It’s tempting to name this my favorite Van Morrison album, because I love it’s great songs SO much; and familiarity be damned: Moondance is an amazing song. As is And It Stoned Me. As are Crazy Love and Caravan. As is Into the Mystic. And Brand New Day.
For many years, Astral Weeks just wasn’t on my radar. I didn’t even see it there. We were like a rabbit and a squirrel in the back yard. We were just each looking elsewhere.
Then, I knew Astral Weeks existed. But I wasn’t really moved either way. I was there. It was there. Nothing more, nothing less.
Then I forgot about Astral Weeks for a while.
Then I remembered it, and I tried it, and I kind of got into it. But then it didn’t take.
Then I tried again, and I got mad at it. I decided I especially disliked Richard Davis’ much-vaunted bass lines. The album made me mad.
Then, I got it. I got it, and I got into it. All the way into it. I forgave Richard Davis.
Then I crawled back out, and tried to make sense of my feelings.
I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not AS great as many make it out to be, but that its great moments, ARE great. The Way Young Lovers Do. Madame George. Slim Slow Slider. Sweet Thing. And so forth. These are pretty remarkable artistic achievements.
Ultimately, it’s a must listen. It’s definitely an album you have to have fully engaged with somehow, in some way, at some time. You’ll have missed something critical otherwise.
“Down The Drain” is the first official video single off my new album “The National Blues” on Coast Road Records. And like virtually everything I write, its roots go deep, and it draws on a great many influences for its shape and sound.
The origins of the song are actually a little out of step with much of what I write, the bulk of which is largely inspired by the early country blues/delta blues canon. Probably the most important influence is actually a comparatively contemporary musical act, a band called Sixteen Horsepower. For my money, they’re likely the greatest band you’ve never heard of. They came out of Denver about the same time as my first album came out (1995), part of a small, localized, but very wonderful sort of Gothic Americana movement that included acts like The Denver Gentlemen, Slim Cessna, Tarantella, Munly, and more. (Full disclosure, I later spent about two years in Denver, and shared bills at one time or another with most of these acts).
David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower was fond of using open minor tunings in what sounded to me like an Open Gm form, and while I’d already spent half my life in open tunings, and while I was also deeply fond of minor keys, I’d never really put the two together in an Open Gm form until I heard 16 Horsepower. But listen to South Pennsylvania Waltz, or Coal Black Horses, or I Seen What I Saw, or Prison Shoe Romp, and you’ll surely see the similarities! (The following playlist has a whole host of 16 Horsepower gems):
Another big influence on the sound of “Down The Drain” was actually a song I learned to love from hearing my Dad play it on the record player when I was a kid. It was a great guitar instrumental from an era full of great guitar instrumentals, and I used to just love it. I’m not even sure I was drawing on its influence as “Down The Drain” started to come together, but once I realized what I’d done, it was pretty obvious what I’d done! Give it a listen, and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean:
Duane Eddy did a killer version of this as well, which you can check out here, and which I also really love.
The semi-wordless chorus (depending on whether you think “sha” and “la” are words!) of “Down The Drain” is probably the other key component of this song that has clear sonic antecedents. I’ve always loved songs that use vocal “sound” as evocation … think of the “humming” part of Skip James’ magisterial “Hardtime Killing Floor Blues” as but one example (Skip’s melodies on this song are definitely an influence on “Down The Drain” as well!), or Adelaide Hall on Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” both of which are great examples of this kind of thing. Probably more specific to “Down The Drain” of course is something like Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl”—the sha-la-la’s tell the whole emotional story! Given the sound of my voice though, the comparison that probably leaps to mind sooner than Van Morrison is Tom Waits, from “Jersey Girl.” And yeah, I’ll confess that was in my mind when I first started toying with doing the chorus this way. But honestly, it’s not one of my favorite Waits songs, and truthfully, while “Down The Drain” may SOUND like “Jersey Girl” the effect I was actually after was more akin to Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” which somehow manages to make la-la-la sound somehow so … rueful.
So, where does that get us to so far? 16 Horsepower, Bill Justis, Skip James, and some combination of Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Iggy Pop. That’s the music!
Now, as to lyrics, that’s a little harder. I don’t entirely know WHERE they came from! I will certainly admit that the drink has played a lot of roles in my songs over the years, and Shane MacGowan has certainly been my patron saint in that regard, so the reference to “your Chardonnay sky will go black & tan” can probably be attributed in no small part to the influence of The Pogues. And I’m not sure one can write a song with rain as a central metaphor and not be thinking of Ann Peebles singing “Can’t Stand The Rain”:
There is actually a LOT of country blues in Peebles’ song, most notably in this verse:
Alone with the pillow Where his head used to lay, yeah I know you’ve got some sweet memories But like a window you ain’t got nothin’ to say
Which definitely calls to mind these lyrics from Son House’s immortal Death Letter Blues:
Got up this mornin’, just about the break of day A-huggin’ the pillow where she used to lay
I actually first discovered Ann Peebles’ song being sung by a band at Your Place Too in Oakland, back in the late eighties. (Check out my friend Pete Devine’s bio on the Howell Devine website for a nice little reference to Your Place Too). I don’t remember the band, but I’ve always remembered the song!
So, now we’re up to: 16 Horsepower, Bill Justis, Skip James, some combination of Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Iggy Pop, Shane MacGowan, and Ann Peebles.
And I think that’s where I’ll stop. Eight! And I tell you what, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to write songs, if for no other reason than you get to listen to so much music! Thanks for helpin’ me continue to get to do it! To borrow (and mutate!) a great quote from the world of creative writing, to be a good songwriter, you must be a good songlistener!
Buy “Preacher Boy – The National Blues” direct! Just click the image below: