Desert radio: Monster Ballads revisited

Well, I said we should be ready to change our minds. I said anyone who could see how wrong we’ve been should be convinced of that.

Turns out I was wrong. Well, I suppose we don’t get to know, but I’m saying I was wrong. I’ve come up with something I like better. Even if it’s rather strange.

I’m talking about my interpretation of Josh Ritter’s song Monster Ballads off the album The Animal Years. It’s been a revelatory week around here, all put in motion by one insightful reader. All put in motion by one little four-letter word.

To recap where we are:

I wrote a post called “Complicated unities” about the cryptic and beloved song Monster Ballads in early October. I’m not going to link to it here because you shouldn’t read it if you haven’t already. Not yet, anyway.

A week ago ritterwriter stopped by and left a commentit’s upin which she politely took issue with some of my points. When I read her thoughts I knew she was on a very good track. As I pondered it I suddenly saw a new meaning for the fateful word around which much of my former analysis had turned . . .

And that correction of course set off another extraordinary journey. From the Mississippi River and the mining camps of the Nevada Territory in one century . . . to a sweaty wayside dance hall in Ireland in the next . . . to a wandering, worried, wondering soul hurtling down a ribboned desert highway in the one after that. Do you have the strength? I barely did. But here we go.

[<< REWIND.] Track 3. Play.

First verse.

Radio waves are coming miles and miles
Bringing only empty boats
Whatever feeling they had when they sailed
Somehow slipped out between the notes

A ghostly, mysterious, foreboding image. Empty boats summoned by radio waves, drifting aimlessly, robbed of feeling, purpose, passion. It slipped out between the . . . notes? They can’t be only boats. I don’t think anything is one thing only is this song, let’s be clear. Let’s see, there’s radio . . . and notes. Music.

Next is the chorus, which we’ll get to:

Out on the desert now and feeling lost
The bonnet wears a wire albatross
Monster ballads and the stations of the cross
Sighing just a little bit, Sighing just a little bit

. . . But first we need the second verse and some history for some important clues.

Second verse.

And I was thinking ’bout what Katy done
Thinking ’bout what Katy did
The fairest daughter of the Pharaoh’s son
Dressed in gold ‘neath pyramids

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Steamboats

In 1858, as the Civil War loomed, the man who would later be widely recognized as America’s greatest writer was at work learning every bend of the Mississippi River. Samuel Clemens (who became Mark Twain), twenty-two years old, was nearing completion of his steamboat pilot apprenticeship and eagerly awaiting the day he could collect the licensed pilot’s handsome salary of $250 a month. He’d always known the river: he’d passed his boyhood in the port city of Hannibal, Missouri, where every boy’s most fervent and enduring wish was to be a steamboatman, and each day was brought to life and then left for dead with the arrival and departure of the daily packet from St. Louis. Piloting a riverboat was a dream come true.

August of 1858 also marked an historic event: the very first transatlantic telegram was sent via under-the-sea cable from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan. Twain, ever enthused by new technology, later recalled, “[a] wave of jubilation and astonishment . . . swept the planet.” (MTE, 10) Passengers would have had lots of company if they wanted to discuss the exciting news: the heavily freighted steamboats navigated a crowded river. They were enjoying the final of their glory days.

The outbreak of the Civil War ended Twain’s pilot career, but it was the greatest source of nostalgia throughout his extraordinary life. In his middle and old age he longed for the river, saying if given the chance to live his life over he’d never leave it. In letters he reminisced about the hot rolls served at supper, the fragrant coffee coming through the pilot house door on a steward’s tray, the red-faced, sweating, swearing first mate and the tumbling deck hands, the bells that clanged through one’s slumber.

With the invention of wireless telegraphy, or radio, at the end of the nineteenth century, boats gained a way to communicate with each other and those on shore. But once radio operators had begun traveling on ships—in the early 1900s—the Mississippi was a far different place than it was when Samuel Clemens was a cub pilot. Boats had vanished from the levees, once-bustling passenger decks were empty. Twain himself accepted this mournful truth back in 1882, when he famously returned to research his book Life on the Mississippi. He wrote

Half a dozen sound-asleep steamboats where I used to see a solid mile of wide-awake ones! This was melancholy, this was woful. The absence of the pervading and jocund steamboatman from the billiard room was explained. He was absent because he is no more. His occupation is gone . . . Here was desolation, indeed. (LM, 172)

What was to blame?

