In the summer of 1999 I experienced a deeply unpleasant upheaval in my personal life. The positive upshot of it was that I was free to chase after the deeply stupid dream of a career in the performing arts without being an absentee to any other responsibilities. The first thing I did in my attempt to accomplish this childish goal was hit the road from Tuscaloosa, AL for Birmingham and the open mike night at Marty’s.* I met Dan Sartain that night, though I think I saw him play at a coffee house a few years earlier in the nice Birmingham neighborhood of Highland Park. I can’t even hazard a guess as to what my set was in those days; probably some perfectly cromulent covers of the Gumdrop Soaps, Spayed Kats, Rubbery Norton Neat and Johnnie Blodger Spee. Dan’s set was a mix of Rick Nelson covers and his own originals. Two rockabilly dorks angling for stage time at the one place in the state that not only accepted oddballs, but let them play music on Tuesday nights.
Before I returned to crappy old Tuscaloosa that night, I talked to Dan and we exchanged numbers. I don’t know what got into me, I’m not exactly Fred Friendly or Jackie Joinup. But it wasn’t long before I was heading up to Birmingham on the regular to practice with Dan. We’d practice on the sidewalk in Highland Park. Dan’s friends on Beer St. gave me a place to get away from oppressive Tuscaloosa and my failures there. It was like an Elvis movie, making music was, back then, something one would do after a shitty day of racing cars, frogmanning, rodeo riding, helicopter piloting or fisherboat captaining and people would quite naturally show up, lose their goddamn minds enjoying this music, and then tell their friends all about it, as opposed to now, which is much more like Glengarry Glen Ross.
I first heard the opening song — ‘One Is A Crowd’ on Dan Sartain SINGS! over the phone late in the summer of 1999. It wasn’t even the first Dan song I’d heard over the phone that summer — that was ‘Mexican Girl.’ I loved those songs the minute I first heard them; they were part of my set list for years. Dan made the verse lyrics for ‘Mexican Girl’ out of ‘Highwayman’** and some dialogue from ‘For A Few Dollars More.’ “This train will stop at Tucumcari” is absent from this version of ‘Mexican Girl;’ Dan had probably ‘moved on’ in his head by the time he recorded Dan Sartain SINGS. The spaghetti Western and Ennio Morricone connection in ‘Mexican Girl’ and ‘One Is Crowd’ is important for me to mention because it gets at the very heart of why I liked playing Dan’s music so much (although I didn’t understand why until a few years ago): spaghetti Western and John Barry spy music was the music I set out to play when I took up the guitar at 15.*** There was no band that played that type of music, besides the Ventures, and you definitely tooks your chances when you found their tapes in the cutout bin. You couldn’t even find most of it in soundtrack form, even the James Bond stuff, except by one-man synthesizer operations disguised as the ‘Hollywood Starz Orchestra’ and ‘Star, Inc.’ and they always had those awful electric drums and terrible fake string sounds. The Rubbery Norton Neat came closest to combining the formal issues that interested me, so I copied that for a while, pretty much up until I met Dan and saw up close how music goes from ‘some thing one likes on the radio’ to ‘some new thing that’s not a cover.’****
‘One Is A Crowd,’ as I mentioned before, was first presented to me over the phone, same lyrics as you can hear now. First, the lyrics SPOKE to me (that’s young person drama for you), and then the chords were hypnotic and dreamlike. So it felt like my life story at the time, coming thru the phone, as strange as any of the radio devices shown in the 1975 surrealist sci-fi film Black Moon. And best of all, when I caught up with Dan that weekend, we (I think) wrote a solo for it that borrowed from both ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ and ‘For a Few Dollars More.’ (Like I say, I think ‘we’ both put it together, but Dan doing it all and showing it to me is also plausible. I could never figure out where to put the B flat in ‘Fistful of Dollars’ and Dan never had that problem, so he could probably also figure out how to make that melody work over completely different chords in the same key.) ‘One Is A Crowd’ was our instrumental opener for a time; Dan would bring out a toy gun that made electronic shooting and ricochet noises and blasted it into the mike with all the subtlety of an Italian foley artist. It was a peak experience, if you ask me, to play that ‘authentic’ spaghetti Western stuff and NOT have to be in a fuddy-duddy gear-nerd band to do it.***** (Later we played with some fuddy-duddy gear-nerd bands. Those guys were as much fun as a trip to the tooth dentist.) And then we could come back and close out the show with THE EXACT SAME SONG WE STARTED WITH, AT THE EXACT VOLUME AND TEMPO, but with the sort of hard-hearted, tough-guy, young-man-insecurity lyrics presented in a pre-rock’n’roll style, like a Desi Arnaz or Frankie Laine. There were garage bands we played with that had songs with similar lyric sentiments, but they had to be ‘1966 snotty’ in their presentation, never as ersatz adults modeled on ‘I Love Lucy’ reruns and middle-of-the-night public tv ARTS programming.
