Saturday, October 01, 2016

L Is For . . . .

Working my way through the alphabet, one artist for every letter from A to Z.  Bonus points when both your names start with that letter....

Lyle Lovett / "If I Had a Boat"

So many L's, so little time.  I could have written about Nick Lowe (well, obviously), or Amos Lee, or Lulu or Los Bravos or the Lumineers. But this is where I landed, because -- well, Lyle. I mean, Lyle.

I realize that I have already treated you to such Lyle Lovett beauties as "Nobody Knows Me" ,   "She's Already Made Up Her Mind", and "In My Own Mind". But in my ongoing quest to earn this genius the recognition he deserves (outside of country music circles, who hardly pay him any attention at all anyway), here's one of his most iconic songs.

And you have to pay respect to an artist who was already hitting the "most iconic" level on his sophomore album. Pontiac came out in 1988, and seriously, this guy was already this good.


Some artists I'd wonder if I'm just imagining the DNA of a song, but with Lyle? Underestimate him at your peril. I'm sure he knew the Pete Seeger classic "If I Had a Hammer" and had it firmly in mind when he wrote this.

Yeah, it starts off all folkie and simple. "If I had a boat / I'd ride out on the ocean." But he quickly throws a country-western curveball into the song: "And if I had a pony / I'd ride him on my boat."

Horses hate boats. Lyle grew up on a ranch; he knows horses. So yes, we're in magical realism territory. "We could all together / Go out upon the ocean / I said me upon my pony on my boat." I see Lyle, with that wild crop of curly hair, sitting on his cowboy paint pony, staring out to sea.

And the ironies keep on coming. He's channeling 1950s cowboy star Roy Rogers -- "If I were Roy Rogers / I'd sure enough be single / I couldn't bring myself to marry old Dale [Evans, Roger's wife and co-star] / It'd just be me and Trigger [Roy's horse] / We'd go riding through those movies / And then we'd buy a boat / And on the sea we'd sail." Is it just me, or is there a kind of Coen brothers madness to seeing this ark fill up with cowboys and their ponies?

He goes on from there to mess with the Lone Ranger legend ("But Tonto he was smarter / And one day said 'Kemo Sabe / Kiss my ass, I bought a boat / I'm going out to sea.'") Allying yourself with the Native American point of view? Priceless.

And yet and yet and YET. Here's the genius of this song: There's something so plangent, so yearning about that folk-inflected melody that it trumps everything else. Lyle's earnest mellifluous vocals, the simple acoustic finger-picking, with just a touch of pedal steel behind -- it's delivered with such conviction. The wink-wink cultural references dovetail right into a genuine vein of desire. He WANTS that boat, he WANTS that pony, He WANTS to be Roy and Tonto. And we, listening, want that too.

This song's been covered by everyone from Jimmy Buffett to Dave Matthews. I swear I've heard it in movie soundtracks, and when I hear it, it always lifts my heart. Yet it's not sappy; it's the total antithesis of sappy. It's just plumb beautiful.    

1 comment:

NickS said...

Three thoughts:

1) Lyle Lovett is great. He's such a good, and distinctive songwriter that it took my a while to appreciate just how good a singer he is -- really a fabulous voice.

2) When you started this series I, of course, started thinking about what I would include on an alphabetical list, and I was thinking about exactly this song for "L." Probably the only letter for which we would pick the same person (maybe, I'll be curious to see who you select for "Z"). I also considered "North Dakota" which makes me think:

3) Shout out to Rickie Lee Jones. There can't be many people who have recorded with Lyle Lovett and also done an excellent Steely Dan cover.