Music

Chris Hickey: Love Away

Intimations of mortality echo throughout this fifth solo release from the contemplative Los Angeles singer-songwriter, formerly of Uma and Show of Hands.


Chris Hickey

Love Away

Label: Work-fire Recordings
US Release Date: 2014-11-04
UK Release Date: Import
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Chris Hickey’s fifth solo album, Love Away, offers a sequence of meditations on impermanence and mortality with an overriding lesson of embracing the journey. “It’s already broken,” he sings on the album’s eighth track, “the glass is already broken”, and this is something about which, with Zen stoicism, we should “breathe a sigh of relief”.

Throughout his career, Hickey’s ability to mine the intimacies of our common lives -- the accidental revelation of a glance through a window, the vivid daydream lived in the moments before an opportunity has slipped away -- has connected him to his fan base. He is a storyteller, often in miniature, whose songs, even those most personal, resonate shared experiences via sparse universalities. There is no experience unique to one individual. The complexities of existence are shared. We are all passengers on the same train.

A good example is “Hospital”. Despite the song’s first person perspective, the lack of detailed personal signifiers welcomes listeners to insert their own experiences into the framework. This song of loss becomes not simply a document of Hickey’s experience, but an opportunity for listeners to insert and contemplate their own. On the question of who was lost, Hickey leaves the space blank. Listening myself as he sings “You were making plans in the hospital / I didn’t want to go home / You were making sense in the hospital / Now I’m on my own,” I fill in that blank with my own father on his deathbed, who reassured me that all would be well so that I’d leave him to the private business of dying. “Pain is a funny thing to let go of,” Hickey sings in the refrain, and, again, the deliberate lack of a signifier adds depth to the observation: what is the nature of the pain, and who is letting go? The answer could as easily be the subject who is left behind as the patient in the bed, the one who is leaving.

“Down the Turmoil”, a duet with longtime collaborator Sally Dworsky, with its repeated refrain of “Lay your weary body down”, revels in an opportunity to “free myself of weight” and to “move to a higher place”. The song’s intimations of mortality are not, though, final or regretful; this is letting go as rebirth, as Wordsworth’s tabula rasa of our initial birth is “but a sleep and a forgetting”. “Eye” amplifies the album’s perspective on the life cycle by featuring Hickey sharing vocals with his own son, Charlie, himself a promising singer/songwriter whose debut EP was released earlier in 2014. Hope permeates this song, with Hickey singing “Look at those children all wrapped up in their causes / No one really ever stops to think about it.” Unlike cultural naysayers, Hickey looks at his children’s generation and their commitments to social justice and finds reason to be optimistic. The repeated vocalization of “Eye” that follows evoke both seeing and being, as Charlie’s shared vocals with Chris initiate a paternal contemplation: The father’s eye views his son, a piece of his own self, now grown into an independent self. They stand together as two “I’s”.

Album closer “So Little Time” underlines the theme of impermanence and passages. Hickey sings “So little time / For posturing anymore / Getting closer to the back / Than I am to the front door / Anymore.” A necessary realization for any former angry young man (or woman). Life goes on; we inspire or are inspired. But, we are nonetheless finite beings, and are left with a choice of whether or not to embrace this life, this world, our time. The young act; the old live. The question is what have we learned, and, how does that affect our living? Hickey calls out to his idols past: “Where have you gone Joe Strummer? / God bless you please, Johnny Cash / Where have you gone, Chris Whitley? / God rest you please, Grant McLennan." He’ll join them, someday, as will we all. But as his voice fades, we hear the confidence and acceptance of one who has lived life fully and consciously.

Unlike his 2009 release Razzmatazz, a fiercely independent song-a-day experiment, Love Away is highly collaborative, finding Hickey unaccompanied on only its opening cut “Let Me Just Straighten Up a Few Things”. The rest feature an array of musicians who flesh out Hickey’s sparse arrangements without, thanks to producer Walter Zooi, ever crowding his vision. Longtime Joe Henry collaborators Jennifer Condos and Jay Bellerose add a galloping momentum to “Waltzing to Clinging to You” and, when joined by Derde Verde guitarist Dylan McKenzie on “Hospital”, match Hickey’s vocal passion with equally loud intensity. Allison Chesley’s cello adds resonant depth to “Maya’s Day Off” and “Same Train”. Former Mountain Goats collaborator Rachel Ware Zooi and Australian songwriter Anne McCue contribute backing vocals.

Love Away demonstrates Hickey’s mastery of the song form, one developed over nearly 30 years. First appearing with L.A.’s short-lived The Spoilers, Hickey self-released his first two solo records, Frames of Mind, Boundaries of Time and Looking for Anything in the middle '80s. These generated college radio buzz, and his next project, Show of Hands, a neo- Peter, Paul & Mary collaboration with Randall Kirsch and LuAnn Olsen, caught the attention of Tracy Chapman producer David Kershenbaum and resulted in an eponymous album released by I.R.S. Records in 1988. Disagreements within the band over corporate sponsorship left a follow-up album on the shelf (finally released as Secondly in 2013). Hickey’s louder folk-rock collaboration with Sally Dworsky and Andy Kammen, Uma, toured throughout the middle '90s and released the excellent Fare Well on R.E.M. producer Don Gehman’s MCA subsidiary Refuge in 1997. The new millennium has seen Release, Razzmatazz, and now, Love Away quietly appearing via Work-fire Recordings.

7

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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