A Birmingham radio station, 1230 AM, was a big influence on Dan’s material at the time. Like a lot of radio stations aimed at old people at that time, it was making an effort to lure first-wave Baby Boomers with billboards declaring their allegiance to Babs Streisand and Neil Diamond easy listening. But that was just lip service; most of their programming was weird. 1230 AM was fond of a strange instrumental from the early 60s called ‘Washington Square’ by the Village Stompers; it sounds an awful lot like most versions of ‘St. James’ Infirmary.’ Anyway, Dan took ‘Washington Square’ and turned it into ‘Baby’s Town’ sometime after he and I parted ways; I know we drove around Birmingham enough with the radio tuned to 1230 waiting for that dopey song to come up, so I’m glad he got a way to play ‘Washington Square’ without being the ‘guy who won’t shut up about the Village Stompers, man.’
1230 AM loved some Roy Orbison, too, especially ‘Running Scared.’ I wasn’t all that familiar with Roy back then; I think I knew ‘In Dreams,’ ‘Pretty Woman,’ ‘Only the Lonely,’ the unremarkable rockabilly crap that came up in my Sun Records samplers, and an awful duet with Emmylou Harris called ‘That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again’ from the late 70s. I had no idea when Dan was drilling us on ‘I Walked All Night’ the afternoon before we recorded in a demo studio that we were doing a straight-up rip on ‘Running Scared.’ Our drummer had some snide comment along the lines of “yeah, I like that song better when it was done by Roy Orbison” but it’s not like he named the tune. New to me… And it’s too bad that demo tape is lost forever, we played all our parts at the same time, something I don’t think Dan was able to do with this record, because this version of ‘I Walked All Night’ suffers for not having the drums rise and crescendo on the last line.
Another song that we did at that lost session was ‘Same Situation,’ a tightly-timed pop number. I liked listening to the song on the demo more than I ever liked playing it; the version here is a reasonable facsimile of the song as I knew it. One thing your hardcore Dan fan will learn from this album of early material is that he popped out pretty much fully-formed. There might not be the wide range of styles shown here as he has throughout his career, but examining his lyrics they are as ‘about something’ and ‘completely trippy’ here as they are on any of his ‘real’ releases; it’s not like he started out singing gloppy, sincere ballads about the moon in June with the spoon, then PUT THE MASK ON and sang about breaking on thru to the other side, man. For all I know, ‘Same Situation’ is more young-man-insecurity-drama, or it could be about the Destro/Baroness/Cobra Commander love triangle.
‘If You Never’ is one Dan wrote for me to sing, but that never wound up happening. Chances are, I was probably some kind of a dick about it all because I really wanted to make Rubbery Norton Neat music and wouldn’t appreciate what Dan was writing. I’m sure when I went to play on it I went with ‘blazing’ Hee-Hawg Herman licks that mostly just tried the boy’s patience. I’m glad I learned to appreciate songs like this. Why, ‘If You Never’ is just a semitone away from my favorite song to sing with my last band.