Steam Locomotive

As Twain writes [emphasis mine]:

The towboat and the railroad had done their work, and done it well and completely. The mighty bridge, stretching along over our heads, had done its share in the slaughter and spoliation. . . .

. . . Mississippi steamboating was born about 1812; at the end of thirty years, it had grown to mighty proportions; and in less than thirty more, it was dead! A strangely short life for so majestic a creature. (LM, 173)

One particular railroad began a historic service to open up the remote Indian Territory to and through Texas when the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, known as the MKT, or Katy, was christened in 1870. Railroad fever was everywhere—there was a race on to offer transcontinental service, and the evolving feasibility of western migration fired imaginations. In 1873 the Katy acquired the Hannibal & Central Missouri Railroad, which had been leased previously by another company that serviced the track from Hannibal through Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Katy supervised the traffic on these tracks until 1897.

The fairest daughter of the Pharaoh’s son
Dressed in gold ‘neath pyramids

Egypt. A descendant of . . . Moses? Well, Katy did set off into the unknown, lending a hand in leading a young America into what it considered (albeit unfairly) a promised land of sorts.

And she went east out of Hannibal too, leading her passengers through a sluicing sea . . .
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Mark Twain Memorial Bridge

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The bridge in the foreground is the Mark Twain Memorial Bridge, built over the Mississippi in 2000. The harbinger of slaughter and spoliation behind it—half a mile away—is the Wabash Bridge, built for the railroad in Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, in 1871.

And pyramids . . . indeed.

Showbands
(Bear with me here.)

In the 1950s, one hundred years after the majestic steamboats ruled the Mississippi, the stage was being set for a musical phenomenon to sweep the dance halls and ballrooms of Ireland. It’d be an act never replicated in any other country, likely helped along by the media vacuum that existed on the island. It’d be how future stars like Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher would get their start. They’d have names like The Clipper Carlton and The Royal. They were showbands, formed through the combined influences of 1) big bands and orchestras, which were more prevalent in urban areas and performers of popular hits of the day and 2) céilí (pronounced “kay-lee”) bands, which performed native Celtic music.

Their venues were often simple barn-like structures on the outskirts of town, destinations often reached by carpool or bicycle. The Catholic Church’s strong hold over social customs propelled the dance halls and ballrooms to a crucial status in town and village life; they were the most popular place for people to meet. Men stood on one side, women on the other, waiting for an invitation to dance. In his 1972 short story The Ballroom of Romance, William Trevor writes this about a night at the fictitious eponymous hall:

Dust and cigarette smoke formed a haze beneath the crystal bowl, feet thudded, girls shrieked and laughed, some of them dancing together for want of a male partner. The music was loud, the musicians had taken off their jackets. Vigorously they played a number of tunes from State Fair and then, more romantically, ‘Just One of Those Things.’

The showband era is a cherished and nostalgic one for many, but one wouldn’t want to suggest raising a glass to the showbands if she were to bump into, say, Bono in the pub. The rock music documentary Out of Ireland (distributed as From a Whisper to a Scream in the UK) disposes of the showbands in a handful of minutes after the opening credits, but not before a series of rockers and other industry luminaries try to do outdo one another with their insults.

Bono says this

Showband music was just—It was the enemy.

Criticism stems from the bands’ lack of creativity and innovation, for in their prime the showbands mostly covered popular hits of the day—often American ones. Irish musician and activist Bob Geldorf charges the showbands merely with arresting any and all progress in Irish music during their reign, praising his countrymen for the gymnastics required to overcome the disaster:

Socially the showbands were important. Musically, and every other which way, they were a death, which is why contemporary Irish music took so long to develop. And it came out of the Irish tradition, vaulting over the years of desert—the desert years of the showbands. It vaulted over because it’s a strong, true music.

So, the showbands were “an appalling travesty,” Geldorf concludes. (Did he just say desert?) And just to drive home a delicate point—

The showbands were CRAP!

