Thursday, April 30, 2015

Peter Handke and the Essay that Refuses to Become an Essay

In the middle of Peter Handke's "The Jukebox," the second of three lengthy essays in The Jukebox & Other Essays On Storytelling, the author interrupts himself, yet again. It's the late 1980s, and he's writing about his experiences writing about—or more accurately, not writing about—an essay on jukeboxes, those beloved, magical "music boxes" of his adolescence that scored mystery and clarity alike. The essay is torturous in that in dramatizes a tortuous attempt to do anything but achieve a goal; Handke can't bring himself to really start the essay, so distracted is he by travels throughout Europe (primarily Spain), hotels, long, brooding walks toward city centers and along city edges, historical moments, ennui, memories, fantasy, and writer's block. Essayistically, the essay becomes an essay about not-essay-writing. Rising to the surface of Handke's consciousness is the occasional memory—a jukebox in a cafe near a park; one in a dive in Anchorage, Alaska; a busted one in Tokyo, some of the recollections leading to brief narratives, others remaining inscrutable memory-shards—but the majority of the essay wanders away from its ostensible subject, which makes the piece both frustrating and fantastic. It's startling to see the Beatles or Credence Clearwater Revival or Madonna referenced in the middle of an essay so clouded by doubt and uncertainty; it's as if a jukebox was suddenly flicked on and a song begins, cutting through.

Throughout his essay, Handke refers to himself in the third-person, as if to distance himself from his own nagging neuroses and doubts, or perhaps to gain some measure of distance that might allow writerly chaos to assume stability. Midway through, he offers a potential shape for the essay that he hopes at some point will materialize. It's as good a take on the subversive, absurd, theatrical, impossible possibilities of the essay-genre that I've seen in a while. Are you buckled up?
When he first had the inspiration—that’s what it was—which at once made sense to him—of writing an "essay on the jukebox," he had pictured it as a dialogue onstage this object, and what it could mean to an individual, was for most people so bizarre that an idea presented itself: having one person, a sort of audience representative, assume the role of interrogator, and a second appear as an “expert” on the subject, in contrast to Platonic dialogues, where the one who asked the questions, Socrates, secretly knew more about the problem than the other, who, puffed up with preconceptions, at least at the beginning, claimed to know the answer; perhaps it would be most effective if the expert, too, discovered only when he had to field the other’s questions what the relative “place value” of these props had been in the drama of his life. In the course of time the stage dialogue faded from his mind, and the “essay” hovered before him as an unconnected composite of many different forms of writing, corresponding to the—what should he call it—uneven? arrhythmic? Ways in which he had experienced a jukebox and remembered it: momentary images should alternate with blow-by-blow narratives, suddenly broken off; mere jottings would be followed by a detailed reportage about a single music box, together with a specific locale; from a pad of notes would come, without transition, a leap to one with quotations, which, again without transition, without harmonizing linkage, would make way perhaps to a litany-like recitation of the titles and singers listed on a particular find—he pictured, as the underlying form that would give the whole thing a sort of coherence, the question-and-answer play recurring periodically, though in fragmentary fashion, and receding again, joined by similarly fragmentary filmed scenes, each organized around a different jukebox, from which would emanate all sorts of happenings or a still life, in ever widening circles—which could extend as far as a different country, or only to the beech at the end of a railroad platform. He hoped he could have his “essay” fade out with a “Ballad of the Jukebox,” a singable, so to speak “rounded” song about this thing, though only if, after all the leaps in imagery, it emerged on its own.

Monday, April 27, 2015

"Fact and Fiction in Photography" (and in Nonfiction)

The New York Times recently ran a piece on "Fact and Fiction in Modern Photography," asking several prominent photographers to weigh in on issues relating to contemporary photojournalism. As always, I see a profound intersection between documentary photography and autobiographical writing, and the many interesting observations below might be read as commentary on like issues in creative nonfiction, such as questions of authenticity, of narrative versus calendar truths, of verisimilitude, of imagination versus document, and of fluid form in response to changing cultural conditions. (See "A Photographer and an Essayist Walk Into a Bar" in Bending Genre.)

From the intro:
There is a struggle going on in documentary photography between proponents of journalistic ethics and practices and those who believe that new visual and storytelling strategies are needed to communicate effectively in the modern world. The controversies surrounding this year’s World Press Photo awards have amplified this debate.

As the World Press awards are presented this week in Amsterdam, we have asked several photographers, curators and editors for their thoughts on the debate.

