Music

Deer Tick: Born on Flag Day

Photo: Sayard Egan

Deer Tick's boozy and bloozy sophomore album finds no future in America's present, and a troublesome comfort in America's past.


Deer Tick

Born on Flag Day

US release: 2009-06-23
Label: Partisan
UK release: 2009-06-23
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Artist website
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John Joseph McCauley III is a man’s man, a defiant vestige of the days when self-made independence determined your destiny, and men shared their innermost feelings with a bottle rather than a therapist. He has little patience with the Ben Gibbards and Justin Vernons of the world -- in fact, he sounds like the guy who stole their wallets and fucked their girlfriends. Honky-tonk hellraisers Hank, Cash, and Merle are his true forefathers, and for him, like so many others, country died when Garth took over. This all makes him hopelessly conservative, but this prematurely grizzled twentysomething-going-on-seventysomething has channeled his back-dated ethos into something brilliant: a tear-stained, beer-soaked elegy for an America that probably never was and certainly never will be again, an America that millions of balls-to-the-wall men fondly remember as it slips from their grasp. Deer Tick’s Born on Flag Day is thus a musical companion piece to Eastwood’s Unforgiven and Judge’s King of the Hill: a spare, laconic, heartfelt testament to one man’s fatalistic nostalgia.

Deer Tick’s 2007 debut War Elephant (reissued in 2008) was basically a one-man-band affair: the product of McCauley’s Hank Williams-inspired musical epiphany, liberal doses of distilled spirits, and an irrepressible determination. The album was bloated, uneven, and at times shoddy, but on standout cuts like “Baltimore Blues No. 1” and “These Old Shoes”, McCauley’s prodigious talent promised a bold, singular new voice bound to shake up the often staid, safe roots-music racket. Within a year, Deer Tick was touring with Jenny Lewis, and even gained the unlikely approval of NBC Newsman Brian Williams, alongside the requisite critical and hipster hype. “God Bless Deer Tick” stickers are ubiquitous in Baltimore, where Deer Tick recorded both albums, and their South by Southwest set was widely proclaimed a highlight.

Born on Flag Day is a full-band album. Deer Tick’s once-revolving touring lineup has stabilized, and that collective lends Flag Day a tougher, harder feel than War Elephant’s sometimes tentative demos. The album opener, “Easy”, showcases each band member in its minute-long intro: Dennis Ryan’s battering bass drum, Chris Ryan’s wily bass, and ascending eighth-note riffs played by McCauley and guitarist Andrew Tobaissen in unison. The effect is panoramic, the perfect soundtrack for speeding down an open road at 2 am, drunk, bitter, and up to no good. It makes for one of the year’s most gripping kickoffs, and foretells the warped world McCauley is about to convey for the next 40 minutes.

For make no mistake: McCauley is still the star of this show, and by the second verse, when his gritted-teeth rasp asserts, “Out of the door with the devil in my eyes / That son of a bitch crossed me once but he won’t cross me twice / The angel on my shoulder, well, she better be right / She got me flyin’ like a wild man in the middle of the night”, he establishes his forceful presence, devastating with a mic, a pen, an ax, and a right hook dare you cross him like Satan did.

McCauley’s are downtrodden, weathered songs, played with finger-pickin’ back-porch laxity, and sung in a guttural rumble that seamlessly melds a variety of sources, from Johnny Horton to James Hetfield, into something wholly captivating, occasionally unique, and reliably poignant. “How can a man feel anything when all he’s ever got was sympathy”, he poses on “Song About a Man”, before unleashing a barrage of drunkard profundities (“I drank away all the things I could provide”, “God don’t listen to [my grandson’s] prayers anymore”) that add up to possibly the most tragically beautiful drinkin’ song since “Whiskey Lullaby”. Like a cookie-cutter Springsteen character, McCauley is a man stranded within his circumstances, his desperate search for pride and power coming up short, leaving him to rationalize his resignation. His lifelong struggle has been fruitless, but he refuses to give up the fight. He clings to whatever can justify his existence: women, booze, and yes, his culture, a culture disappearing from the larger consciousness, increasingly confined to his own geographic nexus, and increasingly attached to his own identity. Within the songs, there is a palpable sense of duty, as if updating and continuing American musical traditions (folk, blues, rock) is his best, or his only, shot at a legacy.

Even though he is prone to sentiments like “hell on earth is all you know”, McCauley is not entirely a downer. “Straight Into a Storm” is a frisky rockabilly barnburner, with a torrential guitar solo that sweeps through the aural space like a Texas tornado. The animated centerpiece offers a glimpse of the incorrigible wild man whose miscreantic misdeeds produce the wistful melancholia that precede and follow it. His fractured relationships are symbolic of his fractured masculinity: like many good country boys, he is a man torn between drinking and decency, between doing the fun thing and the right thing, between satisfying his immediate urges and his upstanding duties. McCauley and Liz Isenberg cook up some Johnny-and-June-style sizzle on “Friday XIII”, which has that ultimate Deer Tick rarity: a happy ending. The album concludes with a hidden-track cover of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene”, an explicit nod to McCauley’s heretofore implicit folkie informants, and a lightly strummed, ostensibly impromptu singalong, full of background noises (beer cans crackling, lighters flicking, revelers chuckling), and fading out with a brief snippet of “More Than a Feeling”.

Like the modest simple-kinda-man who dominates the narratives, Flag Day stumbles when it exceeds its grasp. “Smith Hill” is an ambitious attempt at an epic song, but the superfluous string arrangement and squalid walls of reverb smother a potentially harrowing track, keeping it grounded when it should soar. When McCauley proudly proclaims, “You can’t tread on me anymore”, what could be one of the album’s most crucial moments is instead barely audible. And “Stung” is an attempt at a love song, but thanks to its brevity and its generic central metaphor (“stung by your velvet touch”), it’s a slight afterthought amongst the heavier cuts.

Though Deer Tick is wisely more Creedence than Burritos, it comes as close to achieving Saint Gram’s prophecy of “cosmic American music” as anybody since the Democrats regained Congress. But McCauley is no truer to Saint Hank’s vision than Brad Paisley or Toby Keith. And therein lies the issue: as terrific as Flag Day is, it, like so much under the alt-country umbrella, romanticizes the American working class from an outsider’s perspective (McCauley is a native of Providence, Rhode Island, a long way from the Mississippi Delta that informs his delivery), often starkly opposing the (non-alcoholic, non-sexual) tastes of that class. This album will be blaring not from the roadside shitkicker bars that McCauley supposedly frequents, but from college-town and cultural-district dives with PBR on tap and young urban slummers on parade.

Flag Day is a resonant document of the American working class that is primarily inaccessible to that class: its songs won’t be aired beyond public radio, the album won’t be sold at Wal-Mart, Deer Tick will not be opening for Jason Aldean. Its tales of the underprivileged will fall largely on privileged ears. Very little of this is McCauley’s fault -- he is working in an inherently problematic idiom, and to his credit, his coarse drawl and dogged conviction eradicate most questions of authenticity. He is inhabiting characters, or at least a persona that, while deeply felt, are also deeply, albeit expertly, performed.

From its swampy backwoods grooves to its alpha-male protagonists, Born on Flag Day is a fundamentally, rivetingly nostalgic album. But it raises the question of who can rightfully claim that nostalgia: the battle-hardened grumps longing for the world they used to know (i.e. the subjects), or the middle-class historical plunderers exploring a world they’ve never known (i.e. the creator)? Perhaps Deer Tick’s greatest achievement on Flag Day is subtly flouting such divisions. For we are all Americans, and whatever our class or gender or race, that nostalgia, that culture of yesteryear, belongs to us all.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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