They were at their height in the early-to-mid ’60s, just as Ireland began opening up to the rest of the world. The RTÉ One television station was founded. The Beatles arrived and the music industry took a jolt. People began to buy records. In 1962, The Royal recorded the very first showband single, a cover of an American bluegrass standard penned in the same year. Tom Dunphy sang the vocals.

Know what it was?

Come Down the Mountain Katy Daly
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katydaly_record240width.jpg katydaly_recordsleeve1.jpg

[photos credit: www.irish-showbands.com]

The record sleeve above doesn’t mention The Royal Showband, but you’ll find it on this page dedicated to that band on the enthusiastic and rather fabulous irish-showbands website. I know the spelling is Katie, but you’ll see that Katy was the original spelling, and that’s how it’s listed on the showbands website.

And I was thinking ’bout what Katy done
Thinking ’bout what Katy did
The fairest daughter of the Pharaoh’s son
Dressed in gold ‘neath pyramids

See this discussion for the lyrics (and information about the spellings and origin) of Katy Daly. The words do conjure an image of Moses (ie daughter of the Pharaoh’s son). Come down the mountain, a “judge” sentencing her. Next time you’re in Belfast, you could have a drink here.

I know this whole line of investigation may sound mad but at its heart is this: while we follow Mark Twain in his journey in Monster Ballads, I think we follow someone in this century too. While the train Katy was responsible for weakening Twain’s beloved steamboats, and is therefore a touch point for nostalgia and loss and longing, I wonder if Katy the record may be a symbol for something about the showband era that may have a relevance today.

So what could Katy the record have done? Could she have kicked the showbands off the circuit, like the trains did the steamboats on the river? To be honest I don’t know anything about that particular recording by The Royal Showband. But the advent of records and radio and television in Ireland did not help the showbands thrive:

From the mid-1960s exposure [in Ireland] increased, especially in urban centres, to newer forms of rock and pop music, performed by original artists. This was due to access to British television and radio stations, pirate radio, and new record shops catering to these tastes. Young people increasingly saw showbands as old-fashioned and rustic.

Maybe Katy, as symbol for copycat music, held up the condemning mirror that would end the drought of originality in Irish music. And as Bob Geldorf explains, Irish rock music would heed the call, finding its voice despite the showbands. In a moment I’ll talk more about the notion of voice in this song.

But before we go on I think it’s only fair to add that the film Out of Ireland has wonderful footage of showband performances that captures packed ballrooms of smiling, jostling, shoulder-to-shoulder patrons, ready to dance. Quite simply, it seems showbands knew how to perform, how to entertain. How to provide an opportunity to escape, and connect. Everyone can at least agree they had a significant social influence. Mentions of showbands are often accompanied by just how many people they touched: the huge and regular audiences, the explosion of constantly-touring bands. Their hallmark was passion, perhaps their major contribution to history rebelling against the more dignified disposition of the big bands. I wasn’t there, I’m no music history expert, but from what I’ve seen and read, it all seems quite—honest.

And it all reminds me—the passion and joy and professionalism and suits and squeaky-clean smiles—(just a little) of some wonderful concerts I’ve seen by a singer-songwriter (or rocker, or front man, or whatever he’s going by) that I rather like.

So there’s a little part of me that doesn’t want this (albeit precarious) connection to the showbands to be entirely critical. I wonder about the parallel of then and now with regard to isolation, the need to connect with one another, and the change brought about by the media. In the next section I’ll explain my thoughts on commentary about the digital age in this song. I love that the showbands put on such a grand, interactive show, and going to see them was, for a certain time in a certain place, woven into the fabric of everyday life. I wish I could go just once, whatever Bono says. Actually I wish we all went more often, like they did back then.

And as long as we’re in Ireland and talking about radio and performance, I’ve got one more thought on the identity of Katy. You know her, that girl famously declared the Northern Lights. She was a big hit in Ireland, as far as I understand, on the radio and everything. She’s a showstopper if you go see Josh Ritter live. I don’t know much about his early career, but it seems like the song Kathleen has done some very good things.

Whatever or whoever she is, Katy’s dressed in gold ‘neath pyramids. Note the showband record sleeve above is gold.

