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

Photo courtesy of Jim Newberry.

Lifestyle's tenth track, the tiny, hard rockin' epic "Dead Air", takes us from Nashville to Paris and captures all of human life in between.



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

In our previous blog entry Lifestyle led us to the top of the mountain. Even paced and lyrically dark, Lifestyle's longest song, the monumental "Around the Outline", is also arguably, for sheer weight, the album's most rockin'-est. The shift to track ten, "Dead Air, which is the subject of this week's entry, takes us — to borrow a phrase from "Around the Outline" — from a peak to meadow. However it is a meadow full of empty whiskey bottles, discarded fried chicken containers, and abandoned Cadillacs, a gonzo museum of classic Americana.

"Around the Outline" presented a series of apocalyptic images, suggesting ice and danger and murder. It took the listener to its strange interzone on a whomping musical backing, the band locking into a groove which shifted in feel but was unrelenting in potency. The ominous sense of doom created by the track with its scale and darkness hangs behind, even after it has wound to its conclusion. Elsewhere in the series we have discussed at length how the sequencing of Lifestyle creates a series of ebbs and flows, with the contrasts and similarities between successive songs serving to bind the album together. This may seem obvious. Wasn't there a time when most albums at least aspired to be heard as a coherent whole? However, in the digital age, when many 'albums' are a assemblage of separable units or a collection sequenced for how they might best appeal on iTunes, the unity of Lifestyle is a reminder of how much fun a traditional album can be and how more satisfying a curated collection of songs can be over the shuffle function.

"Dead Air" continues the 'narrative'. If "Around the Outline" has left sulphurous fumes in the room, then the opening riff of "Dead Air" doesn't so much open a window as rip the roof off the building. The traditional breathless music-journo descriptors and analogies used in relation to guitar riffs don't really do it justice: Crunching, meaty, like a dirtbike revving its engine? All that nonsense falls short. After a barely audible count-in, the riff bounces out of the speakers. Suffice to say, if somehow it were possible to re-edit Wire's classic Pink Flag — an album where guitars frequently sound like a giant chainsawing his way through a mountain with a cavernous, lithic roar — and slip the opening bars of "Dead Air" in amongst that glorious rock-crushing carnage, bass player Tim Midyett's riff would fit perfectly. In Seth Pomeroy's superlative Silkworm documentary Couldn't You Wait? Adam Reach perhaps nails the key to why Tim's playing is so distinctive and unusual: "I always thought of Tim as a guitar player who was forced to play bass but made his bass sound like a guitar in the way that he constructed his parts…" Beyond the opening, pick Tim out from amidst Andy Cohen's guitar, Michael Dahlquist's drums, and his own vocals, and follow Tim's playing throughout the track to get a full demonstration of just what Adam is talking about. At times, as "Dead Air" sprints along, bobbing and stomping, it can be difficult to separate Andy and Tim at all.

The dizzy energy of the opening sets the scene for what is to follow. "Dead Air" is yet another consummate minor masterpiece from Tim in the vein of "Slave Wages" and "Raging Bull". Let's face it. At this point most albums are flagging. The notion of front-loading an album is not new. According to statistics, 97% of all albums made between 1990 and 2010, a particularly bad period for the front-loading phenomenon, have never been heard all the way through. No-one knows how they finish. Typically after the first four tracks, all singles if things have gone to plan, the average album from that era jumps off a cliff. And yet here, as Lifestyle rounds third base, is another zippy pop tour de force. If "Treat the New Guy Right" and "Slave Wages" are international smashes that never were, then "Dead Air" is another. The unflinching quality of the songwriting on Lifestyle, the fact that we can go so deep into the album and that the hits keep coming, is testament to the talent of Tim and Andy. There really isn't any filler in the Silkworm discography. Songs find their place on an album through merit. Nothing is ever under-written.

As if to demonstrate just that point, at this late stage with "Dead Air" Tim delivers one of his weirdest, funniest lyrics. Again, as with "Slave Wages" the yucks and one-liners, and Tim's delivery of said, are an exactly correct complement to the thrill of the stampeding music. The specific setting and subject of the song are partially inscrutable but, luckily, in the extras to Couldn't You Wait? Tim is gracious enough to lift the curtain on this mysterious gem:

""Dead Air" is a two part song. The first part of the song is about Hank Williams dying in a cadillac behind wherever the hell it was. Was it behind the Grand Ole Opry, or something like that? I forget exactly what the story was. The first half of the song is my stupidly half-remembered version of how Hank Williams died and then the second half of the song is about Jim Morrison dying a similar kind of death but much more ignominiously, a much fatter more bloated version of the same death."

