Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Please Understand Me, Everything's All Right...

Crossing Jerry Lee Lewis with Joe Strummer.

Most of my friends in college had bizarre musical obsessions.

For me, the most bizarre was my friend Lisa, who liked country music. I'd never met anyone who liked country music before, so talking music with her was like taking graduate courses in psychology and anthropology. And while I understood (in theory anyway) that rock and roll had roots in country, rhythm & blues, and folk, I usually ignored the country part. (With the exception of rockabilly, which I always liked better when it was played really fast.)

So Lisa would try to get me to listen to Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, and Flatt & Scruggs and I'd try to get her to listen to the Stray Cats and the Ramones. She'd roll her eyes when I'd go see punk bands and I'd go off to study when she'd play her Tammy Wynette and Merle Haggard records (each marked in a corner of the back cover with her initials and a small sketch of a flower). We found a few areas of musical common ground: we were both lukewarm about the Eagles (too country for me, not country enough for her) and both liked Johnny Cash. We each had love/hate relationships with the Byrds (but she tolerated the early folk-rock records and I put up with the later country-rock albums).

Lisa also was from the South (and majored in philosophy, which she said followed naturally from a childhood spent listening to Hank Williams); I must confess that I'd sometimes get into late-night philosophy discussions with her partly to hear her accent when she pronounced "Schopenhauer."

One more thing about Lisa: she loved Joe Ely.

Ely, who grew up in Buddy Holly's hometown of Lubbock, Texas, started playing steel guitar as a pre-teen and was touring with his own country groups before he was old enough to drive.

Lisa mentioned that Joe Ely was playing in a local dive bar and she was shocked that I said I wanted to go.

I was actually shocked that she wanted to go. Because I knew something about Joe Ely that Lisa didn't.

While he was trying to break through as a straight-forward country act, he was befriended by Joe Strummer and spent a year opening for the Clash.

This invigorated Ely's live show and gave his country music a definite punk rock feel. His first studio album after touring with the Clash Musta Notta Gotta Lotta crackles with punk energy rearranging the DNA of 50s rockabilly.

Ely's live show was much more rock than country, which made Lisa angry. She thought I'd somehow tricked her into going -- even though it was her idea. We had a huge fight after that concert and our friendship never really recovered. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Years later, I was in one of the few surviving stores that sold used vinyl. While combing through the E's, I found a copy of Joe Ely's Musta Notta Gotta Lotta. I thought about the concert and the fight with Lisa. Then turned the record over and found Lisa's initials and a familiar sketch of a flower in the lower right corner.

I thought about how the record had traveled thousands of miles over more than 10 years to wind up in my hands. I wondered who else had listened to it and tried to intuit if they preferred the rocker Joe Ely to the country singer Joe Ely.

I thought about buying the record to honor my former friendship with Lisa.

But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a bad way to honor Lisa.

So I put Joe Ely back.

And bought a Hank Williams record instead.


Anonymous said...

We got both kinds of music here -- country AND western!

bostig said...

A sad story but Joe Ely still rules