Notes, Hoaxes, and Jokes: Silkworm's 'Lifestyle' - "Roots"

Photo courtesy of Jim Newberry.

For the narrator of Lifestyle's fifth track "Roots", Missoula is the place he longs to leave but also the home to which he is always returning.



Label: Touch and Go
US Release Date: 2000-08-08

After the restless escapades of Lifestyle's opening trio of songs and their exotic thrills, dank apartments, and Motorhead-related hijinks, with the next track "Plain" we found ourselves back home, Silkworm's home that is, in Missoula, Montana. The narrator of Tim Midyett's beautiful love song gazed fondly back to the place and time where he first laid eyes on the object of his affection and his world changed. Uncharacteristically Lifestyle's fifth track stays put, and once again the former Hellgate Trading Post, the Garden City, Missoula is our setting, this time for the Andy Cohen penned "Roots", which is the subject of this week's blog entry. And whereas in "Plain" Missoula's role was arguably that of backdrop to the main subject, namely the earliest bloom of love, in "Roots" it takes centre stage as Lifestyle, an album with themes of travel and movement, turns its attention to the problematic notion of home and all that can mean.

It's a song which might be said to confound expectations in a number of ways. However as Lifestyle has progressed we have increasingly seen that the notion of having any expectations of Silkworm is problematic. Over and over just when the listener thinks they have got things pinned, lyrics or music swerve and introduce something new. This holds true for the entire Silkworm discography, namely that it is very difficult to make generalisations with any confidence. For now though let's concoct some so-called expectations and use them as heuristic devices, a way to explore the heartfelt ode to home that is "Roots".

False 'Worm Expectation No.1: 'The Silkworm sound is all about the rock.'

It is true that when these three musicians drop the hammer, the result of their collective chemistry is rock heaven, but "Roots" is an acoustic track, and it is not Lifestyle's last. Accompanied by bass player Tim, Andy picks out a typically rich melody, breaking into warm chords in the chorus. The opening melody, which is revisited throughout the song, is elegiac without being sorrowful. It is the perfect fit to the subject of the lyrics. The combination of this and the sparse acoustic arrangement evoke something specifically American. It speaks of winding rivers and big skies and snow-capped mountains. If this seems like a stretch, it's no more of a stretch than the way in which the finger-picking of Nick Drake undeniably evokes images which are English. Even without the lyrics, sung in that distinctive English public school accent, Drake's playing and music suggest patchwork fields, the scuttle of creatures through hedgerows, river banks, and dragonflies. The trans-Atlantic reverse is true of the playing on "Roots".

It should really be no surprise though that Silkworm are able to explore these kinds of themes so effectively. There is plenty of harshness and noise in their back catalogue, but there are also numerous moments which are similar in tone and mood to "Roots". There is even one record of all acoustic covers, the You Are Dignified EP, on which they pull off the remarkable feat of unplugging Shellac's magnificent unacoustic "Prayer to God" and do so in thoroughly convincing fashion.

False 'Worm Expectation No.2: 'Andy's songs are all about the Second World War.'

Not that that wouldn't be especially cool though. In the extras to Seth Pomeroy's superb Silkworm documentary Couldn't You Wait? Matt Kadane (Bedhead, the New Year, Overseas, and keyboards in Silkworm post Lifestyle) jokes that all of Andy's songs fall into one of three categories: Wars, ancient history, and being a Jew. It is certainly an impression encouraged by tracks such as "There Is a Party in Warsaw Tonight", a song about the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazi General Alfred Jodl, as Andy himself explains in Couldn't You Wait?. As well as being thoroughly memorable in its own right, as the lead-off track on their important third album, their last as a quartet, "There Is a Party in Warsaw Tonight" holds a prominent place in the Silkworm discography, and this, combined with the power of the song, perhaps overly influences how a casual listener might characterise Andy's songbook. Actually scratch that: There aren't any 'casual' Silkworm listeners. Let's say a 'mischievous' listener then. Of course, while the obscurantism of Andy's lyrics -- the songs about wars, submarines, pipelines, old movies, and other esoterica -- is one of the greatest things about Silkworm, it is not the sum total of his subject matter. He is also capable of writing songs which are acutely direct while still maintaining his own very unique idiolect. This is the case with "Roots".