After reading these essays, we invite you to add your thoughts in the comments section. We will add selected comments of fewer than 250 words to this text to further the conversation.
Some select quotes:

"Once upon a time you needed bravado to get the winning image. Today, you need a strong moral compass and a knowledge of the history of traditional Western paintings." Azu Nwagbogu. Jury chair member, 2015 World Press Photo contest, director of the African Artists’ Foundation and the Lagos Photo Festival.


"What kind of stories do we want to tell?

We can show reality. Or we can, in projects which might be more personal, photograph fictional or staged stories.

But we cannot mix them. The beauty of journalism is that it is real. Real is pretty incredible. But it has rules. Personal projects that are more interpretive and express intimate ideas are valuable to us because there are no rules. It is our own secret garden. But we can’t fictionalize reality. That’s the bottom line.


I’m excited by the more contemporary photographic approaches to covering issues. But they must be truthful images. When photographers lie in their captions and misrepresent reality, they set all of us back. They create a mistrust of all of us and our photographs." Maggie Steber. Photographer.


"I think photojournalism is dead.

The language that developed over the last 50 or 60 years has become irrelevant. Because we’ve seen it all before, instead of emphasizing, it reduces. The idea and intent is still very much alive, but it’s not enough to show up and hope that extraordinary things happen in front of your lens. Why? Because now the whole world is a camera with an Internet connection.

The power of the single image has diminished. What’s more powerful are Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. The constant, relentless tsunami of images showing up in your virtual living room. That’s more personal, and more potent, than a solitary photograph on the front page of a newspaper.

We need new words to talk about what’s happening in the world, and those new words are ideas. When photojournalists resist the gravitational pull of the old vernacular, as Tim Heatherington did with “sleeping soldiers,” Richard Mosse did with “infra” and Donald Weber did with his images of Molotov cocktails from Ukraine, we wake up. We pay attention. And things begin to matter again." Phil Toledano. Photographer.


"I know what I would think if a reporter manufactured a quote because he thought it reasonable that the subject of a story would say something similar, even if he hadn’t. If caught, reporters doing such a thing would lose their credibility and most likely their jobs.

When it comes to photojournalism, I must be sure the photographer was truthful, that he or she didn’t set the whole thing up by asking people to create or recreate scenes.

I must be sure the image wasn’t substantially altered later, electronically, in a way that changed the scene by entirely, or partly, removing an inconvenient element of the photo. There is zero tolerance for that.

Neither should the photographer significantly darken (or lighten) portions of the image in a way that portrays the scene very differently from how he saw it, an area slightly more subjective perhaps and one open to the good judgment of the photographer, editor or contest jury.

The news and sports photographer should not interfere with, nor attempt to recreate or direct their subjects. Of course, their very presence will often affect the scene initially, but the most skillful practitioners build trust with their subjects and are eventually ignored, allowing them to document accurately.

Portraiture is mostly, by its very nature, a construct, usually involving posing and the use of lighting to accentuate certain features of the subject or the environment. We should clearly call it portraiture and know what was done to achieve the image on scene, in camera or in postproduction." Santiago Lyon. Vice president and director of photography, The Associated Press.


"The photographer’s purpose should be declared, and his or her methods, if differing from the 'traditionally accepted,' might need an explanation. But not out of fear but more simply because we need to know and also accept certain new ways of representation. Even if they are quite explicit, we need to train our eye, our brain to different ways of seeing in order to apply our judgment to what we are shown as viewers.

Soon we might not need those explanations anymore, because the “new ways” will become more common and therefore accepted and understood for what they are: an interpretive representation of reality.

As all photography is.

Back to point zero." Arianna Rinaldo. Director, OjodePez magazine, artistic director of Cortona on the Move.


And finally, this excerpt from a 1956 interview of W. Eugene Smith during an American Society of Media Photographers event. Interviewer Philippe Halsmann asked about Smith's practice of sometimes staging photographs:
Q. I remember your picture of a Spanish woman throwing water into the street. Was this staged?

A. I would not have hesitated to ask her to throw the water. (I don’t object to staging if and only if I feel that it is an intensification of something that is absolutely authentic to the place.)

Q. Cartier-Bresson never asks for this…. Why do you break this basic rule of candid photography?

A. I didn’t write the rules — why should I follow them? Since I put a great deal of time and research to know what I am about? I ask and arrange if I feel it is legitimate. The honesty lies in my — the photographer’s — ability to understand.
This photo of a battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa., in June or July 1863 is believed to have been staged, as were many of the battlefield photographs made during the Civil War by Timothy O’Sullivan, Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady. (Photo and caption via The New York Times)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

On The Road Again: Barrence Whitfield and The Sonics

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—Some observations of last night's Barrence Whitfield and The Savages/Sonics show at Thalia Theater in Chicago:

The fellas in the Sonics look a little softer in their collective middle than when I saw them a year ago; that's life on the road after half a century.