And would you humor me all the way here:

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rockandrollhalloffame500width.jpg

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That’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, located in Cleveland, Ohio. They’ve got an exhibit called The Roots of Rock that has a section called Country/Folk/Bluegrass. They’ve also got an exhibit called Hang on Sloopy: The Music of Ohio. Remember Katy Daly is an American bluegrass standard, and know the man who wrote it, Paul “Moon” Mullins, was recently honored for his long-standing radio career in Ohio.

I suspect they’ve got lots of records theregold, platinum, the lot.

And pyramids.

Chorus & bridge.

Out on the desert now and feeling lost
The bonnet wears a wire albatross
Monster ballads and the stations of the cross
Sighing just a little bit, Sighing just a little bit

Ones and zeros bleeding mesa noise
And when you’re empty there’s so much space for them
You turn it off but then a still small voice
Comes in blazing from some vast horizon

I am still inclined to find a meaning for Sam Clemens here. He ended up out on the desert after he left the Mississippi River in 1861. He traveled west in a Concord stagecoach (in which the bonnet wore a wire albatross?) with his incredibly straight-laced brother, Orion, who had employment in the Nevada Territory. Sam didn’t have employment, and he didn’t want it. But he was by no means free of ambition, or pressure:

But of two things [Clemens] was certain. One: he had no intention of following one of the usual professions, such as law. . . . Two: he was not going home until he was rich, even if that took more than three months. Fortunes were to be made. He wanted one. And the eyes of the homefolk were on him. He would not return without the wealth that would prove him estimable in their eyes. (SMK, 93-4)

Silver had been discovered in nearby Virginia City in 1859, and an excited and optimistic Clemens flew headlong into the mining business, investing the modest capital he had and traveling long distances between mining towns:

[For the first three months of 1862] his mind was almost entirely on ledges, ledges in Humbolt, Virginia City, and Aurora: how many feet could be bought at what price with what promise of return. (SMK, 95)

Ones, zeros, dollar signs flooding his thoughts from the mountains, the mesas, the desert. He didn’t strike silver or gold. Instead he got homesick, exhausted, frustrated, blistered and broke. And feeling lost, presumably. While mining he’d somehow found time to write and send in two letters using the curious pen name “Josh” (yep) to a local newspaper, and he finally gave up and in and reported—dusty and disheveled—to the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise in September 1862. Staff writer. Though the banality of daily local news left him uninspired, nineteenth century journalism allowed for the blurring of fiction and non-fiction, seriousness and satire.

Clemens seized that opportunity, and into the lines of the goings-on in a rather wild frontier town, a voice—small, for now—began to settle into a register. In February 1863 he woke up after a late-night party and signed his first article Mark Twain. That year he poked fun at himself (though he had certainly not sworn off investing or hoping for return) by announcing to his increasingly amused readers that he’d founded the “Unreliable, Auriferous, Argentiferous, Metaliferous Mining Company.” (L1, 252)

But he was not free from hardship: it followed him to San Francisco, where he was fired from a journalism job and spent some months “dead broke,” clinging to one desperate dime to avoid destitution. He later spoke vaguely of a suicide attempt. When his buddy Steve Gillis got into a barroom fight, Twain posted $500 bail. The police soon came for Gills, and both men fled town. They ended up in a rustic bachelor-pad cabin in the middle of the Sierra foothills where “hygiene and cuisine were minimal.” (SMK, 129). The men lazily panned for gold by day. Twain did too, but he was no longer convinced of or obsessed with his ability to strike it rich.

Instead he began keeping a regular journal that bore the unmistakable markings of the writer’s notebook. The biographer Fred Kaplan says this happened on Jackass Hill:

For the first time . . . Twain’s observations were tempered by and mediated through a literary self-consciousness, a sense of self that he had not had before. (SMK, 128)

Twain first heard and sketched a very important story for his career in that cabin. My favorite image is that of him laughing to himself as he wrote by firelight—quiet and calm and free of the urge to join the others outside digging for gold—a funny story about a jumping frog that would introduce a border ruffian to readers on the East Coast. Despite what happened to Michael Lewis, someday I’d like to visit Mark Twain on Jackass Hill.

