Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"Skid Row in My Mind" / Bill Kirchen

I should have known about Bill Kirchen. After all, he was in Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, a 70s band that set many roots-rockers on the honky-tonk road. But silly me: I thought Commander Cody was a heavy-metal band and I never listened to them. My bad.

Now I'm making up for lost time, and buying Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods is my first step. A word of warning: Kirchen's probably best-known for those smokin' Telecaster riffs on "Hot Rod Lincoln," first with the Airmen and again on various solo efforts. Maybe it's a guy thing, this awe of the blistering-fast guitar solo, but if that's what you desire, you may feel let down by this album's laid-back groove. Not me. I'm properly impressed by those truck-driving songs that earned him the nickname King of the Dieselbillies, but I prefer this drive down the blue highways.

Kirchen has said he was trying to focus on songwriting this time around, and I dig all his original songs on this album. But my favorite track was written by Blackie Farrell, a Bay Area songwriter Kirchen's known since the Commander Cody days. "Skid Row In My Mind" fits into a category I call Lovable Loser Songs: sung by a guy whose woman has left him, whose life's comically falling apart. (Check out John Hiatt's "I Don't Even Try" or Nick Lowe's "Lately I've Let Things Slide" for more in this vein.)

"Skid Row In My Mind" starts off with a classic scenario, in a lonely hotel room: he's listening mournfully to the radio, drinking whisky straight from the bottle -- "I'd like this whiskey more / If it was in a real glass on ice / But this bottle feels just right" --- staring out the window at a tantalizing view of his old house. I can just imagine the red on-and-off glow of the Vacancy sign, hear the rattle of ice cubes in the machine down the hall. It's made even more believable by Kirchen's slightly gruff ordinary-guy voice (am I the only one who hears him as Willie Nelson without the whiny quaver?).

But then the song takes a surprising turn into John Cheever country. He may be feeling like a bum, but he's not a bum at all, and the contrast between the two is intriguing. "So I get up, shower, and shave / Buy the USA Today / And on my way to work I slip a bum a five / I've got proof of my success / On my office wall and desk / But in this frame of mind I'm barely half alive." Now he's got my attention all right. And then he adds a poignant detail that Hiatt and Lowe never got to: "Tomorrow I'll run over / Try to see the kids at recess time / Then I'll hide so they don't run to me..." Suddenly I find myself wondering how his wife feels, what went wrong, who was to blame -- the whole drama opens up.

The tempo's appropriately slow and sluggish, almost dazed; the arrangement's country-ish, but uncluttered -- a serviceable drumbeat, a rueful organ sighing here and there, a little piano plinking around. (I'm listening for the bass really hard, since it's Nick Lowe playing, but I can't quite hear it.) But then comes the interval, and Kirchen lets fly with a series of elegant guitar arpeggios that's simply heart-breaking. With that one master stroke, he turns the comedy into wistful tragedy . . . and I'm gobsmacked.

Take a listen:

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