Why I Like Greg Brown, And You Should Too
Photo thanks to Red House
by Marianna Fikes (April 2003)Satyr: "a sylvan deity in Greek mythology having certain characteristics of a horse or goat and fond of Dionysian revelry" (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary).
The word 'satyr' comes to mind whenever I'm listening to one of Greg Brown's sexier songs, of which he seems to have a disproportionate amount. He comes across so direct and unabashed, unneurotic, comfortable in his own faulty skin, playful or somber as required, well-versed and yet benevolent about it all. And, going by his photos, the mythological figure's physical description is kinda apt too. He is sylvan, definitely.
Like a lot of people, I first heard Greg Brown on NPR's A Prairie Home Companion in the mid-80's, sandwiched between many more colorless vocalists/musicians, humorous skits, and Garrison Keillor's folk wisdom and awful singing. What a voice, I thought, and spent a long time trying to figure out what he looked like, what person matched up with that voice and that sharp wit and that pretty but still raw music. He stood out so much that to this day the only thing I've ever bought from Public Radio's Wireless catalog besides his first album 44 & 66 (1984) is a box of Pearson's Maple Nut Goodies.
The cassette cover did not help; it only showed the top of his head (lotso dark messy hair) down just past his eyes, the song titles and the musicians. His music was all acoustic, with traditional instruments, arranged simply enough to hear all the parts and highlight the sometimes-hokey, sometimes-wry lyrics. Oh, he means well, I thought. He had a half-serious song that mourned beatniks (a great plus to me at the time), a catchy little number about a lonesome loser, sang about one single guy or a whole place and he could be sad, celebratory or both at once. Within the folkie trappings he was like no one else I'd ever heard, really. Tom Waits had the same dichotomy of humor and bathos in his music, but he was far darker and weirder. Anything went, or could go, with Tom. Only certain familiar and comfortable things went with Greg.
I made the mistake of sharing a few songs with my then-best friend and musical mentor, as we liked to do for each other with new 'finds' back in the day. He shook his head with a little grimace; the gist was that it wasn't sophisticated enough, the sentiments were too bare and obvious. Even now he remembers that he didn't like the guy.
"But it was his first album," I said recently.
"How many has he got?" he asked, skeptically.
"About fifteen now."
Compared to what I've heard of Brown's music since, that first album sounds young. His voice is lighter, smaller, ever-rough but less capable of giving any nuance. The songs seem underdeveloped lyrically if not musically. But it showed his basic talent and was clearly the effort the effort of somebody whose heart and mind were A-one.
Though my interest dwindled, I kept playing 44 & 66 every so often and I kept liking it. Sometime later in a store somewhere, I came across a cheap cassette of his called The Live One (1995), thought 'Oh, him!' and bought it. I listened to it perfunctorily, probably expecting 44 & 66: The Sequel like fans are wont to do, and filed it away.
I came back to it when I was living alone again, re-evaluating my music collection, trying to remember how much I'd loved music and why. I admit that I was a bit stoned when the first song, "Just By Myself," struck me and kept striking me with its warm, knowing humor and overall absolute mastery. Having finally come out from the other side of my first longterm heterosexual relationship, I laughed out loud a few times and revelled more. Even his lone accompaniment, an ongoing picked guitar, seemed really apt.
"It's perfect!" I said, probably aloud (being stoned and alone). I was so impacted that I played the song for my ex-boyfriend on my very next visit; he and I had, after all, experienced together those 'couples' situations of which Brown spoke. If my (sort of) ex found musical deficiencies he didn't say so and he laughed aloud exactly once at the line about doing laundry, "I might not even fold it up I might just wad it up and stick it in a bag."
The rest of The Live One was great too. I guess the main thing is how entertaining it is in how many different veins, and that afterwards you have to remind yourself he didn't have a band throughout (except a jazzy bongo player for his ill-advised cover of Van Morrison's "Moondance"). "Canned Goods"--however popular it has been with the salt- of-the-earth crowd-- pushed that homily/nostalgia bend of his to its limit, but was redeemed by the long, seemingly off-the-cuff, very funny monolog he told before its last chorus. Being live, the album is as audience-friendly as it should be, and its performer is thoroughly comfortable--nay, on a level--with his audience.
