Mike Cooley is one of the best American songwriters alive. The man is a documentarian of the casually overlooked, the ruefully funny, the unvarnished machinations of the human beast. His words are wry and smart and angry, and his guitar slides between boogie-woogie rock ‘n’ roll and country rhythm and blues. At their hearts, his songs possess a human sympathy hammered brittle with the resignation born of being a smart man in a stupid world. If you catch one of them on the right now, you might catch a reflection of the world reminding you of something you’ve forgotten you’ve known all along.
Cooley picked up the guitar at eight, maybe wrote a song or two he’s since forgotten, and hoped to become a lead guitar man, somebody free of “the pressure of being the guy who writes the lyrics and has to sing the songs,” he told me.
He’s now 46 and as one of the two primary tunesmiths of the Drive-By Truckers has turned out 31 songs plus a handful of co-writes on nine albums. The band is one of the most critically acclaimed of the past fourteen years. All of their albums receive rave reviews, they won a Grammy backing Booker T. Jones, and they’re accepted in the tonier circles of NPR and Austin City Limits (on which Cooley looked happier than a 12-year-old who’s bought a hot rod with his grass cutting money) while managing to become a sweat-and-whiskey, shit-kicking live ROCK! band.
Nobody playing today sounds like they do.
So how’d a guy who never paid attention to songwriting while growing up finally find his calling at 30?
“I decided in my 20s that being that guitar guy wasn’t for me,” he told me after the first of a two-night sold-out solo stand at The Slipper Room, a lush burlesque theater with hammered-tin ceilings in New York’s Lower East Side. The Truckers are on something of a break, if you count a few months between a decade of constant touring and a coming three-night New Year’s Eve bash a break. “You know, the guys on the C list were better than me. And I wasn’t really envious of the job most of those guys have. They’re usually working for some primadonna punk—”
(Cooley won’t work for primadonna punks. His last day job was painting houses in between occupancies, and it was the best day job because he could work by himself. “By the time I was grown up and working and earning money was a reality,” he said, “I knew I couldn’t have a boss. I can’t answer to anybody. I can’t do it.”)
“—Then I started noticing that I had a maybe unique way of saying things in a conversation. People would laugh. And I realized a lot of the stuff that falls out of my mouth tends to be taken funny and maybe even profound sometimes. I started thinking ‘I know how to play, I can count to four, I can keep a beat, I can carry a tune. So if I can just take some of what’s going on in my head already and apply it to what I know. I can marry those things.’”
It is nothing less than shocking to hear Cooley (and he’s “Cooley” to fans and his band mates) describe anything associated with him as profound. He generally comes off as a master of self-deprecation. His sole song on the band’s first album is titled “Panties in Your Purse,” after all. But then you listen to that song and realize it’s a quick glance through the open door of a woman who’s lost her family and her way and finds herself living a kind of muted, damaged grace by way of her mother’s trailer.
So what’s the dude trying to say?
Well, we’ve got: the story of Uncle Frank, an illiterate resident of the hollows that are flooded-out when the TVA dams the Tennessee River, a man who, when the auto plant jobs promised by the government never materialize, kills himself in the shadow of the new lakefront where doctors, lawyers, and musicians teach their kids to water ski;
and the Prohibition-era moonshiner who deals to the wealthy while trying to explain to his son why the ones who have so much make the ones who don’t go mad, even though they’ve got the same skin stretched over their white bones and the same jug in their hand;
and the gangster who’s put more lawmen in the ground than Alabama put cottonseed, reminding a church youth group that those begging for mercy with their Bibles open would have to lay those Bibles down to tie a noose around his neck;
and the small town lover who tells his girl that there’s a fool on every corner, on every street, in every one, and he’d rather be her fool nowhere than go somewhere and be no one’s;
and the aging married couple whose love and trust in each other is measured by bitch sessions at the kitchen table and a loaded gun in the closet;
and the stripper Miss Trixie who knows her client has a girlfriend because married men never ask how much and single ones ain’t buying.
