Murray’s court.

But the IMac piece was the one that burrowed itself into my mind and made me decide that writing – maybe not specifically about music, but writing
per se - was what I wanted to do. Specifically, I loved the idea that you could use a record review as a launching pad to talk about anything and encompass, potentially, everything, including the state of the world and that of the writer’s own world. The sixties, The Dice Man, Muzak theory; it all chimed in with what I felt was the way to go. And the IMac piece remains for me a touchstone, a blueprint for the notion of music writing as ekphrasis; someone sufficiently inspired by a work of music to write a work of literature.

How was I, in 1977, to know that the same piece was a disguised preliminary suicide note?

Fast-food songs, quickly in, imprinting themselves and then dashing out again, like a conveyor belt Nova Mob.

But already the singer has disappeared.

The Red River of the North, as well as flowing through North Dakota and Minnesota, also flows into Canada, through Manitoba and towards Winnipeg. Despite its picturesque scenery, the area is extremely prone to flooding, and major floods have occurred at least four times in Whitman’s lifetime, in 1950, 1997, 2009 and 2011. The people there are well prepared, though, so when a flood happens they usually put up their sandbags and retreat, with no major casualties and relatively little damage. So when looking at the cover of Red River Valley, remember that this oasis can swiftly turn into an engulfing sea.

Of the song “Red River Valley” itself, there is an infinite slowness, one born of patience. It is performed like the saddest of requiems – all through the album are songs of leaving, departing, coming apart – and for a while there are just solemn banks of electronic keyboards, like regretful mountain ranges. It is as if the singer has dematerialised into another, more advanced life, and this is what he has left behind for us to hear, or perhaps he is all around it anyway – the break when his voice reappears, thin, high and pinched, chanting in a foreign language which no one can understand and which is probably made up, is anything but reassuring. “We will miss your bright eyes as we smile,” I catch somewhere in the middleground – “Bright Eyes,” that song about rabbits running away from death into their own kind of afterlife – and the original, stately melody, complete with electronic choirs, returns to the picture.

In “When The Moon Comes Over The Mountain” – on his The Great Pretender album, after a furious free workout, Lester Bowie suddenly stops the performance and plays this song quaintly, utterly straight (even with exaggerated thirties trumpet vibrato, and completely movingly – the singer has vanished and cannot be glimpsed, apart from faint, distant traces (“I’m alone with my memories of you”). Instead, synthesisers and vibraharps pass elegantly through the scene – art decayed might be the real subtext here – and there is an exquisite nothingness about this now entirely alien music. But that wobbly Moog could almost be a pedal steel.

I thought about the gasometer that used to mark the boundary between Uddingston and Bothwell; it’s long gone now, but in my childhood it was constantly in sight, no matter where I was – you could see it as far as Mount Vernon. And I think of the backwaters of Uddingston, the arteries that course water and nature from Kylepark to Bothwell Castle, or emptily sunny Sunday afternoons, and this is the music which springs to my mind.

Of course, by making itself out to be The Last Pop Album Ever Made, it sealed its own doom – much as the Pistols would do – insofar as it also, as it turned out, turned out as The First Pop Album Ever Made, because so many people heard it and wanted to follow and develop its notions. I can hear with joy so much of what is to come – from Ryuichi Sakamoto to the Aphex Twin – within its textures. It’s not just the first album of the eighties; indeed, one could usefully draw a picture of the history of popular music as being divided into two parts – what came before this album, and what came after it.

“Mr. Ting-A-Ling (Steel Guitar Man)” – and the pedal steel player here is almost certainly BJ Cole. An astonishing performance, too, cutting through Whitman’s tale of woeful abandonment into areas of near-abstract soundclouds of free improvisation, without ever getting away from the song’s emotional nubs: “Help me remember those beautiful years” and the pained “I love her, I miss her, DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND?” After which the track moves into introspective post-Reich minimalism, over which a hurt guitar plays “Scarborough Fair,” another memory of a deep and dim past. I note in both the title track and “Now Is The Hour” Whitman asks the lover he is about to leave, or is about to leave him, to “remember” him.

“Now Is The Hour” is the only possible finale, since it feels like the end of everything. There are echoes, possibly Hawaiian, of goodbyes – “I’ll miss you, far across the sea” – but mostly a closely-miked, hesitatingly ascending bassline over modal electronic static with subtle backward hisses and tonalities, repeating and slowly modifying. It does not seem that anything can live or survive here. Where has humanity gone?


There are learned discourses on the record available, I know. But in my selfish way, I don’t want to know what it is about, what inspired it, what records he bought and listened to, what was going through his mind – not even the Wall, or the Strategies. To me, and to all his fans at the time, it came out of nowhere – absolutely nowhere - and stands as undisturbed and disturbing as any Whistler Chelsea nocturne (where is the life in these waters, those boats?). More than any other album I can think of – with one exception – it is an album which demands an individual response from each individual listener. In these thirty-five years, it has been equalled or surpassed perhaps only three or four times. It still stands as a citadel; whether it’s a warning or a welcome is entirely up to each listener.

And then a chorale gloomily rises up through the music before breaking into bright, crisp high harmonies. But what are they singing? Nothing anyone sentient can work out; the remark IMac made about the Martian trying to decode Sinatra still seems the nearest anyone has come. They sing, of someone, or something, half-remembered or not remembered at all – the song of the Replicants (see Blade Runner, see Tricky’s “Aftermath”) – and then the music goes back to where it was. With one exception; there is a warbling saxophone, played as though the saxophonist doesn’t know how to play the saxophone, reaching back to faded old dancehalls, a past still visible but just beyond the living grasp of the observer. It’s there, but the singer can’t reach it. Unless he feels like breaking down the Wall.

If there’s any message to Red River Valley, it’s that the singer is very far from happy, but also there is the very strong and pronounced feeling that things cannot go on as they are. And the record ends with hope, as Whitman sings “For someday, I’ll sail across the sea…home to you.” We’ve come this far, yet still long to go home. And yes, Red River Valley is mostly, to my surprise, a very moving record; I am aware that sometimes in my own elusive dreams, I’m prone to fantasising about records – for instance, if one of my favourite albums, and one of the most important albums ever made, is kept at number two in the album chart by something else, I like to think that both records are two sides of the same coin, and conjure a union of the two records into being – but I believe that Red River Valley, despite occasional journeys into the land of cheese, has great emotional depth and resonance, and that its seeming facelessness conceals a profound humanity; we’re not happy, so let’s see what we can do to become happy. Without that hope, nothing and nobody could go on. They go on.

Track listing: Speed Of Life/Breaking Glass/What In The World/Sound And Vision/Always Crashing In The Same Car/Be My Wife/A New Career In A New Town/Warszawa/Art Decade/Weeping Wall/Subterraneans