But back to the twenty-first century.

Out on the desert now and feeling lost
The bonnet wears a wire albatross
Monster ballads and the stations of the cross
Sighing just a little bit, Sighing just a little bit

Ones and zeros bleeding mesa noise
And when you’re empty there’s so much space for them
You turn it off but then a still small voice
Comes in blazing from some vast horizon

Someone is lost, sighing, empty—echoing the empty boats in the first verse. Turn off the noise and in blazes a still small voice.

Bonnet, if you take the UK meaning—automobile hood—places one in the car. Perhaps the wire albatross—which can be defined as something burdensome— related to the radio. My last interpretation of Monster ballads and the stations of the cross relied heavily on a biblical meaning; lately it feels a little like a red herring. Perhaps it’s all he can find on the radio of his car—there are organ pieces called Stations of the Cross. (In September I’m afraid I even bought this CD. Perhaps I’ll do a giveaway.) Ballad is a loaded word in the history of music and radio. I like the idea of stations of the cross referring to the notion that station is a word meaningful for both radio and train.

And I do hear a meaning for Twain: his days out west were wild (monster ballads), his courtship of a devout heiress (and future wife) marked by fervent spiritual awakening (stations of the cross). He’d be lost and found all over that map in his life.

Mesa is where I think I went slightly wrong last time. I read it as being the manufacturer of guitar amps of the same name. I know, it doesn’t sound likely, but I read that mysterious refrain Monster ballads and the stations of the cross as being two extremes, as an either-or choice. The mesa noise paired with the Monster ballads songs—it seemed acceptable to link hard rock with noise—and the still small voice with stations of the cross.

But then, as I’ve said, a clever reader left a comment saying this

In the context of 1 Kings 19:11-12, I picture computers and televisions and cellphones and all other digital noise (ones and zeros) as the great, flashy, sometimes destructive forces that seem so important (the wind, the earthquake, the fire), and the ringing silence when all that is shut out as the still small voice, the truly essential and beautiful element of faith, music, life.

And suddenly I saw this

00000000000000000000000111111111111111110000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000000111111111111111110000000000000000000000000
00000000000000000000011111111111111111111100000000000000000000000
00000000000000000001111111111111111111111111000000000000000000000
00000000000000000111111111111111111111111111110000000000000000000
00000000000000011111111111111111111111111111111100000000000000000
00000000000001111111111111111111111111111111111111000000000000000
00000000000111111111111111111111111111111111111111110000000000000
00000000011111111111111111111111111111111111111111111100000000000
00000001111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111000000000
00000111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111110000000

And I thought, Huh. A mesa. And then I thought . . . Duh.

Given this piece I’m going to go with mesa noise referring to the radio, and by extension, music. Here’s a simple explanation of how digital radio works. And, while God is indeed (and often) somewhere, I’m going to favor the still small voice as referring first to that of the creative spirit of the conflicted or searching or embattled—show me one who isn’t—artist.

So.

So.

That’s my best guess at what it all means, but of course that still leaves what it all means.

Today, for me, in light of the above . . . I think the words and images and dual narratives go to the heart of the artistic journey: to the sacrifices, the challenges, the doubt, the resilience required (and the magic that can happen) when the river gets pulled out from underneath you, or it feels like nobody’s noticing. It’s likely this song turns a critical eye on the music that’s getting played on the radio. Those empty boats in the first verse could be songs.

The refrain of being out on the desert now and feeling lost makes me think of this quote in which Josh Ritter talks about the selection of the album name The Animal Years:

I was thinking back on the period of my life leading up to this record and my experience up to that point was, you get up, you start to play music and you tour. It’s such a strange life style. In a lot of ways I felt like I became this thing, half-man, half-animal, out in the middle of the country, playing. It was so bizarre. Everyone else is living their lives and doing things that are a bit more normal. Man, after a year and a half on the road, 16 months of touring for Hello Starling, I became the proto-hunter-gatherer, going out wherever and doing stuff and trying to find a way to make sense in a human way. But, really, in the end, you’re just trying to get food in your mouth. I think back on that time and feel definitely, those were my animal years.

