By Eryn Brothers, Staff Writer
[MIXTAPE is our bi-weekly feature in which Eryn Brothers invites someone to create a themed playlist and talk about the tunes on it. The playlist follows the interview.]
For the first MIXTAPE of the year, we’re giving you the treat of getting to know our staff a little bit more. Kicking us off this week is our Editor, Dale Henry Geist, talking to us about tears in bars, Big Lebowski references, Tom Waits, Stevie Wonder, the treasure that is Mick Jagger, poetic waxings on religion, and more, for his chosen theme, SHADOWS AND LIGHT.
What songs on this list have helped you through a dark time?
A lot of them. That was one of the drivers of this list. I’ve spent long portions of my life feeling lost and alone, so there’s been a lot of opportunity to find songs to get me through.
I remember the first time I heard “Ramblin’ Man,” I was just floored. I hadn’t grown up with country music, but when I was a young man, on my own in Colorado, I happened across a Hank Williams album for a quarter in a yard sale. I grew up a rock guy, and the sound of it was so different, like a signal from another planet. This song cut straight to my soul.
Leonard Cohen practically made a career of searching for light in the darkness, and “Anthem” is just one of his songs that was there for me in dark times.
“It’s All Right, Ma” is…it’s like, at the center of my writing. All the chaos of the world, all the confusion inside our minds, all the suffering, all of it: it’s all right. It’s life and life only. And the riff is a straight rip of “Wake Up, Little Susie” by The Everlys.
“Martha” makes me cry every time. A flood of tears will break the dam of darkness.
“Alabama”: I had a little cassette recorder in college and I taped my dad’s “Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz.” I remember hearing “Alabama” on earphones, laying in my bed. When that long note at the end of the first part resolves into that swinging major-key groove, it felt exactly like the sun breaking through the clouds.
I love the song “Shine a Light.” There’s always been something so triumphant about this song.
Oh, it’s one of the great Stones songs. Starts super dark, with a dead body. And then the angels come in, you know! And it becomes a benediction. Todd Snider once wrote a very cool piece about how Mick was one of the great songwriters, and here’s more proof.
Mick Jagger is a treasure, that’s for sure. Speaking of which, “Spirit in the Dark,” is a new find for me! Thank you for it. Why did you pick this song?
Ages ago I worked for a moving company, and every year they would auction off these big crates of storage items somebody had stopped paying to store. I bought one for a buck, and among lots of other things – like a fridge I immediately sold for $50! – it had a stash of albums. “Spirit In the Dark” was one of ‘em, and obviously, it was great. And it goes perfectly with this theme.
Starting the playlist off with a live Joni Mitchell is a bold ass move. Why did you frame the mix around it?
Ha! I’m a Joni fan, and the record that really turned me onto her was this beautiful live album she put out in the early 80s called “Shadows and Light.” She was working with some jazz fusion players and also had The Drifters on there doing backing vocals. Just a great record. I was developing my playlist, and wanted to have a Joni song on there, and when I thought of that one, everything came together. It was like Lebowski’s carpet.
I feel that, man. I really like your inclusion of the more “piano songman” Tom Waits tune. He’s always been the King of Shadows, but I think a lot of us are drawn to his vulnerability in that as well. Paisley Fields and I talked about this in his MIXTAPE interview, but how do you feel about him and his display of “macho sensitivity,” and how that translates to queerness/country music?
I’m crazy about Waits, and although he’s really gotten to plumb more scary shit in his mature work, his saloon-poet persona in his first few albums really let him explore a lot of tender-heartedness. (The interviewer, who is a renowned Tom Waits fan, only half agrees with this sentiment, and restrained themselves from arguing with their boss on the matter. They recommend everyone listen to Orphans, Brawlers, and Bastards, or Mule Variations, or Alice, because talk about vulnerable nuance. – Eryn) (Fair point. – Ed.) It very much comes down from Kerouac and Ginsberg, who just cut straight through that buttoned-down gray-flannel-suit male post-war template with their open-heartedness. To me, there’s a direct connection between male tender-heartedness and being open to relating to men in any possible way, including sexual or romantic.
In your life, what was a song that played at the right moment during a difficult time? Do you remember where you were at? For instance, I remember crying in a bar once and “Dancing in the Dark” by The Boss came on, and it just…cured me.