‘Shadow of Myself’ is probably the first Dan song I learned to play. That, or ‘Girl Trouble.’****** It was fun until we got a drummer, who must have thought the song was beneath him, ’cause he fucked with us and made playing it more trouble than it was worth. The trick to the song is getting all those low notes going up and down to lyrics in a way that puts a nice bow on them, rather than a distracting rickety-rack. That was something we could do before drums. I don’t remember what the problem was. Maybe the line ‘I woke up crying/with my pillow in my hand,’ which, if you sing that around at least two immature assholes, it’s just going to sound like the caption to a Dwayne Trosley Hustler cartoon and just blow everything all to hell. And you can hear Dan’s frustration in recording this one track at a time; none of the up-and-down low string stuff works as neatly as it should. No wonder he never plays it; what’s the point of writing cool songs if they can’t be recorded one track at a time and still sound good? Well, what the fuck. Marty and Marty’s is gone. Marty’s was the last place I could go for a gig without getting a bean-counting blast of shit; I could not be happier to have this version, however vexing, of ‘Shadow of Myself’ to take me back there.
‘Adios, Amigo’ was eventually how we ended our shows. I got that it was like a sign-off from a Captain Chesapeake-type kid’s show host; I thought it was a great gag. I loved it; it was a part of my set until I quit drinking and became less ‘wacky.’ The last time I remember playing it with Dan was at a pool hall run by an immigrant family, English was their third or fourth language. We’d tried the management’s patience with an artsy-fartsy opening band that ran a theramin thru a Carvin stack. Things were briefly righted by middle band Model Citizen, and then they got pissed with us for doing a short set that ended with goofy-ass ‘Adios, Amigo.’ They HATED that. They didn’t get it at all and were pretty mad at us for being white people with no friends. I think, deep down, they hoped we were heavy metal and would bring heavy metal die-hard consumers to their pool hall. The days before MySpace. Shitholes took chances, then.
‘It’s X-mas and I’m Cold’ is a nutty bit of album closing mania. I’m assuming it’s one of Dan’s weird joke songs, like ‘Dracula.’ I like the keyboard bit — it sounds like some manhandled bit of Sun Ra equipment from ‘Concert for the Comet Kahoutek.’ If it were thirty seconds longer I could see it being played in malls across America starting in October of each year. There’s a desperate need for Christmas music that doesn’t make people homicidal. Someone will have to put it in Garage Band, break it up, stretch it out to 2:30.
Why would someone buy this album? I dunno. I bought it because I missed the material. Sure, about half the songs were hard-wired into my brain thru repetition, but I definitely missed ‘Shadow of Myself’ and ‘Same Situation’ and it’s nice to have them back. And although the demo we cut is long gone, these versions of the songs will have to suffice. Because that was the soundtrack to my life as an Elvis movie. Will parts of your life turn into an Elvis movie if you listen to these songs? I don’t know. Would you risk ten bucks to find out? If you wait for someone to buy Dan Sartain SINGS and then share it with you, are you even worth being at the center of an Elvis movie? The answer is ‘No, you’re not. You’re Bill Bixby in an Elvis movie. A real wet blanket.’
*Don’t let that SEC Footbaw Show on Saturdays on the tv tell you any different. Tuscaloosa sucks. It’s as much fun as a prostate exam. Though Tuscaloosa THEN isn’t as hateful as Baltimore is NOW.
**By the Highwaymen. DUH.
***Stuff your Ramones, your Iggy, your Clash, your ‘This band (album) saved (changed) my life, man (dude)!
****Not that I learned that lesson especially well.
*****I never would have cut the mustard, gear-wise, with that sort of boujie crowd. I had a Western Auto Truetone Speed Demon for which I’d overpaid $200. It was barely playable, but it was SO IMPORTANT to me to have a hollowbody electric guitar I just didn’t care. If I were a better player then, I could have just gone from gig to gig with the Charvel Charvette I had when I was 16 and never heard anything of it. It was a real mark of shame to have one of those ugly, pointy 80s planks in those days, and besides, I liked the ‘breathy’ quality that hollowbodies have, even my crappy Speed Demon. In any case, I had a reasonably respectable 70s solid-state Kustom with a vibrato feature, which was much more important than whatever guitar I used.
******Dog gone girl trouble.