Dude’s telling stories. And they’re not the kind of stories being sung by most anyone else that I know of these days.
Some of them ooze menace and shadows, some bemusement, some simple weariness. “Uncle Frank” covers territory Jonathan Franzen thought worthy to include in a novel nominated for the Pulitzer. The moonshiners in “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” are Faulknarian. Cooley’s characters and histories are vivid and real.
And then there’s the stuff that falls out of his mouth that “tends to be taken funny.” He’ll sing a line like “I’ll meet you at the bottom if there really is one / They always told me when you hit it, you will know it / But I’ve been falling so long it’s like gravity’s gone, and I’m just floating” as dry humor, a perfect response to a life that’s in such dire straits. God must be an aficionado of the absurd.
“There’s not really a process there,” Cooley told me over a beer that he wasn’t touching. “I try to find something that feels good to play—” and he mimes a slow right hand shuffle, “—a rhythm that appeals to me at the moment and brings out a melody and then some words happen. And maybe one out of every hundred times it ends up being a song. I don’t write a lot of songs.”
It’s true; he doesn’t. Certainly not compared to his Truckers partner Patterson, whose profligacy almost makes Ryan Adam’s work ethic seem barren. “I’ve got a new one I’ve had in a headlock for about two-and-a-half years,” he continues. He’s had a lot that have hit the two-year mark.
Surely that’s frustrating.
“Oh God, yeah. Every day. Every day for two years.” He laughs dolefully, then talks about taking his three kids to the pool every day in Summer, floating in the water stuck on the same lyrical idea—and here he cuts a circle in the air around his temple with an index finger, clicks his tongue, a motor turning over tick-tock-tick-tock-tick.
It’s a relief when it comes. Even if what comes is only the single right word that matches the number of syllables he needs to fill-out half a line. Turns out finding those syllables are what takes up a lot of those two years. He’ll squeeze ten or twelve syllables into a single four-four measure and be eloquent in the process. There’s very little wasted space.
“Making the lyrical phrases musical is a big deal to me,” he continues (while, given the presence of whiskey in his songs, he continues to defy my expectations concerning the beer bottle in front of him). “I might know what I want to say for weeks and it might take me a long time to find the number of syllables in the words to have that cadence that is natural and feels like another part of the music and not just words. That’s why I named a song ‘Pulaski, Tennessee’. Why write about a small town in Tennessee instead of the small town where I grew up? Three syllables in both city and state, that’s exactly why. Tuscumbia, Alabama, that’s where I’m from, but that doesn’t work. That’s four syllables.”
And then there’s his phrasing. It’s routinely unlike the phrasing of anyone else I can call to mind. Most of us who have been steeped for a lifetime in the standard four-four blues-rock time signature possess expectant ears. When I hear a new song, I intuitively know exactly the beat of the coming lyrics at least a line before they pour from the speakers, usually after the first verse establishes for me the song’s basic architecture. I don’t think that’s unusual.
But Cooley routinely sabotages those expectations. His line breaks—his enjambment, if you will, of the lyrics according to the bars of the song—can shock enough that it makes what was once overwhelmingly familiar suddenly new.
He’s started reading lots of books; that’s kind of new for him He has probably read more in the last three years than he had in the previous 43. He’s also a father of three, ages 5, 7, and 9. He’s got to think as a daddy now, a pressure he describes in “Eyes Like Glue”, a direct address to his boys, with: “I see you watching me; your eyes are just like glue / Stuck like glue to every foolish thing I say and do / There’s a safer distance still not out of touch / If daddy’s quiet, it probably means he’s thinking way too much.”
