Chuck E. Weiss sounds like he comes from a seedy urban area where grizzled characters howl at the moon and scratch their backs on the stars. He narrates his songs in the persona of low lifers whose tall tales transform into poetic spiels as they try to con just one more quarter off you before going out and spending it all on cheap wine and whiskey. Weiss’s compositions veer into that smoky romantic nostalgia for a past that was never quite as good as remembered and no better than what life will be ten minutes from now, that is, provided one continues to squint one’s eyes while looking at the view. Yeah, Weiss can’t help but jive you, but if you listen closely you’ll find that maybe he knows more than he’s actually saying, like the beep of a bus that’s really a guy blowin’ his horn on the corner. Like the train that doesn’t run here anymore barrelling down the rails. Like the thunder before the lightning. We’re talking poetry here, the beat kind. Snap your fingers in time and pass the bottle, man.
This may not be musical in the conventional sense, as Weiss talks the vocals more than sings them, but it sure is artful. Weiss takes lots of risks. At times he pretends to be a hustling poor black woman and comes close to minstrelsy in his mimicry. Weiss succeeds because he performs so guilelessly. He doesn’t pretend to know what it’s like to be the other person; he becomes the other person and just lets it flow. Also helping Weiss is the fact that he’s ably backed by a crackerjack jazz combo that includes Tony Gilkyson on guitars, Don Heffington on drums and percussion, Mike Murphy on keyboards, and Steve Nelson on bass.
The best songs work on a rhythmic level as well as on a conceptual one. There’s a boogie woogie inflection that snakes through the disc, whispering boogie woogie beats or doo wop street corner tempos in the back of Weiss’s throaty voice. He may not have much of a vocal range, but Weiss compensates for it through his cadences. When he appears to be rambling, it’s clear he’s riffing, and it’s beatific. Consider a song like “The Phone Conversation”, which takes the guise of a 4:00 am telephone call from an unfamiliar acquaintance who bothers you with a problem. “Perhaps you can clear up a certain little spat we’re having / You see the little missus thinks that Jerry Lewis is 73 years old / And I know he’s 78”, Weiss creaks in the voice of a man with few friends and probably a bit too much to drink. But Weiss keeps the song moving through his staccato pace, which works like a tug on your sleeve. You don’t want the song to end — to hang up the phone — but there’s really no reason to stay on the line, except to give an ear to the desperate pulsating sound of another human being with a bleeding heart.
Weiss’s snippets of the seamier and sadder facets of the lives of the lower classes sparkle like bits of broken glass in the parking lot. The people who inhabit his songs may be down, but they don’t consider themselves bad off. They share the optimism of the sucker just waiting for that one big break to turn everything around. Think of the man that narrates the title song. For fifty cents, he promises that the mention of his name in the worst street in town will immunize you from harm. If you fall flat on your face, drunk and high and pockets filled with cash, no one will harm you — in fact, you will wake up on satin sheets with leopard print pillows, if you be sure to drop his name in the neighborhood. Maybe it’s worth half a buck to be safe. You never know when you’ll be in that part of town, a street that you don’t go to unless you plan to be a crime victim. The man tells his story with such style and panache that you give him the money thinking he’s doing you a favor. The man’s name is Porkchop. What do you expect for four bits?
Weiss offers morality tales of what happens when you reach for something you don’t deserve, but he knows we can’t help but dream. And on one level, don’t we all want to be King of Sweden or take a holiday on Primrose Lane, to cite two examples from Weiss’s recent disc. But if we attained those dreams, it would be like dropping pickles in the cream brulee — to cite another Weiss lyric. Some things are better just as they are.