Sunday, December 17, 2017

"If I Had a Boat" /
Lyle Lovett

Years ago, I drove through a howling snowstorm to see my homeboy John Hiatt play a Songwriters Circle show out on Long Island. Now, the Songwriters Circle format features four performers, singing their songs in a dynamic round robin. Two of the other three guys in the Circle were new to me -- Guy Clark and Joe Ely, both of them delightful discoveries. But the fourth I'd heard of, and even seen in a couple movies, and I wasn't particularly interested. Like I said, I was there for John Hiatt.

And then Lyle Lovett, sitting on that stage, opened his mouth and began to sing, and I was bowled over.

Revelation #1: Lovett's creaky, weathered, authentic voice sounds like a real guy singing -- but in person, you learn how strong and true and supple that instrument is. No recording tricks here: This cowboy can really really sing. And as he cycled, in his turn, through several of his songs, Revelation #2 hit me: The man is also a first-class songwriter. Irony, wit, deft turns of phrase, psychological insight, searing moments of emotional honesty -- song after song, he knocked it out of the park.

Did he sing this song that snowy night? I can't even remember. But when I first rooted it out of iTunes, it felt achingly familiar. I doubt I'd heard it on the radio; released as a single in 1988, it never even got to the top 50 on the country charts. It's the lead-off track on his gorgeous 1987 album Pontiac -- yeah, like I ever listened to that before my Lyle Lovett epiphany. It is ranked #87 on Rolling Stone magazine's 100 Greatest Country Songs, for what that's worth. Maybe I heard it in a movie? Who knows.  But here it most indubitably is.

From the title alone, there's an obvious reference: that classic folk song "If I Had a Hammer", written by Pete Seeger and Lee Lays, first recorded by the Weavers and later (the version I grew up on) by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Lyle Lovett is too smart not to know this precedent. The Seeger song neatly cycles through hammer, bell, and song in the verses; here, Lyle begin with his boat, then brings on a pony -- but then, things go dangerously south. Whereas the folk song is all about social justice and community, Lyle's take is defiantly post-modern and individualistic.
That boat? It's for getting away from the hassles of daily life. And yeah, he's bringing his pony on that boat, dammit, but that's it. Western icons like Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger? Lyle's out to divorce Roy from his wife Dale Evans, and he's totally more with Tonto than the Lone Ranger. ("Well, kiss my ass, I bought a boat, / I'm going out to sea.")  The devil is in the details.
I love how, in this video, Lyle's just pacing around his living room, sorting out this little fantasy of his. The boat, the pony, the ocean. Kiss my ass.
But what gets me -- what keeps this song in my permanent rotation -- is the quiver of urgency in Lyle Lovett's voice. He needs that boat, he needs that pony, he's in a place where a wife (Dale) or a boss (the Lone Ranger) would shatter his equilibrium. Seeger's melodic line, always rising in plodding tempos, is a trumpet call to action; Lovett's skips all over the place, tentative, playful, neurotic, and plangent as hell.  
Which brings me back to that snowbound night in Long Island. Good fangirl that I am, I went to the stage door (in this case a parking lot gate) hoping to let John Hiatt know how much I adore his music. But of the four songwriters, only one bothered to tromp out through the snow to meet fans. Hands jammed in his coat pockets, cowboy boots soaking wet, Lyle Lovett spoke to each of the seven fans at the gate, making eye contact, repeating our names, diligently scrawling his name on our ticket stubs. Making a personal connection. Hoping we liked the show. The perfect Southern gentleman, like his momma raised him right. And I promptly fell in love.

And I know he doesn't need no girlfriend on that boat, but still, a girl can hope....