The Golden Horse Is In Hell
David Ackles' Theater of Melancholy- Part 2
by Michael Baker
I know I need a small vacation but it don't look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south won't ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you and I want you for all time
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line
("Wichita Lineman," J Webb)
Because the everyday superstructure of faith collapsed, Ackles had to resort to individual conscience, a sort of moral fabric that remained steady and certain as the next three albums progressed. His policy, of course, remained that of emancipation, of the countrified dwellers with arid crops, the restless transients of despairing metropolises, and the small town impious. This persistence of the moral, as opposed to the theological, relieved him of narrowed marginality in his work. Not content with quarrelsome dialogues with a silent God, Ackles turned to his pale imitation: Mankind. He began to exercise his power nearer home and to homelessness. His pride subdued, and reluctantly ill at ease with words of silent power, Ackles turned to portraiture, mini narratives of heartbreaking clarity, a burden almost too hard to bear as his continuous creative collaboration was now with truncated souls, unsympathetic bumblers that Ackles simultaneously found incorrigible and empathetic. This album, Subway to the Country, with its bifurcated status emblazoned in its title, was a great leap forward: it is expansive, domestic, and critical of the precursor reasons (economic impediments, dwindling church attendance) for its dispossessed personae.
Inside this uncertainty principle, Ackles and his vignettes set the stage for blurred epiphanies, an ironic fusion of baseless ritual and superficial decorum. These pockets of darkness contain paralysis, vagueness, and thwarted ambitions. The only thing holding the center is the voice, a voice of grandeur, tenor resonance, and declamatory power. Never comfortable simply crooning, and forsaking a kind of blues/soul aesthetic that would have diminished his uniqueness, Ackles uses his booming, cajoling voice to proclaim truths from the center of town. It is a convincing voice of reason in the re-created scenes of missing emotions. Although the narratives are uncertain with action deferred or muddled, and the characters are inarticulate carnage of that universe, Ackles retains dignity for himself, his characters, and their landscapes, by renouncing censure. We are all flawed; we have all fallen.
Subway to the Country (1970 EKS 74060) carried over the talents of Hastings on guitar and Miller in the producer's role; this time they went with session cats for the most parts and when you are doing this, you might as well start at the top: Jim Horn, Jim Gordon, and Larry Knechtel. Also on hand were notable mavericks such as Lonnie Mack and Don Galluci. The all-original compositions are resonant and ambitious, with abstract blocks of color and animating bursts of tonal quirkiness, sonorities, and strafing emotions, often surrounded by vast spaces of silence. Much of the album's becalmed edginess must be attributed to arranger Fred Myrow (Van Dyke Parks), equally revered in my household as creator of the spooky scores for Phantasm and Phantasm II.
There is a richer palette of musical experimental and color here than its predecessor; this is a decidedly mature record. Pop tunes, blues riffs, deeply urgent and melodic lines that project confidence and emotional candor without wasted bombast or exhaustion, make this his finest collection of pure songs. There is no destructive urge here; the conventions of Music Hall Theater are superimposed on slow moving, stately and sensitive language; this is stately and ceremonial music, not the reflexive work that the third album will become. There, he wanted to radically re-invent. Here, comprehensively and engagingly, he wants to hone his chops. The power and scope of Ackles' visions is here best seen in the sanction and supervision of the characters: the MC of "The Main Line Saloon," the mature resignation of the lover "That's No Reason To Cry," the candy store child molester in "Candy Man" and the searching, mutable world of the intense, climatic chordal swagger of the Band-like "Out on the Road." This is music in its conviction that is both accomplished and dreamy, a world where few things are compromised. Oh, to be sure, the expectations of genre are here: the melodies are never artsy, the portraits are of diminished people, not iconoclastic nay sayers, and the instrumentation, although balanced and experiential, is never anything more than a tightly knit ensemble. But there is nothing belabored here; the expectations do not put Ackles into a strait jacket. He has room to move--horns coax, characters become fully dimensional, and the arrangements deny the validity of other generic music and becomes "wild and free, like a woman."
