In the summer of 1988 there were no places for ground level, grass roots rock’n’roll bands to play in Las Cruces, NM. There was a loose gang of musicians around ranging from the fairly experienced to the absolute beginner. We made our scene at house parties and the rehearsal rooms set up in converted storage sheds or even more crucial in my own musical development, on front porches playing battered acoustic guitars learning the language I still speak today.
In the heyday of country music, and blues as well, standards made up a big part of the set list every night. This was dance music, drinking music. Groups all over the country played the same numbers. A ‘star’ could ride in to town, quickly show the band the changes to his latest hit then sing “Crazy Arms” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” all night long. Maybe this system stifled creativity and cheapened the art but it was economical. Working people could pay low prices to be entertained by singers they heard on the radio in Jr High Gymnasiums and Roadhouse Bars. It also created an apprenticeship program for the young player, an outline of what you needed to know to have your shot on stage.
By the 1960’s rock’n’roll had rebelled against this mentality as singers became songwriters and individuality outshined skill. Bands of brothers and childhood friends created unique sounds built around their limitations. In the aftermath Top 40 groups were born and a line in the sand was drawn between original and cover musicians.
Original musicians need an apprentice program too. On those front porch afternoons spent playing guitars with other budding songwriters, sharing jugs of Carlo Rossi, trading paperback biographies and beat novels, passing around mixtapes, we found songs that could be played no matter how many of us were present, where solos could be added or deleted, new verses made up about friends and lovers. Simple tunes with one or two chord progressions and melodies that were open to interpretation. When someone new would join us learning these songs was their entry to our rock’n’roll universe.
I moved to Austin at the end of my teens and saw these same type of songs popping up in the set lists of the bands I followed. Songs that weren’t hits on the radio necessarily but were important to musicians and dedicated fans. I picked up a new one after watching Alejandro Escovedo’s Orchestra at the Cactus Cafe. I obsessively kept my roommates up all night playing Lou Reed’s “Pale Blue Eyes” over and over, trying to get the timing of the chord changes and the vocal phrasing down. I saw this song as a mountain I had to climb to get where I was going. Even if I never performed it I had to know it, get inside of it, in order to write the songs I wanted to write or play the way I wanted to play. It became another step in my apprenticeship to be passed on.
These songs and this language are still very important to me. As a sideman my ability to recognize chord changes and improvise solos comes from years of playing the Dolls’ “Pills” or Cash’s “Folsom Prison”, Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me” or Johnny Thunder’s “Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory”. As a writer I return to the grooves and themes, the rules and disregard for the rules, that I picked up from the VU’s “Sweet Jane”, Bob’s “ Just Like Tom Thumb” and the Stones “Sympathy for the Devil”. There is no right or wrong way to play these songs. They are now our rock’n’roll folk ballads. When we backed up Dan Stuart last week with no formal rehearsal he called out the ultimate Rock’n’roll Right of Passage number “Dead Flowers”, turning to us and saying “give it a Manchester feel”. There is no more perfect statement on the language of the rock’n’roll lifetimers than that.