Monday, September 28, 2009

"Mr. Fool" / George Jones

Country music. Growing up in Indiana, I had to declare myself on one side of the fence or the other, and I definitely went for the rock 'n' roll side. Damn, I'd even go for soul over country. (Motown was very big in Indianapolis.) You cannot understand this unless you know what it was like to have to suffer through Midwestern Hayride when there was nothing else on TV, back in the days when there were only four channels.

One of the reasons it took me years to discover John Hiatt -- even though I knew the kid from my neighborhood growing up -- was because he was working in Nashville, and I assumed that meant he was writing country music and I didn't want to hear about it. Can you believe that? For years, there was Johnny Hiatt writing this incredible music, and I remained ignorant of it because of my old country music prejudices.

But here's another thing I have to thank Elvis Costello for. On that very same compilation CD where I discovered Nick Lowe, Elvis also included this track by George Jones. Now, I had relaxed my anti-Nashville bias by 2005; I even saw Tammy Wynette (George Jones's ex) in 1976 when I was in graduate school at Oxford, in England. So somehow this George Jones song wriggled onto my playlist. And before long Elvis's 1981 album Almost Blue and Van Morrison's 2006 Pay the Devil served as my crash course in all the country classics I'd closed my mind to all those years. Finally, I could let my ears accept the fact that, mixed in with all the cynical Nashville dreck, there is a hell of lot of great music out there, classified as country.

There's a kind of purity to this recording, which is early George Jones (I can't find the original album release, though it's on compilations of his Mercury years, 1955-1962, as well as an import called Don't Stop The Music, which I can imagine Declan MacManus hearing as a kid in Liverpool). "Mr. Fool" is a classic honky-tonk two-step, complete with twanging pedal steel intro, plangent fiddles, and a slight yodel in George's vocals. I don't want string sections in my country music; I want a slide geetar and fiddle. And "Mr. Fool" obliges, thank you very much.

As far as the sentiments go, this song is the most basic human stuff -- universal loss, humiliation, and heartache -- and the lyrics trot out a string of romantic cliches, all scattered tears and shattered dreams and broken vows. No doubt they seem even more cliched now, after 50-odd years of pop music have worked the same few rhymes to death. But such cliches became cliches because, when all is said and done, this IS the way love works.

And this song is craftier than it appears, a psychologically acute portrait of how past, future, and present vibrate together at moments of pain. In a low, confidential voice, George starts out by projecting into the near future: "I've got a feeling / You'll soon be leavin'" (I love the slide in his voice, replicating that sickening feeling). Then he loses control, as his voice soars, "But I won't beg you not to go." You can tell he wants to beg, but his mind flashes to the past, remembering how he's been burned before: "Because I've always been / A fool to cry for you" (get that woeful strain of his voice on the word "fool"). There's so much history in this song -- all those "alwayses" and "nevers" and "befores" and "no mores" -- it doesn't take much for us to reconstruct the needy, pleading slob he's been. Listening to George Jones reminds me that singing isn't just about timber or volume; the genius stuff is all phrasing and technique, those artful wobbles and snags that betray where the passion really lies.

Taking his own emotional temperature, George assesses his present frame of mind in the second verse: "I know this time it's / Really over." That being the case, there's only one thing he can cling to: The last shreds of his dignity. I picture him with his hands jammed in the pockets of his jeans, kicking a little dust up with the toe of his cowboy boot, as he proclaims, "No one can ever call me Mr. Fool no more." Hey, at least he's got his pride. Right?

In the final verse, he draws a breath (the slippery fiddle solo in the middle eight) and fixes a smile on his face. Now he projects his emotions farther into the future -- "For time will heal a heart that's sore." (Listen to the hopeful -- but not quite convinced -- lift of his voice on "heal"). Scarred and battered, he's ready to move on, "And I will never be the fool I was before / No one can ever call me Mr. Fool no more." Okay, lovely, good luck with that.

Because frankly, what lasts in my mind is the image of Mr. Fool, not the image of no-more-Mr. Fool. I've never been one for the tough guys anyhow; I like a man who can throw his heart into the ring. And you know what? If he really does heal, we'll know it when he becomes Mr. Fool again over some new woman.

Mr. Fool audio

1 comment:

wwolfe said...

I grew up driving south from Ohio to Florida or North Carolina on family vacations, so country music was always a part of my listening life. Even in Ohio, there was a lot of country on the jukeboxes in diners on the state roads back in the mid-to-late 1960s, once you got outside of the big cities. I suspect this is why country has always felt natural to me - although, as with you, it's third behind rock and soul for me. I was introduced to George Jones when I found a used single by him in the basement of Goodwill. It was the wonderfully titled "Rosie Bokay" - how could I not invest a dime in a song with that title? - with its immortal chorus ending: "A hound needs to holler/A bum needs a dollar/And I need Rosie Bokay." I think George is to country music singing what Chuck Berry is to rock and roll guitar playing: so essential, so fundamental, that he influences people who might not even know he's influencing them. (By the way, in reference to a recent post, if you'd like further evidence that Levon Helm was truly the voice of the Band, download his versions of Randy Newman's "Kingfish" and the standard "I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free." Both are from levon's new album, "Electric Dirt," and both could stand as terrific cuts from any Band album, nothwithstanding the effect cancer has had on Levon's voice.)