The startling and grand "Inmates of the Institution" in its sophisticated arrangement, impassioned vocals, and clever lyrics is the album's rousing stunner; anachronous, busy, dense, the song has covert narration wherein the speaker seems to slide in between a sort of privileged hiding and a sort of up-close and personal stance. This then leads to interminable objects of opprobrium and censure. The objective aspect is the routine melody, the steady glance at the inmates, and the letter to the editor vocal indignation; the subject is the messy tinkling of keyboards, the anguish, the faltering rhythms, and the relational quandaries: they who have lost God and wait foolishly are we, equally lost and imprisoned, but not smart enough to know it. These hollow eyes in absent bodies, peering through the fencers, may have already missed the Second Coming which may have or may not have been perhaps a Ragman or a Flagman in disguise as the new Jesus. Afraid to expose their need to know in a painless haze, Ackles questions the ability to have miracles, a locked turned by a mystic God, or a civilized tea with others. This song fully understands the irrationalities of his mind and faith Ackles is concerned: it seeks to rationally reconstruct the minds and desires of the self-abnegating faithless. There is no therapy, no coming day of promise.
Too many pieces of the puzzle remain missing. The common carnage is vast. This brilliant album ends with the title song, conjuring up Coney Island, a place of borders and shaman, two threads taken up more seriously in the next album, his finest. Here, the ideas are about separation, between the country and city, the faithful and faithless, the personal and the political, the subject and the object. The music has a sense of urgency but it's never rushed; because of the brilliant range of musical sources which become fully integrated and revitalized not sewn together or pastichey, and because the lyrics of a piece reflect institutional dissembling and individuals disintegrating, the album has a nobility to it. Subtle, dark sounding, and evocatively vital, Subway to the Country is a near masterpiece, audacious, arabesque, and so distinct and potent that it beggars description. Ackles' reflective consciousness most clearly here by this time in his career constructs discourses that seem mostly private, reflective, and self defining; the outside world becomes unknowable, transient, faded. In American Gothic, Ackles turns his penetrating gaze outward: the thwarted ambitions of conventional beliefs. Ackles' response to the public's sense of their own lives matches this second album's fierce musical iconoclasm and search for truth. It's just that Ackles is ready for dialogues with strangers.
From the coalmines of kentucky to the california sun,
Bobby shared the secrets of my soul,
Standin' right beside me through everythin' I done,
And every night she kept me from the cold.
The somewhere near salinas, lord, I let her slip away,
She was lookin' for the love I hope she'll find,
Well I'd trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday,
Holdin' bobby's body close to mine.
("Me and Bobby McGee," K Kristofferson)
The monumental, reverential, elegiac, and heartrending American Gothic (after Grant Wood, replete with pictorial homage on back cover) was recorded in London and released in 1973 as EKS 75032. The producer was Bernie Taupin, Elton John's astute verbal doppelganger; the songs were arranged by Robert Kirby, a studio maestro who has helped John, the Strawbs, Maddy Prior, Arthur Brown, and Richard and Linda Thompson. The music was performed by Ackles as always on piano, but backed this time by the extraordinary London Symphony Orchestra, who under the guidance of André Previn had become the world's third greatest band, after the Stooges and Stones. Their percussive cross rhythms, differing planes of sound, mature unmasking of the notes' plaintive urgencies, and meticulously crafted melodic connotations make this album the classic that it is. Not only did Ackles' vision and desires need such collaborative perspicuity but it is no accident that America as concept oft best is described by foreigners and by oddball exiles, which at this time in his life, the England-based Ackles certainly was.
But not resigned or embittered. The narrative arc of the Elektra triptych suggests an agnostic diminution of the individual, from the debuts' hopelessness to Subway's helplessness to Gothic's homelessness. With the dropping of any pretense in his musical nomenclature and normalcy--gone are folk song structures, bluesy yodeling, rock instrumentation--American Gothic explores and extends late 19th century's diffuse Romanticism, using music for both experiment and moral edification. These songs here, a paradise lost song cycle of losers, exiled, and warring shells and husks of mankind, are juxtaposed against sublimity and banality, folksy jauntiness and existential dolor. And most important is the voice: a calm tower of strength, completely free of irony, awash in empathetic poignancy as it presides, priest-like, over these one act shockers, fatal victories of misery and melodic beauty.
