There’s an old saying in Tennessee
I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee
That says, fool me once, shame on
Shame on you
You can’t get fooled again.
— George W. Bush, performing live in Nashville, Sept. 27, 2002
In the annals of outsider recordings, an obscure Texas poet named George Walker Bush seems poised for canonization.
Like Daniel Johnston or Wesley Willis, Bush possesses an austere naïveté. His malapropism-ridden words open up worlds of expression that more technically proficient artists can never duplicate.
Unlike other childlike performers, however, Bush laces his whimsical self-expression with dark humor worthy of Joseph Heller, paranoia reminiscent of Franz Kafka, and enough fear and loathing for another Hunter S. Thompson book (and wouldn’t you know it, Thompson is reportedly writing one).
For collector’s of Bush’s work who already own Jacob Weisberg’s Bushisms, a book of Bush’s greatest lyrics, this newest compilation from Shout! Factory will seem familiar, if sadly incomplete. One hopes the folks at Shout! are thoroughly compensating Weisberg for discovering this unsung wordsmith.
Nevertheless, for new initiates, Bushspeak provides a convenient introduction to the greatest hits of an unjustly overlooked American recording artist.
The disc divides Bush’s prodigious catalogue by category: “On Terrorism”, “On Education”, “On the Environment”, “On the Economy”, “On Governance & Compassion”, and a general foreword and afterword. It’s a clever approach to an often daunting body of work.
The foreword includes some of the gifted absurdist’s most significant recordings, from the above-mentioned “fool me once” performance to his “subliminable” neologisms to yet another indelibly ridiculous refrain: “Families is where our nation finds hope / Where wings take dream.”
The afterword strings together the original archival Bush recordings without the additional orchestration used for the rest of the album. One can almost envision a young hip-hop artist taking these raw samples for a Grey Album-like experience. A mash-up with a 1973 Bob Marley album, for instance, could become Burnin’ Bush. (You heard the idea here first.)
In between the foreword and the afterword, Shout! faithfully recreates the artist’s tortured relationship with his medium, particularly the English language. “Natural gas is hemispheric”, Bush attempts, and our uncomfortable laughter empathizes with his ongoing struggle for self-expression.
“We’re working hard to put food on your family,” he adds. Only an outsider poet like Bush could conceive of such a twisting, vivid line. Brilliant.
Shout! embellishes Bush’s work with the strains of classic songs like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Hail to the Chief”.
With a musician of Bush’s unique but formidable talents, it’s no surprise that the biggest complaint is what Shout! leaves out. For instance, the compilation includes Bush’s heart-wrenching line, “The literacy level of our children are appalling.” But it forgets a far more important piece: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”
At times, the album becomes painful to listen to, as Bush’s youthful problems with drugs re-emerge. His strange accent, a mangled mix of clipped New Englander and drawling Texan, becomes almost hypnotic when he proclaims, no doubt stoned out of his mind, “I can’t imagine someone like Osama Bin Laden understanding the joy of Hanukkah.” You can almost smell the nitrous oxide.
Like Brian Wilson or Syd Barrett, Bush’s career as a viable artist has forever been tormented by the effects of his drug experimentation. How else to explain his jarringly atonal, chant-like performance from Camp David last April? “Freedom is beautiful,” he half-sings in one of his not-uncommon ventures into Sprechstimme. “It’ll take time to restore chaos.”
Perhaps a result of the drug abuse and the ongoing agony Bush seems to experience in putting together his words, these songs invoke a gloomy, bitterly hilarious despair straight out of existential literature.
“Poor people aren’t necessarily killers,” Bush will say, and our joyous laughter becomes a confused silence, strangled by wariness. “If this were a dictatorship it’d be a heck of a lot easier,” he adds. Perhaps one can interpret these, as many have the more controversial statements of Morrissey, as a cry for attention and publicity.
To be sure, it’s tough to know what to make of these moments. But they are part of the compelling paradox that is George W. Bush, the artist.
Bush is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in a cloak of ever-more-angular language. He’s a mystery future scholars, record collectors, and pop-music obsessives will no doubt be solving for years to come. Bushspeak is a great start. Remember: As the poet says, “I know that human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”