‘Boy, did they let it blast’: My 10 favorite songs of all time

Voters were asked to submit ranked ballots listing their 50 favorite songs of all time. — Rolling Stone, on its new version of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

Did you notice that? Their favorite songs, not the greatest songs, as if it’s the same thing.

“Like A Rolling Stone” is Dylan’s “greatest song,” but it’s not necessarily my favorite. Further complicating things: I don’t have a single favorite Dylan song (somedays it’s “Handy Dandy,” or something off the “Desire” album), whereas I do have a favorite John Prine song (see below).

Likewise, sort of, I don’t have a favorite Springsteen song but I do have a favorite Joni Mitchell song (again, see below), which I realize isn’t her greatest song, which would be something from “Blue.” I don’t know why it’s that way, it just is. And anyway, picking favorites is both tougher and easier — it’s what you feel, but you feel different every day. Your favorite song may just make you smile; the greatest song ought to define or defy or change the world, or culture, or the national mood, in some way. (“Like A Rolling Stone” did. “That’s All Right” did. “Strange Fruit” did.) Somedays my favorite song is “Weed Smoker’s Dream” by the Harlem Hamfats, and sometimes John Fahey’s “Steamboat Gwine ’Round De Bend.” Play those two, right now, and see what I mean. Other times it’s something off side two of Neil Young’s “Hawks & Doves” — I have a favorite side of a Neil Young album (B), but I don’t have a favorite Neil Young album. Favorite Neil Young song? Impossible. There are too many I cherish that way.

Anyway, here are my favorite 10 songs. Today. This morning. On one cup of coffee. And yes, I know it goes to 13.

1. “The Weight,” The Band

2. “Fairytale of New York,” The Pogues

3. “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” Richard Thompson

4. “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” Nat King Cole and His Trio

5. “Everybody Knows (The River Song),” O.V. Wright

6. “Genius of Love,” Tom Tom Club

7. “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” Blind Willie Johnson

8. “Devil Got My Woman,” Skip James

9. “I Dream A Highway,” Gillian Welch

10. “Mexican Home,” John Prine

11. “You Never Can Tell,” Chuck Berry

12. “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” Joni Mitchell

13. “Thirteen,” Big Star

Notes: Story songs, of sorts, top the chart. That shouldn’t surprise. Nobody knows what “The Weight” is really about, and people misunderstand “Fairytale” when they want to ban it over its “offensive” language, come Christmas time, and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is my favorite movie — yes, movie; it just plays in my head now, but I always see Bill Forsyth (“Local Hero,” my other favorite movie) directing.

“When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” with secret-weapon Stuff Smith on violin, is a song I’d love to hear played at my funeral. I’m still working out how that might happen. O.V. Wright is my favorite soul singer, unjustly obscure though he is, and I named my next novel after my favorite song of his. This is not product placement; this is deeply held belief.

The selections at 7-8-9 feel like a dark suite, the centerpiece of which is Skip James’ spookiest blues. There are ghosts who won’t play “Devil Got My Woman” after 8 p.m. on a weeknight.

I love John Prine, love pretty much everything he did, but “Mexican Home,” from the Sweet Revenge” album, is my favorite, especially when he sings, “The air’s as still as the throttle on a funeral train.”

And on his next album, “Common Sense,” when John wanted to finish with a Chuck Berry song, he picked “You Never Can Tell.” Of course he did. Because it’s the height of Chuck’s wit, and a story song, to bring things back around — a song about teenage newlyweds who furnish their apartment with a “coolerator” (“crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale”), a “hi-fi phono” (“boy, did they let it blast / seven hundred little records / all rock, rhythm and jazz”), and love, of course. You need some love songs on your list. Because life’s not all funeral trains and spooky blues, however much it seems like it, these dark days we’re in.

Links: Here’s the Rolling Stone list. And here’s a stellar list from my friend Chris Herrington.