The music is irony free because Ackles' emotional stance is now from the point of view of dissector, critic, and drawer of portraits; another reason as mentioned is that Ackles' adopted the role of outsider here, physically, psychologically, and musically. It‘s emblematic of the importance of Ackles' lyrics that they have radically shifted from the beginning of his career to now. He has moved from subjective to objective. It's as if the early inward visitations were too troubling; perhaps it comes with maturity; perhaps the seriousness of his career needed an added philosophical depth. He had by this time been deeply involved with his future wife, Sharon, and that steady life must have helped with his balanced gaze at falling-apart relations, dead Montana forefathers, Native American, and California miscreants. The album is pockmarked with sad, fleeting gestures: things that will soon be forgotten; small things in the house in need of repair; bland cruelties; moving vans; carousels. Unlike in his earlier work Ackles here can simply and elegantly confront the artifacts of negation. That narcissistic bubble of abstractions that (slightly) marred his earlier content has been replaced with something leaner, more realistic, simultaneously expansive and particularized. As no longer the Subject, he can study the Object: broken lives, shifting boundaries, and all of us "gone, waiting foolishly for "overdue ships" that do not stop and take you home.
What was spiritual before has become physical. The songs have a profound sense of corporeal microcosms for the universal suffering. The scale here is simpler, more muscular. The songs are also simpler: piano-driven ballads. There are, of course, constant orchestral colorings; not syrupy strings nor wailing crescendos of madcap timpanists, but modulated arrangements with a variety of reed-section voicings. The form of the songs is less unpredictable as well. Nostalgia ballads, lusty waltzes, and faux cadenzas bespeak of tighter control in the studio as well. Not that the songs completely lack the earlier work's marvelous eccentric quality. Show tunes with heraldic four bar thumpings are here; and although the phrasing is more supple and relaxed, the cabaret ambiance still darts its variants in and out of some of these songs.
The most astonishing song is the ten-minute closer, "Montana Song," a baleful, accomplished mini suite that announces a new direction that unfortunately never gets played out on his follow-up album. Chauvinistic, gorgeous, and featuring the matchless clarity of a driven piano part, the song is and isn't about America. It is because it resembles The Book of the Dead for a passing of the Western way of life; it isn't because it lacks any notion of patriotism, thematically and musical. More like Satie on pampered horseback, the song features an unmasking and unveiling of the silly Manifest Destiny (this land is our land, my ass). Staid and somber the music never swings, never pulsates: that landscape is also gone. It is meticulously crafted; the lush textures are periodically underscored by austere accents that near inharmonious sonorities; if the music seems water downed or bowdlerized Copland, think again: this is theatrical nose thumbing at the idea of "American" music. Always more European than his fellow singer/songwriters, Ackles (searching for his fathers with a Bible in his arms) wistfully here uses art song intelligence to compose a penetrating voice of baroque drama and sequential runs that ardently match the strings' fulsome legatos. By reading the headstones of his forefathers and by attempting to piece together lost narratives, Ackles symbolically mimics his own forgotten musical career. By being different, Ackles was a man with no home, a prairie that was and remains wind swept, arid, and echo-less. David Ackles is writing his own musical obituary in the hard clay and broke-clouded big sky.
What saves Ackles from being no more than a burlesque of a Christian seeker or a parody of existential man is the very real sympathy for his pathetic characters. Ackles preaches his art song ballads neither from above nor from below but eye to eye, with chillingly realistic everyday diction and a relentless endurance. The troubled Jenkins marriage ("between the bed, booze, and shoes) in the opener, "American Gothic," is the finest glimpse into Updike territory (the genius short stories featuring the Maples) in American song. The next tune, "Love's Enough," a conventional weeper and love song, features Ackles' finest melody and the album's most affirmative statement of the power of falling in love, if you can live "through the final verse." "Ballad of the Ship of State" is a mock Grand Guignol horror show, part Poe/Pym, part Ship of Fools, and part "Godot." The touching "One Night Stand" is the fourth consecutive philosophical definition of modern love: first booze, then ephemeral relations, then delusional waiting, and now mere sex with what's your name. The fifth song, "Oh, California," is absolutely free from the obligation of a commercial pop song. There's aggressive contempt for dreamers, tonal authenticity, a sweeping circus-like swirling, a hint of march tempos, melodic inversions, and the narrator's bewildered and unnationalistic mocking of rose-colored eyewear. The next three songs are inward, contemplative examinations of lonely people seeking connections; they are quiet, meditative, filled with decent people living decent lives falling asleep after "bad times," but always dreaming of the "good times." Lonely, transient, inconsolable, these people have rejected homilies of self perfection. They simply want to get on, be left alone, and maybe have a jolt of alcohol in the morning. The almost perfect "Another Friday Night" features a swelling gospel like finale of quiet mourning. After awhile, the vignettes start to pile up: alienated Billy on the reservation, the passing of small town life and Jesus's songs that prevent further weakening of faith.