Well, you pinpointed the idea at the core of this theme. Making that journey from shadows into light. And there were a few songs on here that did that. Maybe “Alabama” most of all. I was – as I often was until my mid-30s – in a really hard place. And “Alabama” just got inside me and unlocked the tears.
There are those songs that do that, and it’s so very important to have them crawl up on you. A lot of these songs are quite complicated and polarizing, in the best way possible.
Most of these songs, at one point or another, made me cry. I didn’t know much about Steve Earle until I got “El Corazon” in one of those Columbia House 10-CDs-for-a-penny deals. “Christmas In Washington” was the first song, and the last verse goes, “Come back to us Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King,” – and you gotta realize this is being sung by a guy who is audibly a white Southerner – “We’re marching into Selma, while the bells of freedom ring.”
I mean, Jesus Christ, right? That’s a song that starts with a real cynical verse about the futility of politics as usual, and takes you to a place that can actually inspire you to righteous action. Damn!
“10 Zillion Light Years Away” kind of takes that journey, too, but spiritually. It starts by talking about those who have given up on heaven, given up on God. And then it takes you through the pain and finally out into the light, and, in a way that only Stevie can do, it takes you there musically, too, with this incredible groove in the bridge where he’s singing “I can feel it / Feel His spirit.” Just the very definition of uplifting.
“Wreck On the Highway” is this devastating Bruce [Springsteen] song from “The River,” and it’s more like a lost “Nebraska” track. Really quiet. And it’s mostly super dark – you can see it like a scene in a movie, this guy driving home from the swing shift, middle of the night, it’s raining, and almost in slow motion he sees a car wreck, just happened, guy lying in the middle of the road, bleeding. Ambulance takes him away. And the last verse is the guy who was driving is watching his baby sleep – might be his girlfriend or actually a baby – and he climbs into bed and holds her tight, thinking about that wreck. How disaster could hit at any time, and we’re all just lucky to be alive, right now. It’s something I think about a lot. Maybe more than is strictly good for me.
I think I hit ‘em all except “I Saw The Light,” which is just a great gospel song by Hank Williams. I used to play it. It’s like so many old hymns, like “Amazing Grace” – “I was lost and in a really dark place, and by the grace of God, I’m walking in the light.” I wouldn’t call myself a Christian, but it’s a universal theme, right?
It’s an old archetype, that’s for sure. Light and dark, that whole bag! You used a Leonard Cohen quote as a tagline for this mix. Why do you think this quote is so popular?
It’s fucking beautiful. It feels perfect and right: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” It’s all there. We’re broken. The world is broken. And there’s light not in spite of that, but because of it.
What do you think our readers can do to encourage and help our musicians out during these broken times?
Well, independent touring musicians – a lot of whom have day jobs in the hospitality industry – are really hurting right now for money. So buy their records, buy merch. Other than that, if you hear a song that’s meaningful to you, tell ‘em – they’re all on social media! And call your reps and bug them to pay everyone to stay home until it’s safe to start things up again.
What songs would you consider “lights” in the “shadow” of 2020? Are there any releases you are looking forward to coming up this year?
Um…I’m really not good at this kind of thing, even though it’s part of my job description. I’m hoping Brandi Carlile puts out a record. I know Aaron Lee Tasjan’s got one coming out and I’m lucky enough to have heard it, and it’s just wonderful. I’m hoping to get blown away unexpectedly the way I was last year by Jaime Wyatt’s record and by D’orjay’s record and by Waylon Payne’s record.
Why did you come up with the theme Shadows and Light?
I started by thinking of songs I’d want to go with what I was feeling yesterday, which was…really heavy…and one of them was the great, not-super-well-known, Joni Mitchell song “Shadows and Light,” and as I kept populating the list, trying to see what the connection was between the songs, that seemed to be it.
What do you think, in terms of this year, as country queers, will help us deal with our shadows so we can find the light?
Compassion, connection, and mourning. Honestly, crying is medicine, and there should be no taboos around it; with so much tragedy around us, mourning is an appropriate response. And then reaching out, connecting with others however you can. And lastly, spare a thought, and maybe a gesture, to those who are less fortunate.