How does it feel? (A Dylan remix)

Once up on a shrine

Dressed to the nines

You did the bump and grind

Sang ‘He’s So Fine’

Just kiddin’ you

Not sure where that came from, except I was listening to the great “Too Late,” off Bob’s new Bootleg Series boxset, “Springtime in New York,” and in the fourth verse, I think it is, there’s this line …

From the stage they’ll be doing the bumps and the grinds

… and it struck me how much “the bumps and the grinds,” coming out of Bob’s mouth, especially, sounds like “threw the bums a dime,” from “Like A Rolling Stone,” his greatest song, maybe the greatest ever (except for it somehow fell from No. 1 to No. 4 in Rolling Stone’s refangled list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”), and anyway, that got me thinking, as Bob tends to do. So I did a little remix, a little fucking with, for no other reason than this is my blog and these posts don’t write themselves.

Apologies to Bob, goes without saying.

Book review: Under the influence in ‘Americanaland’

I reviewed John Milward’s “Americanaland: Where Country & Western Met Rock ‘n’ Roll,” for Chapter 16, the great website about all things literary in Tennessee. It’s a fine book that connects mountain hollers and lost highways and the Dust Bowl to Memphis and Big Pink and Laurel Canyon. And beyond. It also includes lovely hand-embroidered portraits of the likes of Gram and Willie and Dolly, by artist Margie Greve. I’m not telling you what to do, but if you love this kind of music, you’ll want this book.

Here’s an excerpt from the review:

There are no walls in Americanaland — only tall trees with deep roots, and singers and pickers gathered there in the shade, trading lines and taking long pulls from the jug of song. It’s OK to be under the influence here, even if you’re blazing down the lost highway in a pink Cadillac.

This music is all about influences — Little Richard and Buddy Holly’s on Dylan; Dylan’s on everybody who picked up an acoustic guitar and tried to string words together in some profound or confounding new way.

I had no complaints whatsoever. Well, OK. I did say, late in the review:

There are no wrong turns or lost weekends — although, to quibble, I’d have spent more time on cowpunk and less on Nanci Griffith.

The review was published nine days before she died. RIP, Nanci. I loved your “Other Voices, Other Rooms” album. Still and all, I’ll stand by my quibble, however minor. But that’s just me, ever contrary, and as unrepentent as a song by Jason and the Scorchers.

‘Everybody Knows’: Facts, damn facts, and rank strangers

“Everybody Knows” is a novel, a work of fiction. It’s made up. Even so, there are a good many facts in it. I know, because I’ve spent the last week checking and double-checking the damned things, in advance of publication next year.

Bible verses and murder ballads. Tributaries of the Mississippi River. The history of capital punishment in Tennessee. Nudie suits. Kenyan dance music. Disperse Red 9. Wite-Out. The Federal Writers’ Project fieldwork of Zora Neale Hurston. William Faulkner’s advice to young writers. The typewriters of Eudora Welty. Local option elections. The layout of steamboats. How to make a Boulevardier. The breakfast menu at the Loveless Café. Whether you can get a philosophy degree from Vanderbilt.

Facts. So many facts. Facts about Andrew Jackson, Sputnik Monroe, Davy Crockett, Memphis Minnie, Ma Rainey, Patsy Cline, Gladys Presley, Tishomingo, Boss Crump, and Dolly Parton. I spent a perfectly good hour trying to confirm the story that blues singer Jaybird Coleman’s career was managed, for a time, by the KKK. This is what happens when you put footnotes in your novel.

Footnotes! In a novel! Except for they were great fun to write, I’ll never again try such a stunt.

And then there’s the unreliability of fictional characters, just generally. You never know what stories they’ll tell. One of mine, a ship captain named Trimble, claimed Emmylou Harris, his favorite singer, sang a lovely version of “Rank Stranger.”

I believed it, initially. Why not? It seemed like a song Emmy would have sung, maybe on the “Roses in the Snow” LP. Or else there had to be a YouTube video of her playing it with the Nash Ramblers. But no. Not that I could find, at least. (On the new album “Ramble in Music City: The Lost Concert,” from an unearthed 1990 live recording, she and the band cover “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Hello Stranger” but do not see fit to complete the trilogy.)

A pickle, I believe they call this in the writing game. But then I remembered: Hell, I’m not writing non-fiction. The truth won’t set me free; it’ll just ball me all up. This is a novel. And Trimble, the ship captain, is a figment of my imagination. So …

I kept the line about Emmylou Harris singing “Rank Stranger,” and just updated the footnote to read:

Trimble may have dreamed this. For Trimble dreamed often, and often of Emmylou.

Note: EVERYBODY KNOWS will be published by JackLeg Press in 2022.

The best little book: Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row’

With your sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row …

— “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Bob Dylan

“Cannery Row” is the best little book. You’ll need several copies, because what if you lose one, or lend it to some friend you thought you could trust, because “Cannery Row” is the sort of book you borrow but don’t return, but may give to some other poor soul — a stranger, even — who seems to need a novel that somehow in under two hundred pages manages to sum up nothing shy of life itself, the human experience, in all its joy and longing, its shine and stink?

There’s no plot, really. There’s a place and the people who live there. There’s Doc, friend to all but somehow lonely, the marine biologist who knows all the strange creatures of the sea, and of the land:

Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you to a kind of wisdom. His mind had no horizon — and his sympathy had no warp. He could talk to children, telling them very profound things so that they understood. He lived in a world of wonders, of excitement. He was concupiscent as a rabbit and gentle as hell. Everyone who knew him was indebted to him. And everyone who thought of him thought next, ‘I really must do something nice for Doc.”

There are the boys of the Palace Flophouse, who decide to throw a party for Doc, and the girls of the Bear Flag, and Lee Chong the neighborhood grocer. There are cats and a dog and all those creatures of the ocean. There’s a gopher who finds paradise, and must leave it. There are parties, fights, epiphanies, grudges, small miracles, and prodigious amounts of alcohol, and of wisdom:

A man with a beard was always a little suspect anyway. You couldn’t say you wore a beard because you liked a beard. People didn’t like you for telling the truth. You had to say you had a scar so you couldn’t shave.

“A tender and bawdy fable,” it says on the back of my first copy, bought some forty years ago. I’ve bought two copies since and read the hell out of all three. Maybe there were others I gave away, or loaned out and never got back. It’s the best little book. It’s my favorite, I think.

So go now to Cannery Row. Not just because you need to escape from where you are, but because you need to arrive somewhere, to come to a place where you’ll be welcomed, handed a drink, told a story, listened to, nursed back to your old self. You’ll like it there, despite which it’s run-down and stinks and there’s a depression on. Because it is, despite being filled with “chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps,” and inhabited by “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” a better place than here, wherever here may be.

The Devil’s Tear (Small-Batch Fiction)

From “Her Better Devils,” the opening story in Akashic Books’ MEMPHIS NOIR, and my novel EVERYBODY KNOWS, forthcoming from JackLeg Press in late 2022:

They sat on the porch and drank. It was moonshine now, her dead uncle’s handiwork. They passed the bottle, back and forth, back and forth, her taking swigs and him sips, until there was nothing left, only a drop, and she said her uncle told her that was the devil’s tear, that last drop, and never to drink it, the devil’s tear.

Reveries of the Page (Small-Batch Fiction)

Teach the young as keepers of the faith / To love the smell of the written page

“Reverie,” Son Volt

Her father returned from the coast one afternoon in a foul mood, to find his eldest daughter, the sensible one, in love with this writer of stories. The father outraged, of course. A writer, of all damned things a man could become in life.

“Stories, huh?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Made up little things.”

He wanted to say that stories, made up little things, were man’s greatest achievement; that the human mind’s ability to imagine whole worlds and then make others see them, conjure them, through nothing more than a series of scratch marks on a page, was something even God, in all His wisdom and knowing and blah, blah, had not seen coming. Instead he held his powder.

“It’s like that, yes,” the writer said. “I write made-up little stories.”

“One step below pissing your name in the snow, young man.”

The writer wore no mustache then, so had no place to hide his smile.

“I could be a newspaperman instead, sir.” He remembered a story the daughter told him, how her father, displeased to see his good name flouted under a front-page headline in The Chisca County Courier, had bought the whole operation to shut it down.

The father gave a caustic laugh. “A noble profession — drunkenness.”

“That’s your studied opinion of the fourth estate?”

“You have some contrary experience to share with an old man?”

“Come to think, no.” He was warming to the old son of a bitch, even if there was no future in it.


The Benediction (Small-Batch Fiction)

The opening from my Kenyon Review Online story, “The Newspaper Wake,” and the novel, COME AGAIN NO MORE. They’re having a wake after the latest round of layoffs at a fictional Memphis newspaper. Charley Pogue, reporter, freshly erstwhile, is talking…

And then we had the wake. It was lovely with tears and laughter, roar and uproar. Nobody died. Well, only a little. We all died a little. But death mostly let us be. Death seemed to think there was, for us, a fate worse than it. Which left us alive in the end, and so very, very drunk.

I remember only parts of it. I remember it began with a benediction of sorts. It was Vollintine, the city editor, who gave it. He said he was the strayed son of an Irish Catholic father and a Hard Shell Baptist mother, and married a Pentecostal-raised dabbler in every fringe religion from neo-paganism to Ghost Dance to Elvis Presley, and so he had, he said, as much religion as any bastard or wench in the room. You would have thought a bastard was the very thing to be, and a wench was a rare and beautiful thing to glimpse in nature, like a blue-crested something, the way he said it. We all cheered, we bastards, we wenches. Vollintine carried on—or rather, he got started.

“We gather here, you mourners and we mourned, in this bar called Little Blind’s, down on old South Main, in this city on the bluff, Memphis, Tennessee, on this Friday night, the tenth day of May, in the Year of Ought Not. . . .”

That’s as far as he got, or as far as I remember him getting. I think he called for a drink then. Maybe he was shouted down. Or else that was all the benediction he intended to give, or that we required or deserved. The wake was on.

The Shaggy Dog of the South

“The Dog of the South,” Charles Portis’s wonderful third novel, from 1979, is filled with what he did best: those small moments. Like the hotel owner who returns from a kitchen disturbance to report, “It was nothing, the mop caught fire.” Or the man in clown shoes who plays two notes on a harmonica and then bolts, but only after he “rapped it against his palm in a professional way to dislodge any spittle or crumbs.” Savor these moments. Don’t worry so much about the plot — Portis didn’t. This is a road novel, a picaresque, with its own peculiar sense of time and rhythm, and its own sense of the peculiar. It could be called “The Shaggy Dog of the South.”

For fans of Southern quirk. For fans of character-driven fiction. For any reader who has not just the eye for the well-turned phrase or odd (sometimes, really odd) aside, but also the ear. Also, I should say, for gearheads. There’s an almost comical amount of description here of cars and their workings. It could practically double as a repair manual. They ought to sell it at AutoZone or the Pep Boys. Portis would have liked that, I bet.

Bookmark: Wilmer Watts, of Wilmer Watts and the Lonely Eagles, from the card set “Pioneers of Country Music,” art by R. Crumb and text by Richard Nevins; Denis Kitchen Publishing Company. Get you some.

Mississippi River in Her Hips (Small-Batch Fiction)

From the story “I’ll Take You There,” and the novel THE SEARCH FOR THE SOUTHERN DOGFACE …

Ivy sang a little of the old Skip James blues, “Devil Got My Woman.” She sang, “I’d rather be the devil, than to be some woman’s man.” Ivy could sing a little blues, all down low and scratchy, but she couldn’t go up high and moan like only Skip James and some ghosts could do. Ivy was pretty sure she believed in ghosts, though it didn’t really matter whether she did or not: Ghosts believed in her. One night, late, she caught one taking a bath in the clawfoot tub, reading a book of stories. He was reading her Bible and singing, “Jesus is a Mighty Good Leader” and “Be Ready When He Comes.” Ivy detected a sly mocking tone. She stood in the bathroom doorway in nothing but a Piggly Wiggly T-shirt, and said, “Are you real?” But the ghost didn’t say, just kept on reading and singing. He didn’t seem to notice the near-naked woman standing in the doorway, though he did go from “I Got to Cross the River of Jordan” into a little snatch of the dirty blues number, “She’s Got Jordan River in Her Hips,” and back again. Then, without even looking up, the ghost slapped his thigh, or anyway slapped at where his thigh would have been, and laughed real big. You would have called it a guffaw. The next morning, Ivy thought she’d dreamed it all, but there were six empty Schlitz cans on the floor beside the one claw foot and there was a ring about the tub. The Bible was open to Revelation, the bit about Jezebel on a bed of suffering.

Photos: The walls of Smoot’s Grocery Blues Lounge, Natchez, Mississippi, Summer 2021.