The Golden Horse Is In Hell
David Ackles' Theater of Melancholy
by Michael Baker
(May 2006)To be born is to be wrecked on an island.
J.M.Barrie, in a review of Coral Island
A fellow told me
This here road leads to Cairo
I got to get me a ride
I got to go back, go back to my children
I got to see my little bride
("The Road to Cairo," D. Ackles)
David Ackles, a heartbreakingly great singer and songwriter of unjust anonymity, was born on February 20th, 1937 in Rock Island, Illinois and died from cancer in Pasadena on March 2nd, 1999. Rarely do dates and locales so matter. West of Chicago, more connected to the across-the-Mississippi-River Middle West Quad Cities, Rock Island has been a center for Native American greatness (the Sauks) and middle class Swedish respectability, home to an army fort, and a trading and travel hub between the East and West; metaphorically underpinning its self-enriched claim as a place on the move, the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad careens through and picturesque trolley cars go almost nowhere, adding a veneer of sophistication as the community rightly sees itself as a northern Gateway on U.S.'s East/West axis and an important stop on the North/South flow of the mighty Mississippi. It lacks only an arch. It has, however, also lacked growth: its populations zoom when war is aplenty as workers flock to the munitions factories; but the town gets staid and comfortable during international pacification. It is home of notorious gangster/newspaper editor (ah, only in America) John Patrick Looney, Noah-like floods, intense and deadly labor strife, and to several musicians who like Ackles got out young and still in one piece: the Time's Jesse Johnson, Husker Du's Greg Norton, and jazz reedman Franz Jackson.
Part of Ackles' ability to look at middle America with a detached, analytical, critical, but admiringly respectful, tone is that he can adopt the insider/outsider status so well: on one hand partly because Rock Island is everything and no thing (East, West, South, and North, very near U.S. continental state's demographic center) and partly for more obvious reasons: as with Lana Turner, Ackles was taken to Hollywood in search of celluloid prosperity. He knew at an early age the trappings of fame, the surreal nonsense offered up on screens, a sort of utilitarian Illinois logic coupled with the aerial architecture symbolism of Los Angeles. As with his music, he failed to find commercial success, but unlike his superlative four albums, his child acting gigs (six movies in the extended Rusty the Dog series) are downright miserable. They make Lassie look like it was written by Chekhov and performed by Geilgud. He played Tuck Worden, youthful and innocent foil for his slyer sibling, Nip, played by Dwayne Hickman, future Dobie Gillis. The first movie was directed by schlockmeister William Castle, auteur to such great later fare as Mr. Sardonicus, Macabre, and, best of all, The Tingler, starring Darryl Hickman. At an early age Ackles knew what applying masks could do: you could bury yourself into yourself. Rather than the flesh and blood encounters of his youth his life in Hollywood immersed him into a world of metaphorical story-telling. This estrangement from home and the attendant land, a volatile existential drama played out by warring ambitions (ambition, assimilation) becomes a thematic cornerstone for Ackles' search for freedom, lyrically, musically, and metaphysically.
The rock notables whose year-of-birth surround Ackle's fall into three distinguished camps: the superior soulsters, Garnett Mimms, Howard Tate, Solomon Burke, Levi Stubbs, Harold Melvin, Gene Chandler, Shirley Bassey, and Billy Stewart; the oddball, hard-to-define genre shape shifters, Dale Hawkins, Ted Hawkins, Johnny Taylor, Irmin Schmidt, Dion, Little Willie John, Dick Dale, Hasil Adkins, Eddie Cochran, P.J. Proby, Nico, Etta James, Magic Sam, Bobby Darin, and Chuck Jackson; and most pertinent to Ackles' ornery, restless side, artists who compromised almost nothing, strove for commercial success while disdaining commercialism, and gloried in their adult-driven in-betweeness, the countrified blues artists and rocking troubadours: Buddy Holly, Charlie Pride, Glen Campbell, Kris Kristofferson, Wanda Jackson, Garth Hudson, Joe Dassin, Jack Nitzsche, Tom T. Hall, Merle Haggard, Gordon Lightfoot, Don Covay, Tom Paxton, Tom Zé, Waylon Jennings, the Everlys, and Roy Orbison, ghostly outlaws living on the edge of doom and failure and loss.