What does he hope his kids will take from their dad’s songs? “Hopefully very little,” and he laughs (that requisite self-deprecation) before narrowing his eyes to consider. “Hopefully they’re having a little trouble relating to it right night. But as they start studying literature and getting into reading more complex stuff, maybe they’ll look and go, ‘Wow, my dad does that.’ You know, maybe make a connection between me and something respectable.” He then follows with a chuckle to take the edge off.
Respectable. Rock n Roll is one of America’s original folk art forms, and what’s more respectable than that? Of course, it’s awfully gratifying to people of a certain mind (including myself) that the core of that respectable art form is antagonistic and sex-fueled and defiant under fire. Bessie Smith might have sung about needing a hotdog for her roll, but her recordings are in the Library of Congress. Dylan, the once-upon-a-time prince of righteous disgust, may as well be canonized by the Boomers, and Patty Smith has won the National Book Award, a honor bestowed by big wig publishers and critics who lunch at the Waldorf Astoria. Jesus, G.G. Allin is probably required “reading” in some college course somewhere. Somebody check with Greil Marcus.
Mike Cooley—not just through his humor or his unflinching narrative eye or his mastery of the common syllable—is a unique poetic voice unlike any other in contemporary rock ‘n’ roll. The stories he tells aren’t just stories and his enjambment isn’t just inventive. The truths to be discerned between the lines—what he doesn’t say—are also responsible for the reinvention of the known.
“Baby, every bone in my body’s gone to jumpin like they’re gonna come through my skin,” he sang on Brighter than Creation’s Dark in 2008. “If they could get along without the rest of me it wouldn’t matter if they did / Skeletons ain’t got nowhere to stick their money, nobody makes britches that size / They decide you’re a ghost to most before they notice that you ever had a hair or a hide.”
(Firstly, let’s stop and appreciate “britches”…)
Later he sings about the swagger of the kind of man who believes he’s destined to save the world. Then he derides the easiness of tough talk at other people’s evil, the kind of backseat driver who judges what others do and don’t believe, and takes us out of the bridge into the final chorus wondering, “Don’t know how much good it does a man to keep on telling him how good it is he’s free / Free to wash his ghost down the drain and free for them to tell him there’s no such a thing.”
I can’t really paraphrase in prose everything going on there.
I’m a little embarrassed by that last paragraph.
But I listen to “Ghost to Most” and hear a pretty sharp encapsulation of America in 2008 and today: the twisted landscape in which one side in some national slash-and-burn battle tries to sell out a drowning man while sloganeering about freedom and the other tries to tell him he’s a fool for choosing God over Darwin. The hubris of the swaggering man on a mission with “God’s own hand on the trigger” is called out, as are his antagonists, who point fingers only away from themselves.
What’s the message? What’s the story? Is the swaggering missionary Dubyah? Do we sense Hurricane Katrina lurking in there? Whose point of view are we in? And, since we’re wondering, just what is Michael Cooley’s point of view?
All of the above; none of it, and yet…
The assemblage of words that spilled out of Cooley’s head and into the song don’t make all that much logical sense (the song starts with a lament that he can’t grow sideburns). But in their proximity to each other the lyrics are imbued with meaning, a meaning that is clear even if it can’t be articulated in prose.
In other words, what Cooley is saying can only be said in just the way he’s saying it. He sings universal themes in singularly personal narratives.
That’s the definition of high art.
And, since we’re digging, that reduction of a hair-and-a-hide man to a starving specter? Well, that’s the story of us commoners’ history, isn’t it?
And what is more easily lost to history—what desperately needs preservation by the documentarian—than the everyday of the common man and woman?
“I fell in love with the process of writing songs,” Cooley tells me, unconcerned that I‘ve finished my beer and he’s drunk only a tablespoon of his. “It drives me nuts, it makes me mean, but, you know, it kinda makes me feel something. It’s probably my favorite thing I do.”
He didn’t even discover it until an age at which most songwriters have been writing for half their lives.
Will he keep at it as an old man?
“Older than this. You don’t retire in this business. No, you die by the side of the road.”