And here’s what he had to say when he stopped off at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while on tour for his newest album in October 2007:

The real rock halls of fame are the venues that hundreds of bands pass through each year. These places, from community halls to old vaudeville theaters to tetanus traps in big and small towns across the world are where the real histories are made. These are the places where the house sound guy is cranky, the bartenders come in early and manage to work through hundreds of soundchecks, where guest lists and attendance numbers are haggled over, where posters are hung and taken down and hung again and where people – strangers – come and hang out with each other to listen to music played in the moment by other people. I think these kinds of halls are great enough.

from Nebraska Rock and Roll by Josh Ritter (posted 10/17/2007)
[Check out the picture he posted from the museum.]

I hear a shadow of these sentiments in Monster Ballads. I think about those Irish showbands and the joy of live music and the irony of isolation in this new digital age.

Lastly, for me, this song is certainly about the triumph and perseverance of passion. For that we need the last verse.

Third verse.

And I was thinking ’bout my river days
Thinking ’bout me and Jim
Passing Cairo on a getaway
With every steamboat like a hymn

I forgot to tell you one thing about the steamboats and the showbands, something about that organ we hear in verse 1 and 2 of Monster Ballads. Some steamboats (often called, er, showboats) had a calliope, or steam organ, with which to entertain passengers. You can hear a calliope here. And the showbands, they replaced the pianos reminiscent of the big bands with . . . an organ.

The stripped-down instrumentation of this quiet and exceptionally beautiful last verse gives us pause. We lean in and listen. It is poignant that there is no organ; I think that’s a clue. I wonder about a subtle connection to this song, released in 1963 by The Kingston Trio.

And as for Huck Finn, the narrator of this final verse . . . or is he? Could it be Twain himself? Do you know what Mark Twain did when he got back from that historic and revelatory reunion with his beloved Mississippi? From looking in vain for the steamboats crammed like sardines at the wharf, from saying this about his old friends:

[I can] call their names & see their faces, now: but two decades have done their work upon them, & half are dead, the rest scattered, & the boat’s bones rotting five fathoms deep in Madrid’s Bend. (SMK, 382)

Well, upon Twain’s return home he slogged through the grueling composition of Life on the Mississippi. He hated writing it. After he finished he turned to a manuscript he’d begun all the way back in 1876. And suddenly he was granted a “literary cakewalk,” flying high through the ecstatic completion of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (SMK, 393)

He successfully—brilliantly—enlivened the river of his boyhood, no matter what had happened to it since. His work—his voice—enabled him to get back and share what he loved so well.

I think that’s one way of trading this

Sighing just a little bit

for this

Smiling just a little bit

As for Huck Finn—just for one last leap—here he is talking about me and Jim:

It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened—Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them stream down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest. (AHF, 179)

Just the other day I remembered a similar partnership:

Me and Jiggs staring at the ceiling the stars above the radar range

A railroad and a record, steamboats and showbands, Cairo and the county line. Katy, Twain, Huck, and Jim. Kathleen, Jiggs, and Josh. Maybe some Irish music history. As my sister says, That’s all I got. I leave it up to you.

But back to Twain’s deserted river one last time:

[I]f Twain hoped to hear his name sung on the river, he was disappointed. [He wrote,] “They do not call in the singing tone at the heaving of the lead as they used to, nor do they sing when leaving port.” (SMK, 386)

This fall Josh Ritter took his show and his extraordinary band on the road. Monster Ballads got slightly rearranged, but it still did every bit what I like to think Josh wrote it to.

We came in off our deserts—streamed in from our tiny cities made of ashes—and took out our ear buds and powered down our phones and held high our cameras and chose for one night a different noise in the theatres and clubs and halls and rooms. A cultural center, a playhouse, a ballroom, showbox, academy, and cafe. From cradle to empire.

Josh thanked us repeatedly for coming, of course.

And we did for him what they didn’t for Twain. We sang our hearts out.

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joshrritterroyal.jpg

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[Postscript]

One does not leap to these sorts of wild conclusions overnight.

If you’re dubious about Twain connections in the album The Animal Years, you may find my post Girl meets Mark Twain interesting.