Although Ackles's fiercely maverick work fits comfortably with the latter group, a group that straddle genres, created narratives, felt uncomfortable with labels, had unmistakable signature voices that were often more declamatory than melodious, Ackles himself seems to be even a little out of place there. As a pre-boomer of course, Ackles and all the artists could carve out careers that resisted categories; however, ironically, their greatness relies upon squashing previous and dominant styles and re-integrating them into identifiable, exemplary uniqueness. One must kill his father before he gives birth to his freed self. So for Ackles, instead of the muddied Delta, or the windswept plains of west Texas, or small town hypocrisies, he searched for credible witnesses to an era a little behind him, a mishmash of theatrical bombast, shifting personae, vaudevillian hucksterism, and literate oral telling. Ackles becomes the essential link between the unconventional engendering generation before him (Hazelwood 1929, Brassens '21, Burt Bacharach '28, Cash '32, Brel '29, Serge '28, Robbins '25, Buck '27) and the '60's-driven protest singers outside of mainstream: the drug and alcohol fueled pensive poets: Buckley '47, Scott Walker '43, Callier '45, Cooder '43, van Zandt '44, Randy Newman '43, Rush '41, Hardin '41, Van Dyke Parks '41, John Martyn '48, and Van Morrison '45.
The difference of a few years here and a few there is not to be casually dismissed. The world changed between 1940-45, for both the better and worse, so Ackles' group, as opposed to Buckley's, knew firsthand the economic salvation of a country emptied of its corporate soul by the Depression. They, inchoately perhaps, but also empirically, recognized and felt better times as more jam was offered for breakfast, and a nicer car drove them for Sunday church going, The would have been relatively irony free concerning the uses of government policy. The country was smaller, more neighborly. If civility and kindness and interventionism weren't clear enough Ackles' generation saw how guns, sacrifice, and humility could thwart the evils of Hitler and his millions of henchmen and similar-thinking allied pussies. Ackles saw people get rescued; he saw bombing work; he saw heroism daily. All at a safe distance, of course, as opposed to Brel, Hazelwood, and the others, who either slept in fear or saw neighbor children nearly their age come home in cedar boxes.
Another thing that the class of '38 experienced firsthand as both witnesses and participants was the ascendancy of pop cult. By the time of Presley, Uncle Miltie, cheap university education, James Dean, and dissemination of more discrete streams of information, these singers were nearly fully-formed mature teenagers. A few would have felt the sting of the Red Scare and of Little Rock; others may have been attuned to social sciences and startled by the political climate of benign torpor and the very real symbol of the Berlin Wall, but for most, as older teens they could embrace, not reject, their world. Love was everywhere, or so it seemed, especially for the middle class white male. A place that love and Love thrived was at Elektra Record Company, a small independent label founded in the 1950's by NYC visionary Jac Holzman; a label for all seasons (its twin was Nonesuch, a slashed priced classical venture equally successful and chance taking), but known initially as an odd gathering place for jug bands, comedians, starving lefties and melancholic folkies. Elektra is now revered by many for many other reasons. The powerhouse Midwest monsters MC5 and Stooges were there; idiosyncratic eccentrics of heartbreaking talent like Swamp Dogg, Nico, and Fred Neil recorded monumental albums; weirdos like Maria Muldaur's first jug bands, David Peel's primitive stomps, the shaggy haired, bluegrass-soaked polemics of the Holy Modal Rounders, and a collection of Sound Effects kept the catalogue diverse, unconventional, and solvent. Tom Rush, Tom Paxton, Leadbelly, and Judy Collins kept the folk purists coming back; and fine blips on the late '60's psych/folk scene came and went: Pat Kilroy, Steve Noonan, Ars Nova, Mike Heron, Clear Light, and Gulliver. Joni Mitchell and Phil Ochs as well did some of their best work (pre and post merger with Geffen's Asylum and the Warner Bros sale in 1970). As significant were the genre deflating rock acts: Rhinoceros and their heavy metal/psych segments; the English rock folk of the Incredible String Band; the power pop commune of Bob Segarini's Roxy/Wackers collectives; Renaissance, the fine shambolic period piece; the jazz flecked, bass-less Doors with their Oedipal fixations, spoken word ramblings, and tiny penises flying freely in their freak kingdom; the great blues band Paul Butterfield; and the underrated, musically and historically, Dillards. Oh, I almost forgot: the resident genius, Arthur Lee, and his band for all ages, Love.