The Sonics' sax player Rob Lind took the mic for a rip through "You've Got Your Head On Backwards," which he introduced by saying, "As you can tell by the title, a poignant ballad." He holds the mic vertically, like a game show host, and can't stop grinning.

Though his playing sounded great, Sonics guitarist Larry Parypa looked a little distracted; he's gone on record as saying that he's somewhat mystified at his band's resurgence and current influence, and that he's already tired from touring. When he bent from the stage edge to shake hands with fans after the show his smile was wide and real. (Was it from relief?)

A woman behind me at the front of the stage appeared as if she could've seen the band in Tacoma in 1966 at a teen hop. She was tiny, wore dark shades, clutched her pair of red pointy-toed, spike-heel shoes in her hands, and held her own with the generally good-natured 20-somethings in the mosh pit. She was fantastic.

When a member of a band who put out their previous album when Lyndon Johnson was president says onstage, "We're going to play some cuts off our new album" and is greeted with rousing cheers, something cool is going on. Lind later announced that the Sonics' current single is number 10 in South America, to which the band grinned wryly, and not with a little disbelief.

Barrence Whitfield looks very happy to be onstage playing rock and roll, and his voice and charisma are undimmed in his fourth decade as a performer. I last saw his band 31 years ago, and that night ended with my friend and I celebrating by careening around the campus of University of Maryland in his '71 Pontiac LeMans; I think there was a girl and I know there were a dozen empty beer cans in the car, too. Apart from driving myself home safely and reasonably, last night's set felt as if it might've happened 29 years ago.

The Sonics ended the show, of course, with a stomping version of "Witch," a song Lind informed us that Jerry Roslie wrote when he was seventeen—a remark at which Roslie rolled his eyes and looked both bemused and proud. If Roslie didn't write the new album's "I Got Your Number" when he was seventeen, then I love it even more.

The sound of a loud blaring sax in a packed club will never fail to rouse me.

There's been some warranted online push-back against the hype and commentary that the Sonics are earning. Are they overrated? I agree that excessively considering three-chord rawk can result in diminishing returns, but I'll also admit to being astounded that the archaic, over-played riff of Barrett Strong's "Money" can be made stirring, nightly, in the hands of a great rock and roll band. 
Barrence Whitfield and The Savages

Peter Greenberg

Whitfield, Andy Jody, and Tom Quartulli 

The Sonics' Rob Lind, Dusty Watson, Larry Parypa, and Jerry Roslie

Freddie Denis, Lind, Watson, and Parypa


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Birth of Rock and Roll Playlist

I chipped in with Lance Ledbetter, Bill McClung, "Little Danny" Shiman, and Jim Linderman to compile a 138-track YouTube playlist for The Birth of Rock and Roll, out now from Dust-to-Digital: Blind Boy Fuller, Billy Lee Riley, and Lord Luther to The Staple Singers, The Mississippi Moaner, and Sister Ola Mae, with many obscure and terrific artists in between.

The playlist is here. I recommend listening on shuffle—with the volume up!

Monday, April 20, 2015

"Heartache, Lust, Jealousy, Revenge, Violence, Selfishness, Pride,Disenchantment, and Bedroom Blues," by Jean Shepard and Freddie Hart

The Neon And The Rain (1967)
Many Happy Hangovers (1966)
"Three chords and the truth." There's a reason why songwriter Harlan Howard's definition of a great country song is quoted so often. It's pithy, easy to remember, catchy, rolls of the tongue, like Howard's own best songs—and it embodies the essence of the aphoristic: complexity in simplicity. Just how it is that three chords are enough to capture something as permanent yet elusive as truth? I find myself drawn to country music because of its comforting, affecting formality, the knowing order it gives to chaos. And there's plenty of chaos to be arranged in keys, chords, rhymes, tropes, bridges, and choruses. Just look at any jukebox, or your favorite playlists.

As I've written before, I'm enamored of country music produced prior to the 1970s, before pop crossover success became deathly catnip to Nashville songwriters, and before production became slick and bloodless, the rural honky-tonk edges of the previous few decades smoothed over, ignored for the sake of radio. There's been a long tradition of country singers who chose tuxedos over Nudie suits, crooning over yodeling, strings over pedal steel, and supper clubs over honky-tonks—thanks to individual temperaments, splintering and evolving audiences, and producers Owen BradleyChet Atkins, and Billy Sherrill, among others—but there have also been regular, twangy volleys from the other side of town. Two albums released within a year of each other—Jean Shepard's Many Happy Hangovers and Freddie Hart's The Neon And The Rain—reflect a certain strain of mid-1960's country music that still aimed for the charts but wasn't yet neutered by orchestral string arrangements, laid-back playing, and softened tones. The playing on each of these albums is crisp, vigorous and precise, the kind of music made for AM transistor radios. These songs explore heartache, lust, jealousy, revenge, violence, selfishness, pride, disenchantment, and bedroom blues—your average day in country music—restraining them in formal, radio-ready decorum without sacrificing emotional content.