To see what I had to say after I braved the 400+ pages of Twain’s Mississippi River fantasia . . . and missed (so close!) these Monster Ballads connections altogether, see Reading the Mississippi. There’s a Dr. Seuss mash-up!

Last June I got nostalgic thinking about the final verse of Monster Ballads while I was moving across town—that’s River days.

And to see my previous post on Monster Ballads, which I’m going to leave up, see Complicated unities. It tracks a telling journey and unwittingly illustrates some of the magic of the song.

 

11 thoughts on “Desert radio: Monster Ballads revisited

  1. This is inspired! Incredible research and a highly convincing interpretation. (The wire albatross as a car radio aerial now seems so obvious that I can hardly believe that I’ve listened to the song for years without working it out).

    All I can add is to point out that the US Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration had MESA as an acronym (a google discovery), which may or may not be a complete red-herring. Katy as a steam train becomes even more convincing alongside the song’s percussion, its train-like shushing rhythm.

    Also, I always here ‘dressed in gold-leaf pyramids’ rather than ‘gold ‘neath pyramids’. Your pictures pretty clearly shows examples of gold ‘neath pyramids, but gold-leaf seems so much more evocative and exotic to me. It’ll be interesting to compare this to the Egyptian background of his new song, ‘The Curse’.

    Another mishearing, a definite one this time: I always used to hear ‘river(boat) days’ as ‘rhythm and bass’… appropriate enough words given the song’s context though…

    Anyway, this is the first of your blog entries I’ve read and I very much look forward to reading the others. There is certainly no lyricist out there right now anywhere near as rich as Josh Ritter.

  2. Hi Alex!

    I really appreciate the kind words and your thoughts. “Mesa” is mysterious and pivotal, no doubt. Your Google discovery would seem to fit. (And I wouldn’t put it past Josh; I know better.) As for red herrings, I chased them through every line. (And some would reasonably say I wrote about some above.) Stream trains have bonnets, and one low point, as I recall, was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the library pouring through pages and pages of train sketches and illustrations, trying to spot the wire albatross.

    And then for awhile I thought the “pyramid” was the Ames Monument, a pyramid-shaped structure put up to commemorate the completion of the transcontinental railroad. But I had an epiphany on the elliptical trainer at the gym. “It’s a BRIDGE,” I suddenly said aloud to Christina Aguilera blasting on my iPod. And then one undeniable high point was racing home to jump on my computer and Google until the Mark Twain Memorial Bridge shimmered, in all its triangular glory, into view. (And I shrieked. I did.)

    I heard “gold leaf” as well at one point, but I believe my capture is what’s shown on Josh’s website. I do love the evocative Egyptian imagery, and I haven’t even heard “The Curse” yet. (But I did just buy concert tickets, hurrah.)

    I hope you enjoy the rest of the blog. I don’t know where the time’s gone, but I still have a messy notebook bursting with ideas and I’d love to put some more stuff up here.

    Josh Ritter is indeed a treasure. And there’s more richness on the way, it appears — sometime next year?!?

    ps — The word “mesa” actually prompted me to rewrite my initial post on “Monster Ballads.” The older post is “Complicated Unities,” and though I’ve disowned parts of it, I left it up.

  3. Four years old but never too late, right? The Albatross in western society is a specific reference to The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. In it the mariner shoots an albatross and the crew hangs it around his neck. Then the wind dies, and the crew dies of thirst, leaving him alone in an empty boat. Eventually he begs forgiveness to the albatross and the crew rises as undead and sails him home.

    Makes a little sense of some of those lyrics eh?

    • Never too late, no! Really appreciate the comment. Are you quite sure you’re an ordinary chap?

      I read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” twice last weekend; thank you for the inspiration. I knew of the reference and had read the summary, but not the text. Here are some scattered thoughts…

      The glittering-eyed Mariner is on a particular errand, and perhaps a similar one to the speaker in “Monster Ballads.” He is ever driven to disrupt, enlighten, warn. To proselytize and perform. This is beautiful:

      “Since then, at an uncertain hour,
      That agony returns:
      And till my ghastly tale is told,
      This heart within me burns.

      I pass, like night, from land to land;
      I have strange power of speech;
      That moment that his face I see,
      I know the man that must hear me:
      To him my tale I teach.”