Into this group of underrated, experimental, combinatory artists are two Elektra artists that shared Ackles' concerns for an organic unity between words and songs, instruments subservient to voice, storytelling, and adherence to traditional forms so that the breaking of those conformities would become the fissures that revealed epiphanies of disdain, pain, and regret. Tim Buckley's first four albums came in rapid succession, '66, '67,'69, and again '69; David Blue, less jazzy than Buckley but a better narrator, had his work released '66, '68,'70, 'and '72 (the other similar, but non-Elektra, artists that were near exact in their dates and musical intentions of their first albums as Ackles' releases were Nick Drake's three from 1969-72, Leonard Cohen's his first four, 1968-73, and the four Scott LP's by Scott Walker, 1967-69). Both Buckley and Blue had less restrained histrionics than Ackles, but both, through their lugubrious corridors of cinematic songs, modulated their melodramas much like him, especially in the objective/subjective alternation of narrative stances and tones.
All three singer/songwriters sent messages of powerful feeling, fleeting love, and meta- fictional confessions regarding their status as performers. They paid homage to their troubadour forefathers (Guthrie, Ochs, Brel, Dylan,) and combined tough lyrical openness that contrasted with social closedness. Their desires for love were replaced by desires for creation. The stable/unstable axis of self definition kept their songs veering between self and community; by weaving closed forms of song structures with open story telling that featured ambivalence, informal argumentation, refutation of spurious intruders. Guthrie taught them that the land could become a character. Ochs made it plain that sorrow and wistful whimsy could stand alongside contempt for misused power. Brel taught that sophisticated love was not merely conquest. And Dylan discovered that Chianti, fellatio, and Gentile soullessness in the West Village would unleash his pinioned agrarianism and Jewish guilt. And thus he, and they, delivered us from Brill Building banality.
But Ackles sidestepped the sweeping storm of barroom politics and urgent speechifying that afflicted many of his brothers in song. Less actively in the world than Blue and less musically improvisational than Buckley, Ackles resorted to older models for inspiration. He received a degree in Music Arts from USC, studied Liturgical poetry in Wales, worked many odd jobs in his twenties, and persistently re-defined (not withdraw from, as with many of his peers) his stance towards God, that androgyne with the flowing hair and a Dirtbombs t-shirt. From Brecht, he gained insight into the dislocating alienation brought on by fierce art that forswore idyllic excursions into countryside; there is a distilled clarity in Brecht's Marxist dialectics as well as adventurous song writing meters coupled with small town lamentations. From Brecht's genius partner, Kurt Weill, Ackles gleaned a serious critique of form and openness towards the audience. His plays with music subvert traditional middle class sensibilities, a theme that Ackles returned to time and time again. Weill is also suave, urbane, and if Ackles seems at times to be from the very middle class that spawned him, both writers acridly comment on society, extol the dispossessed, and mordantly attack the trivial assumptions that we attach to ourselves.