The opening four lines of the first verse : "Oh to stand on the Higgins Bridge / As the lights go down / Just watching the river flow / On our last night in town." It's another brilliant first line. Consider some of the other classic openers on a few of the tracks we've covered so far in our series, from the cryptic "Do you like my thighs and my feet?" and "Beatniks are hapless with conga drums" to the very specific "Missoula, Montana, 1984." Silkworm do not indulge in waffle. Every second is made to count. Andy and Tim's opening lines often have a "Man walks in a bar…" feel to them, a nudge and a wink to the audience to check this one out, a confident "Have you heard the one about…", every one a riveting set-up for the tale that follows. "Roots" is no different. A specific reference such as the Higgins Bridge instantly draws intrigue, as once again, as in "Plain", we find ourselves in Missoula, this time looking down at the Clark Fork River.

The first verse encapsulates the quandary in which the narrator finds himself. He presents a romantic image of the town at twilight with the river beneath his feet, and it is not merely a sentimental pose. The very first exclamatory "Oh" reveals his feelings for the place; he longs to be there in Missoula. And yet the final line reveals the contrary, something else at play, a circumstance or force drawing him away from his home. This vacillation is repeated throughout the song and it is what makes "Roots" so memorable. Each of its three verses -- no chorus -- turn one direction then the other.

The final lines of the first verse begin to explain the dilemma: "If you're ever gonna get away / You better learn to run / But if the lessons are coming slow / Don't be upset / That just means you're home." Home is somewhere you have to escape from, flee in fact, if you literally and figuratively want to broaden your horizons. When you're home, the world can seem very small. Nothing much happens, and those lessons come slow. Again though there is ambivalence, here captured in the final two lines, for while home in its narrowness and inertia may be a source of deep frustration it is also a near universal salve. Smallness and familiarity can be suffocating, but they can also be reassuring and sheltering.

The second verse restates the narrator's desperation to leave, and there is no room for negotiation. In its entirety: "If I leave work early one day on the 31st floor / You can stand aside or call the cops / As I break for the door / You can look for me at Front and Main / But I'm not there, I'm gone / None of us is there anymore / Will the last one remember / To turn the lights off?" The verse shifts the emphasis of the song. The first verse used the second person ("You better learn to run"), but up to this point "Roots" seems like an outpouring of one man's heartache. Now though we see that everyone he knows shares the same feelings. To leave home is one of the most important decisions anyone can make. It is rarely an easy move. Somehow though he and all of his friends have reached the same momentous conclusion, that they must go. The verse reminds us of the absence a person creates when they leave ("You can look for me at Front and Main / But I'm not there, I'm gone"), and the image of all the emptiness left behind is especially poignant ("Will the last one remember / To turn the lights off?").

Already the song is thick with familiar and common themes. Anyone who grows up in a small town or city and longs to leave knows exactly of what the narrator speaks. There may be eighteen desperate years of pining to run and get out and away, but it is only followed by a lifetime of affectionate backward glances. For some people "home" can be a roving signifier, but for others there is only ever one home. In the final verse our narrator recognises this homeward yearning in a kindred spirit: "There's a Puerto Rican in this bar / She's thinking about San Juan / If I could, I'd wave a wand / And send her home". A feeling of solidarity runs through all of Silkworm's work, of openness, warmth, of the connectedness of the world. Sometimes the explicit expression of this is undercut with humour. For example, the song "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like" from the album Developer follows its title with the line "Except you, my friend, on a good night", and well it would be remiss not to mention the brilliant line "And 'I love you' means 'I hope you don't survive the night'" which forms the chorus of "I Hope U (Don't Survive)" from the album Italian Platinum. However in "Roots" there is no irony. There are no wisecracks. Home wields an overwhelming and unassailable power, and faced with this bone-deep longing the best our narrator can do is to admit "But first you know I'd send myself / Back where the river flows."

With the feeling and directness of this admission "Roots" arguably delivers one of Lifestyle's most affecting moments. It is also a song which demonstrates the range of Andy's writing. He is known for his jokes and songs about all manner of weird stuff, but here he taps a universally relatable theme in simple unmediated language without recourse to metaphor or causticity. Lyrically and musically it damns both of our affectionately flip False 'Worm Expectations and shows again that with Silkworm all presumptions must be left at the door.

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