      The Mariner declares the telling “left me free,” which makes me think of that final, seemingly incongruous line in the song: “Smiling just little bit”—which is a change to the refrain “Sighing just a little bit.” And I think of Josh’s frequent nod to his calling—even his curse?—as a performer, some favorite (and sneaky) examples of which appear, I believe, in the song “Snow is Gone.”

      I love the line, addressing the Mariner’s captive audience, “He cannot chose bur hear.” I think of me haunted by the song “Monster Ballads” for a number of months.

      And what about Coleridge’s phrase, “The horned Moon, with one bright star…” I wonder if Josh conjured that for the gorgeous image “A bullfighter on the horns of a new moon’s light” in the song “Thin Blue Flame.”

      The image of the sun “flecked with the bars” of the *ribs* of the ship piloted by DEATH and DEATH-IN-LIFE draws a parallel to “To The Dogs:”

      “Deep in the belly of a whale I found her
      Down with the deep blue jail around her
      Running her hands through the ribs of the dark…”

      Well! This is fun.

      Thanks for the little reading project. It was neat to learn the source of the oft-repeated lines “Water water every where / Nor any drop to drink” and “All things great and small.”

      One question lingers for me: Why’d the Mariner shoot the Albatross in the first place? What was he thinking in that moment? I’d like to know.

      Thanks for reading and pointing this out. Very glad you were here!

  4. So I came to your site trying to see if the lyric is really “Mesa noise–” I’ve always heard it “bleet and make some noise.” But I got totally sucked into your analysis. Thanks for all of the time you put into this. You’ve made me appreciate my favorite of his songs that much more.

    • Hi Zach. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I can’t think of higher praise than deepening another’s appreciation of Josh’s music. It was exactly that which inspired me to pick up some books and do some daydreaming and get up the gumption to put these words down in the first place. Monster Ballads is my favorite, too. (Honorary Mention 2016: Where The Night Goes!)

      If you get back here, tell me whether you’ve seen Josh perform live?

      • Have seen him three times. Once just him and his guitarist, once him and the band and the Boulder Orchestra, and most recently Josh and the RCB at Red Rocks.

        Are you a Gabor the Australian band Augie March? If you like Josh’s lyrics you will love these guys. The most impressive lyrics I’ve ever heard in pop. Start with “The Good Gardener,” “Brundisium” and, for the song most similar to Josh, “One Crowded Hour.”

        • I have never heard of Augie March, no! But I love the reference. (Are you in Australia?) I’ll dig into those songs you mentioned and let you know my thoughts. And I’ll ponder some way to return the favor. :)

          ps – Red Rocks. Awesome. I saw him with the Boston Symphony years ago. Nothing beats an outdoor venue, in my opinion. One thing I suspect is that Josh spends a lot of time looking at the sky. But then maybe that’s because I do, and that pastime has felt very kindred to enjoying his music.

        • I love this song and appreciate your research.
          Here’s a few thoughts. Do with them what you will:
          *The whole song is sung simultaneously by Josh Ritter and an aging Huckleberry Finn.
          *The song is a lament to the declining culture of music.
          *It uses Huck’s past (River days with Jim in Cairo, IL) and his present reality “out on the desert” (Huck “lights out” for the western frontier at the end of the novel) as a metaphor for the decline of music’s early more authentic times (“whatever feeling they had when they sailed”) to today’s “1’s and 0’s bleeding mesa noise.”
          *”The bonnet wears a wire albatross” probably refers to the front of a car receiving radio waves via antenna, or even the company logo thingamabob (like the Mercedes peace-sign looking thing). These radio waves are bringing Monster Ballads.
          *That Monster Ballads (or hair band power ballads) are referenced in connection with the Stations of the Cross probably means we should read these as the profane and the sacred.
          *Basically, Huck’s river days represent the sacred, more authentic and culturally relevant music of the past (“every steamboat like a hymn”).
          *His present is a desert–artistically barren, profane, whatever.
          *2nd verse: Not sure. But I bet if I were to read Exodus there would be some story of decline or desacralization associated with the Pharaoh’s daughter.

Your thoughts most welcome.

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