Also from Weill's cabaret-like work, Ackles potently exposes the greatnesses and weaknesses of intimacies. His dramas are compact, and although stylistically hybrid, they restore the importance of the search for truth. The ballads are often strophic and sweeping; the love songs more modified patches of lost hope. In his love songs, to women, God, and transitory landscapes, Ackles achieves an almost troubadour like agitated calmness. If courtly love was an idealized project between singer and a lord's lady then the relationship bespeaks of social stability. Love engenders hope, intricate balance between subtle, domesticated legend and feverish intentions. Almost sacred like, these troubadour madrigals court convention and Ackles exposes in his modernist updating of the tradition an emptiness that follows the impossibility of idealized anything: no sex with your lord's lady. As with jongleurs, trouvéres, minstrels, and troubadours, Ackles is an outsider, itinerant, respectful of lost legends and saints that used to people these scared and hard lands. Proficient as wordsmiths, freely adopting tunes from national consciousnesses, and observers of the highest order, Middle Age singers dismissed embellishment, mishmashed verbalizations, and virtuosity in favor of colloquial, direct diction, melodic clarity, and goal-oriented variations upon two or three distinct themes: humility, despair, and religious hope.
More contemporary to us than troubadours is Ackles' eerie resemblances to the national auteurs that dominated Quebec and Paris small theatre settings, a movement characterized by solo performing chansonniers. These critics of culture paradoxically allowed the listeners to be both the butt of the singers' barbed observations and to feel superior in the recognition that they understood the cherished jaggedness of the skewering. These poet/singers wee often amateurish in their song structuring, a criticism not exactly applicable of Ackles, but whose greatest strengths were not melody and integrated compositional elements. Unlike Ackles who hated performing live but thrived in the hushed halls of dark studios, chansonniers used the stage to openly (and often histrionically) expose their inner weaknesses. Here, surely, Ackles belongs: the songs are peopled with realities of everyday grotesqueries; their style is terse, direct, tragic, more maudlin and weeping, but lyrically ornate. Their songs express an overwhelming fear for their own ability to communicate. Their satire was ultimately directed at their own vocations. Likewise, David Ackles was his own severest critic.
Is the landlord still a loser, do his signs hang in the hall
Are the young girls still as pretty in the city in the fall
Does the laughter on their faces still put the sun to shame
And by the way, did she mention my name
("Did She Mention My Name?" G Lightfoot)
First the facts: David Ackles was released in 1968 on Elektra then immediately re-pressed with the same catalogue number (EKS 74002) with a different title (and missing its best track) as Road to Cairo; this startling, self-assured debut of all original songs, was produced by Ackles' friend, David Anderle (Hazelwood, Kristofferson) and Russ Miller (Lonnie Mack). Everyone was pretty new to this concept called pop music recording so some of the expansive tones, tight drum sounds, and balmy vocals must be attributed to the engineering talents of Bruce Botnick, a producer and studio maven of uncommon talents, before this work and after. The talented band, many of whom became Elektra's entrant into faddish psych rock, Rhinoceros, was astute and adroit: second guitarist Danny Weiss (Skyline); organist Michael Fonfara (Rhinoceros, session work); bassist Jerry Penrod (Rhinoceros, Iron Butterfly); and two great players from San Francisco's underrated and slightly trippy Daily Flash, the later Rhinocerosians guitarist Doug Hastings (also for a moment a member of Buffalo Springfield) and drummer John Keliehor.
The debut offers up the positive consequences of a type of intuitive convergence of two consciousnesses, the singer's and the listeners'. The most rocking album by far in his canon, Road to Cairo is also the most explicit; the corridors of meaning flow to their reasonable ending spots. Psychological and ethical values are not transferred or transmuted. Lost, perhaps, always evanescent, but sturdy enough never to fully collapse into something unrecognizable, the creativity here is compositionally structural: the songs demand a type of cathartic release and we expect them and Ackles delivers. This is not surprising: Ackles was thirty and with his background in musical theater, he was always aware of muted origins, the need to build dramas with formal bridges, and the money shot of climatic resolutions. He is narrating his mind so to speak and these narratives are an attempt to convey simply and seriously the most important experiences in a single man's life. Premonitions of the future, violent breaks from normalcy, a search for god, finding a home, betrayal of trust, ands the near approach of death are dealt with here soberly, matter of factly. Ackles's presentations are seem to imply a need to gather quotidian data (where is the rock he used to climb? what has happened to our love? why are my friends strangers?), and followed by his mature acceptance of alienation.