The best song, as opposed to most perfect or most ambitious, is "Waiting For the Moving Van," a crazily touching rhythmic fantasy, a song decelerated and too human to tolerate alone; a song about break up, and working hard, and lost chances, this is the most touching in Ackles' canon. The constant litany of everyday household items, the stiff upper lip, the series of approximations, the translation of emotions into images, and the faint light that is called memory provide enriched consistency to Ackles' visions of muted lives. The speaker's fidelity to himself and to his dignity as a man is ironically the cause of his isolation. Pantheistic not conventional, and forswearing the enraptured lyricism and sensuous blandishments of other torch songs from American standards, both pop and rock, "Waiting" is the quintessential Ackles song: calm, despairing, consummately professional, and executed by expert musicians and thrilling musicianship. There is no way but down after American Gothic.
There's not much a man can do inside a prisoner
Just take his mem'ry trips and fights the pain
And a word from home can mean so much to a prisoner
It's been years since that last letter came
("I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me," M Haggard)
Ackles' last work, the almost completely ignored Five & Dime, was also his one album away from the comfortable confines of Elektra; it was released on CBS ((32466) in 1973. It was also a return to rock/pop formatting: the band was led by veteran sideman Bruce Langhorne (Dylan, Havens, Rush, Lightfoot) and featured the brilliant sax work of Loren Pickering and Colin Bailey‘s notable percussion, he a veteran of studio work and cult devotion. It was self produced to a slight detrimental effect. The distinctive sound, the particularized ambiance of the Elektra albums is missing; the album also features the only misstep in Ackles' career, a pointless parody of a surf song, "Surf's Down," a genre that in and of itself had become miniaturized and parodic by its very practioneers seven years before.
On Five & Dime, Ackles certainly doesn't sell out; what the album lacks is the virtuosic playing of the first, the intense focus of the second, and the magisterial sense of construction of the third. But the pain remains. The world still squelches the characters' independence and manhood; the sadness still rushes out of the pale bodies like the sparks of a failed missile; and the heroes still treat love, the past, and relations as palpable memories, with the sting of newness ready to flee. What remains fully formed are the twists and turns of melodies, part cabaret, and part heartbreaking ballad. And through it all Ackles' voice is a clarion call for the deformed and disintegrated. Ackles' melismata here is more pronounced, as if the traces of white gospel on American Gothic carried over here. The extended songs and vocal arrangement encompass a greater range of dramatic possibilities. His singing is more anguished, as if sadness, the heavy bear that goes with him, is causing tautness, tension, so that his spoken word interludes fully function as releases, a trick surely learned from his music theater days.
The singing placates the album's roiling depression. Images of entrapment, silent rooms, and isolation are supposed to be assuaged by God, sex, and community, but no thanks, we're Americans. The sheer consistency of the suffering never seems irritating or mechanical; where others may acquiesce to Eucharist purity, the characters here are dawn to a gleaming blackness, tables set with yesterday's feasts. Ackles' voice is more a horn here: sharp, pointed, and growling. The piano provides the driving melodic line; the voice the dramatic import; the pounding background rock colorations the foundation. The first three songs and all their excellence could come from the prior albums: the call to arms by an ambvalent, winking MC in the solid and thematic, "Everybody Has a Story." "I've Been Loved" continues the tradition of having at least one stop dead gorgeous ballad about sorrow on each album; and the third song, "Jenna Saves," is less about the church than music, sacrifice, and hope. The song is swirling and hyper kinetic, punctuated by Langhorne's Robbie Robertson-like snarlings and horns that burst like a chart from the Impressions. Jenna is a tough-talking pragmatic collector of lovers and money. The doctors are cynical hypocrites; the lovers are deluded; and Jenna, with a golden horde of cash, could give her money away. She chooses to die as she lived, selfishly, and in Ackles' severe and unforgiving parable, Jenna is last seen riding her golden horse in hell.