It's the half-fictional element of Tim's re-imagining of the two stories which makes "Dead Air" so engrossing. The real details of Hank Williams' death are thoroughly miserable. He passed away at age 29 of heart failure likely aggravated by alcohol and pills. The legendary country star did die in a Cadillac, but it was somewhere on a road trip between Bristol, Virginia and Oak Hill, West Virginia. It was only after pulling in at a gas station that his driver realised Williams had gone.

Jim Morrison's death is similarly wretched. The Doors front man died in a bathtub in a Parisian apartment at age 27, the official cause of death also heart failure. A straight account of these famous deaths would be a country song in and of itself. Instead, as noted, "Dead Air" fictionalises the macabre tales, over-writing and reinventing details as it goes. In addition to this, the narrator brings an undeniable raconteurism to bear on his retelling of these modern myths. Throughout this series we have of course avoided conflating the narrator of the songs with their author, and we shall continue that here, but it must be noted how well Tim creates these voices in his songs. We saw it previously in "Slave Wages". As the narrator recounts his woes and struggles, he does it with such wit and playfulness that there is a sense that the listener is being beckoned to pull up a barstool and Wait till you here this one…. With "Dead Air" the result is a song which is at times as funny as it is poignant.

The first verse begins: "Garden of the opry star / Roads are filled with rusty cars / Only place with blue sky / Had it painted over natural light" Is this a reference to Nashville's famous Hermitage Hotel? Williams was a frequent guest at the Hermitage and stayed there the night before making his debut at the Opry on 11th June 1949. One of the unusual things about the Hermitage is its veranda, which is enclosed, its arched ceiling painted with a blue sky complete with clouds. On the night recounted in "Dead Air" though Williams is not sleeping in any hotel. The verse continues: "I can sleep in a Cadillac / Parked in the alley with the engine running / Sometimes I think I'll never go back". As droll as some of the later verses are, these lines hint at the darker matters at hand. Our star has doubts about his art. Is it the stage of the Opry to which he fears he may never return?

The first two lines of the chorus describe the adulation enjoyed by the music world's few select golden gods: "And the whole crew will look up to me / And the whole sea of people will part". As if to lift his spirits heading into this sea of worship, Tim stretches the last word of the verse ("back") into a twist of syllables and melodic la-la-las which propels him smack bang into the the first word of the chorus. It is reminiscent of the strangled, garbled ending which Tanya Donelly, another songwriter with a gift for sublime pop music, gives to the end of the choruses in the Throwing Muses track "Not Too Soon". With this flourish of inarticulate melody Tanya unleashes some manner of cosmic energy which forces every listener after first hearing the song to immediately play it again a minimum of twenty times in a row. This is truly the reason why pop music is sometimes related to sugar. It is not sweetness which is the commonality, but rather compulsion. Tim performs a mini-version of this in his brief interjection which bridges verse and chorus. Whereas in "Not Too Soon" Tanya's wordless melody provided the song with its peerless narcotic hook, in "Dead Air" it functions more like a shot of gasoline on a fire, bombing the track onwards and lifting the narrator and listeners up from the unhappy misgivings with which the verse concludes.

Immediately though, after greeting the crew and his adoring fans, our narrator falls back into gloom and gets to the very heart of his despair. The chorus concludes: "Oh to find out that part of you is fake / That there is no other reliable source for your heartbreak / The street name for 'deaf' is still gonna be 'dead air'". He is asking what in one form or another is one of the enduring questions in popular music: Are you for real?. Our narrator seems to doubt whether or not he actually means the songs he is singing. Is all the romance and angst just an act? His remark that there is "no other reliable source" for his heartbreak, could be heard as a simple cry of artistic despair. Perhaps there really is no way out of his predicament. And if the star of the Opry cannot write and sing sincerely, then what good is he?

Then again, there is a more sinister reading, one which is compelling given the identity of the two stars who are the inspiration for the song and the twist which the line is given on the chorus' second go-round later in the song. Perhaps he is gesturing to something more specific, something much darker and self-destructive. It is easy to imagine that when our narrator declares that there is "no other reliable source" for his heartbreak he is doing so while nodding to the half-drained whiskey bottle he is holding in his hand. Whether it's Hank Williams and Jim Morrison, or Dylan Thomas, or Billie Holiday, or Charles Bukowski, or Paul Verlaine, and on, and on, there is a long storied tradition of artists finding inspiration or solace in booze, usually to terrible ends. The bottom of that bottle is the only place our narrator (Hank) can locate the heartbreak his art requires.