This is his most cinematic work: not Brechtian or jarring, but flowing, visual, with steadied camera. His voice is less stentorian, more coaxing and tenuous. The timing and diction are impeccable. This work previews the major conceit of Ackles' real contribution to American songcraft: the openness of the form versus the closedness of images. His songs naturalize the raucous nightmares of his world by creating a musical background of sonorous vistas of tranquility. As poignant as his singing is, it remains euphonic, declamatory, as it translates his displaced desires for love and instability. He weaves formal arguments of radical human despair with familiar, even conservative, melodies and song structures. If his point of view violates normal decency (American males aren't exactly asked to slit their wrists in public) then the cocktail lounge piano, expert though it be, soothes, replacing the strident psychic rupture with an authorial narrator pretending to be both sympathetic witness and participant.
There are many moments of greatness here: the jaunty cabaretish "Laissez-Faire," the lugubrious "Lotus Man," the narrator's refusal to elucidate the dilemmas in "When Love Is Gone." The other songs feature memorable vignettes, heartbreaking aperçus, hummable melodies, proficient and insinuating droning of the organ, echoes of wistful nostalgia, funereal bass counterpoint, and tantalizingly opaque insights, often clanging against a chord structure slightly based on the blues, sometimes slightly reminiscent of march rhythms. The glorious "The Road to Cairo" (a minor UK hit when covered by Julie Driscoll, Brian Augur and Trinity) opens the set with a searching narrator using the Mississippi, his jail time, and homelessness to guide him a little further down some unnamed back road. And the equally fine "Down River" is zealous declaration of lost faith. The playing is here constrained, virtuosic, wrenching, and guileless. But the greatest song is the album's penultimate track, "My Name is Andrew."
Simply one of the finest songs in American songbook about an outsider who loses his path to God, "Andrew" starts up a recurring leitmotif in Ackles' work: violated innocence. The primary impact is the openness of the singing coupled with the closing world of the walls of the music. The underscored music provides a supple and shifting texture. The timbre in the notes is particularly stellar. There is not a wasted note or breath here; as in Pinter's plays from around the same time and with the same stark realizations of trapped lives, the silences are fraught with meaning. The punctuating church-like organ underscores the serious biography of a man in a canning factory, once a boy who sang hymns in church: by Monday, he could hear the echoing "God is Love" refrains. He lived in a world of incorruptibility. At twenty one, he wandered from God, but still sang on Sundays. On Mondays, he muddled, begging to here the notes and words more closely. The organ swells, the beat beat of the tom tom, and the echoic vocals become abstract blocks of color, movements that move from expansive hope to constricted despair. The delicate touches of color, the increasingly alienated Andrew, the rhapsodic gestures make this at the same time something formal (dirge-like crescendos; poem about faith) and anti-formal (not really a rock song; a lack of habitual orientation to Romantic tradition). Then in a startling reversal, the "his" possessive pronoun becomes "my," as in my name is Andrew, suggesting not only the type of Hitchcockian buried self revealing itself, but more movingly the narrator's unconditional, surrendering empathy for the subject, thus blurring the distinction between object/subject, a motif, dynamic, and musical strategy found in fecund detail on the third album. This elegiac tone poem, as with most meaningful works about faith, is stripped down, pared to its bones, an exploration of the worthlessness of social setting if that setting can only provide a hollow armature to a person's slipping.
The barbaric stateliness of the lyric--simultaneously using Wordsworthian abstraction and simple diction--is in a straightforward, conversational idiom. This is a song about what everyone else has forgotten. It will become a precursor template for Ackles: his lyrics will get increasingly impressionist, evoking subtle, strange, and fugitive emotions. He will become more bristling, less acquiescent; even if his lyrics and music will always retain their formal compositional elements--there is virtually no anti-conventional dissonance in the work--all the while his interpretations will become more haunted, almost plangent. He is not creating on "Andrew," rather he's making: crafted excerpts of hollow men.
See part 2 of the David Ackles article