Most of the songs that follow render the mutable world of our disappointments even if they, the songs themselves, seem to soar at times, to confidently swagger. He has forsaken the closed world of his chamber arias from Gothic in favor if expansive palettes and openness of intonation. The songs themselves highlight metrical gaiety and time shifting ebullience over dirge like inwardness. The phrases are basic and undulating; the instrumentation at time so poised and balanced you would swear that they were a working group of musicians together many years. The crowd pleasing Sondheimian "One Good Woman's Man" cyclically bounces between muted virtuosic string work and the rippling, muscular whisperings of the lamenting singer. This type of achievement--unsentimental heartbreak, sonorous human displacement, restless, terminal self accusations--is by this fine album mature signature pieces of a major voice in America.
(And added to his fairly disappointing life, meager sales despite laudatory reviews and spirited acclaim from other singers, is the outrageous notion that his lyrics can't be found anywhere, that there is no "Society," and that so few of his songs have been covered. Those covered have been included on the superior Raven Records re-issue of the album at hand; the others are readily available from Collectors' Choice Music with outstanding liner notes by critic Richie Unterberger, a real sharing mensch, two abstractions not often found in the music business.)
The emotional heart of the album is "Aberfan," a bleak mini suite about school children losing their lives in a Welsh mining disaster. 144 people died in South Wales as the heavy rains one Friday morning in late 1966 loosened mountain top slag. The song alternates between the violins' strident dissonance of Schoenbergian rawness in the middle with coaxing, luminous cellos that evoke dead children. This kind of angst, never seen in Ackles' work heretofore, makes the more conventional songs that follow--included is a marriage proposal--and their uplifting codas that much more transcendental. A few of the later songs veer too near maudlin sameness; the fact that his voice is so upfront blurs, at times, his usual less blatant romantic ethos.
But there is much to revere here. And not the least to admire is how his ruminative voice emerges intact out of the tarnished, dilatory mise en scene. Photos, memories, and simple letters dominate the becalmed imagery on the album's final tracks. The music is no longer searing; the splendid almost spiritual slowness makes that more dignified the splendor, and thin, architecture of the engaging soaring vocals. Ackles was by now ready to burst with emotionalism. His intellectual journey is over: if God is out there Ackles will find him, sooner or later. If his marriage doesn't work out he could write a few more songs. And if he is alone on that highway, lost, searching, uncommitted, then he will welcome any help he can get, bogus, superficial, or evanescent. The battle is over. The goal line, as usual, is somewhere else. They have won. They always win. The ones with conscience are dragged down in a downward spiral. Slouching away from Bethlehem, Ackles just wants a warm bed.
May I write you from time to time?
A picture postcard from the Five & Dime
Nothing fancy, just a simple line
I miss you
("Postcards," D. Ackles)
David Ackles, at the height of his powers, was out of the medium that could have used his constancy, vision, talent, and soul baring lyricism more than any business. Brutalized in a near fatal car accident in the early eighties, the weakened Ackles found time to raise a son, maintain a successful marriage, work for bigwig philanthropic organizations, write an occasional score for a made for TV movie, and work on an operatic treatment of Aimee Semple Macpherson, a pseudo missionary, huckster faith healer, and manipulator of media relations, a Canadian by birth of humble origins who became L.A.'s leading religious leader and basked in world wide celebrity. A fraud, drunk, and drug addicted hypocrite (Aimee that is, not record company execs) would have been a perfect foil for Ackles. Tough, individualist, and savvy, she most certainly would have been a formidable opponent, for Ackles wanted if not clarity about faith and individual works of grace at least a reconciliation between a cold world that dumps slag on top of children and an uncommunicative God. This reconciliation, man's major intellectual achievement, is both disconcerting and liberating. And Ackles knew full well that the balance between conventional and conservative faith and yearning, narcissistic, seductive art is the greatest of musical aspirations.
Ackles regarded the message from Ecclesiastes as gospel: "Who gathers knowledge gathers pain." Away from our contemporary chaos and simple-minded cruelties, the violence in megalomaniacal mosh pits, French whorehouse record companies, and the upper lip disinterest of hipsters, Ackles would have played intimate cabaret rooms off the once-swank lobbies of run-down hotels. We rapt listeners would grope for strangers' hands underneath the red and white checkerboard tablecloths. Our ears would be wide open. And the silences of Ackles would speak more cogently, to us and us only we foolishly thought, than others' discofied hipness, ossified anti intellectualism, and commercial reach arounds: his refusal to submit to common market-driven aesthetic forces or compromise financially his unique music would become heroic and life affirming. In his prison house of his songs' thwarted ambitions and despairing paralysis David Ackles would be set free.
David Ackles tribute site
Also see our 2012 Ackles article
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