A ferocious, jagged guitar break rips into the space left behind by the chorus. The very second it hightails it back out again, Brett Grossman's brilliant drunken piano barrels into the mix and proceeds to careen blindly around the second verse, providing the track with adornment which is both perfect and perfectly shambolic. Instantly we are in Paris and we are not in good shape: "Flown in on an airplane / Scrubby little runway / Red wine and a stubby cock / Sur la table, you gimp / You limp when you walk". If Hank was despondent, then Jim is belligerent. Perhaps he is referring to himself. Maybe his weight is causing him problems walking. However, the mention of red wine and tables also suggests a different scenario, one which is much more fun to imagine, one where our bloated narrator is sitting in a Parisian restaurant like some bizarro Henry VII and is throwing his napkin at an unfortunate waiter, haranguing all around him, all temper tantrums and trapped wind. The lapse into broken French evokes a strange, terrible, comic scene, full of profanities and outré insults. "Sur la table, you gimp / You limp when you walk" is one of the more choice internal rhymes you will ever hear in a rock song. Again, where Hank appeared a tragic figure, Jim appears to be rising to the role of absurd rock exile. His parting lines are ludicrous in every sense: Insane, daft, and most importantly playful: "You know I'll eat anything that's cooked / I know you think I'm crazy / But I've never been thinner / Soon I will bid you my leave". It is possible to run back and around these lines a hundred times and still be alternately dazzled and befuddled by them, all the while chuckling like an idiot. The key to any good diet is that the food should be cooked, right? Nothing crazy about that. Never been thinner, eh?

In his delivery of Jim's almost surreal gastronomical treatise Tim brings to bear the touch of the bar-room philosopher mentioned earlier. On the one hand, this insane food-related outburst is extremely funny because it doesn't appear to make any sense. But on the other, he sounds so hip as he drops this knowledge on us that maybe there's just something to it! In the space of ten seconds Tim imbues our narrator with all the qualities of both clown and savant. He becomes a preposterous figure who is at the same time completely compelling. The character in "Dead Air" is a fictionalised, sketched version of Jim Morrison, but in its caricature, with the duality just noted, the song identifies why he is still in many ways the archetypal rock star. The things which make him so cool (the lyrics, the leather trousers, the 'Lizard King', everything else) are also the things which make him, again, so ludicrous (the lyrics, the leather trousers, the 'Lizard King', everything else). The greatest rock stars must embody both extremes. Anyone who thinks The Doors are uncool is missing the point.

The second and final chorus is a repeat of the first, except for the one change we flagged earlier: "Oh to find out that part of you is fake / That there is no reliable source for your sauce". Just as in the final lines of Andy Cohen's "That's Entertainment" with its "You're for me / You're foreign", the half-rhyme is too good to pass up. There are clear parallels between Hank Williams and Jim Morrison, their lives and deaths, but "sauce" is the link on which "Dead Air" turns.

One more swift, rasping guitar break, and we're out. In just over two minutes Silkworm have captured the world (again): Nashville, Hank Williams, the Grand Ole Opry, Cadillacs, hotels, booze, death, the dilemma of authenticity in art(!), Paris, Jim Morrison, Jim Morrison's cock, food, a quick French lesson, oh, and the world's worst dietary advice. We can say with 100% confidence, without any fear of contradiction, with absolute cast iron certainty that no other single work of art in any medium, no song, no poem, no movie, no painting, no twelve part mini-series, contains this specific set of subjects, and if by some bizarre fluke one ever did, there is no chance in hell that it would approach this exotic miscellany in the way Tim does.

In this, "Dead Air" encapsulates not just why Silkworm are so beloved but also why they are one of the great rock bands of all time. Plenty of artists have plenty of songs with quirky subject matter. They namecheck a classical author; they pretend they're living in the future; or they imagine the world through the eyes of a badger. Most often though there is nothing more to it. The novelty factor is the sum total of all they have going for them. "Quirky" suggests odd or off-beat, but the term also contains a sense of the diminutive. If something is quirky, then it is lightweight, zany for zany's sake. "Dead Air" is absurd and, once again, ludicrous, but it is certainly not quirky. It takes its esoteric subject matter and with a serious breadth of wit and intellect discovers all of human life. Silkworm never fail to rock like hell. In "Dead Air" they also show their unerring capacity to find tragedy and life-affirming humour in the very strangest of places.

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