He is naked about his voice but still in full control of it, uses every possible vocal trick and ability to put things across emotionally, things that might make another man sound foolish--bending, stretching, quavering, or growling his baritone wherever it can go, with no embarrassment ever. The examples in "Just By Myself" are its lazy between-verse scatting, and its wind-down ending of a deep, eloquent sigh.
As I am poor, I checked what my local public library owns. Years ago, I had borrowed and listened to his only children's album (to date), 1993's Bath Tub Blues, but it had mysteriously disappeared from circulation since. I remember it was fun yet smarter than most singing-down-to-children inanity, and how I looked at his cute picture on the cover while listening and thought, What a swell dad to have I bet. In our entire county-wide library system we only had that one, 1994's The Poet Game (two songs from it are on The Live One), and Further In (1996)--the last of which I had ordered myself for the city branch then employing me.
Further In was understated enough to lull right by me on first listen, but when I came back to it found it to be his most consistently excellent set of songs I've heard so far. They manage to be personal not in a self-centered angsty or exclusionary way, intimate enough to tell their own stories but still so recognizable to your average American adult. The always evocative lyrics seem inseparable from their perfectly assured, acoustic-guitar-heavy arrangements, augmented by other folky instruments, accordion, a woodwind, and the occasional subtle electric guitar or drums, with his usual solemnly-lovely soprano back-up singer. Brown's lead guitar is so accomplished and gorgeous here that it led me to investigate John Fahey a bit less nervously (wonder if Brown appreciates him?).
Who else would write a song called "Two Little Feet," about a grown-up, and not make you cringe--even dropping a quick reference to John Muir in there without getting all pretentious? These days, who else would use 'going to China' as a metaphor for retreat into self? Or who would come up with the phrase "the small dark movie of your life" to mean exactly what you'd think it means, or invest the words "Hey baby, hey" with so much direct sad love that you want to say them to everyone, give them out like a gift?
"We could cook a slooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooow soup" (from "Think About You")? Oh, my. A couple juvenile innuendoes in that one notwithstanding, we're listening to a full-grown and very real adult male here, whose guitar happens to be able to go anywhere he's going, and to speak in his silences like the most eloquent ventriloquist's dummy.
Poet Game is unusually dark, rather mean-spirited, and vocally over-emoted, its compositions less sparkling at the get-go. Maybe he was having a bad year. I don't listen to it much, though it has its moments and its lines.
What seems to keep happening, through Brown's latest release Milk of the Moon (2002), is that on first playing I feel disappointed for various reasons--coming at his albums from a necessary-by-circumstances wait has something to do with it. But I always want to listen again, closer, and then I am enchanted. Occasionally very turned on. I keep thinking--and at my age with my experience this requires some effort of will--how he means what he's doing, take it or leave it, results misjudged or exquisite. He is who he is. If he catches me off-guard while trying to stretch his boundaries, we have to be grateful after this many years that he wants to stretch at all. Like Bob Dylan (and no there is no comparison other than this), he had the audacity, after establishing a niche to add rock and/or blues-type electric accompaniment to his songs. At first, I was genuinely pissed off at the extent of instrumentation and electronic effects on Moon, because you can't concentrate on voice and guitar like you used to, and sometimes can't even make out those wonderful words. But I guess we artist-followers have to avoid settling into niches ourselves, and listen to the new efforts of our old favorites as though we'd never heard them before, as if they were brand new.
The way Brown embraces and perpetuates life as he knows it--with sentimentality and lust and broodiness and humor and poetry and vast storytelling humanism and such earnest and beautiful music--makes him unique upon the earth. And for that, after all this time and all this listening, I am so grateful.
The term 'renaissance man' is a by-now hackneyed, perhaps always mythical anachronism, but it often occurs to me when I hear Greg Brown's music. In this thoroughly corrupted modern world, with his references and his spirit, it's what he's trying to be. So I guess if he stays in the woods, he might keep succeeding. Long may he falter and wave.
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