Shepard was a pioneer among female country music singers; Hart never quite achieved the commercial success his singing and interpreting deserved; alas, neither is talked about quite often enough, it seems to me. These tunes that amount to a heated conversation between two great singers, a six-act melodrama of domestic duress. The real thing.

Friday, April 17, 2015

"Now finally I know why I write this." Andre Dubus and the Essay Disguised as a Story

A week doesn't pass when I don't lament the loss of Andre Dubus, who died in 1999. His best stories powerfully dramatize ordinary people navigating loss, love, faith, and family, often tragically, as they struggle to behave their moral best in a complex, baffling, and brutal world. Dubus's sentences were never showy, never glittery with literary artifice; instead they were devastatingly simple (not simplistic), trading gaudy language for declarative statements and clear-eyed, virtually Naturalistic observations. He was a master of dialogue, too—believable, often terse and limited, as normal human conversation usually is. "A Father's Story" is one of the mammoth short stories of the century; "Killings," "The Fat Girl," many of Dubus's other stories are nearly equal its weight. These days I'm especially in love with "Rose," in part because it takes place in a dive, in part because it feels to me as an essay disguised as a story about an essaying mind.

"Rose," which first appeared in Ploughshares in 1985, and was collected in The Last Worthless Evening in 1997, is a long story narrated by a guy at a bar—by all accounts a regular there, the middle-aged drinker comfortable hanging with the local college kids as well as with other townies. Beery and warmly, he talks to himself, and us, about a lot of things, but mostly about Rose, a recent tavern regular, an older, vexed Catholic who one night relates to him the complicated, horrendous story of her marriage to a lout named Jim. In brief: one night, at the galling end point of years of abuse, Jim threw their young son against the wall of their apartment, breaking his arm. Rose, enraged and roused from the deadening years of her marriage, spirits the boy out of the apartment to the hospital. As she leaves, Jim sets fire to the apartment, endangering the couple's two daughters. Emboldened by something larger than herself, Rose dashes in to the blaze, rescues the girls, and moments later in the parking lot, runs over her husband repeatedly with her car. She's arrested, and is let off on charges of justifiable homicide; her children are removed from her custody and placed in foster homes. She never tries to locate them, choosing instead to drink herself and her grief, guilt, and sadness into abeyance. It's a gruesome, joyless account, full of unpleasant details, and the narrator, who has to imagine much of it, fills in in the narrative blanks that Rose can't remember, doesn't know, or won't bring herself to confess. At the end of the story, Rose leaves the bar, and the narrator's left to reflect on what he's been told.

What interests me is the story's point-of-view. Why did Dubus choose a nameless guy in a dive bar to relate Rose's story? After all, her narrative, loaded with tragedy and drama, neatly if grimly satisfies the narrative arc of beginning-middle-end, of climax and denouement, of flat and round characters, and could have successfully been told in third-person. I think that Dubus wanted to give us a narrator who's essaying the story and what about it matters, what about it engages him to explore further, to intuit links among other incidents, other people. "Fiction makes sense of imagined experience," Annie Dillard says. "Nonfiction makes sense of actual experience." I often refer to this distinction. In "Rose," Dubus has it both ways.

The end of the story is worth quoting. Earlier, the narrator talks about a weak and bullied boy from the University of Chicago whom he knew in the Marines. One night in the barracks, sleepwalking, the boy lifted an enormous locker over his head, a gesture he'd never make when awake, as he was too burdened by and self-conscious of his scrawny body and its limitations. He never learned of the feat; instead, he returned home thinking himself an embarrassing washout. Reflecting on this, the narrator says,
I hope that the man from Chicago has succeeded at something—love, work—that has allowed him to outgrow the shame of failure. I have often imagined him returning home a week early that summer, to a mother, to a father; and having to watch his father's face as the boy told him he had failed because he was weak. A trifling incident in a whole life time, you may say. Not true. It could have changed him forever, his life with other men, with women, with daughters, and especially sons. We like to believe that in this last quarter of the century, we know and are untouched by everything; yet it takes only a very small jolt, at the right time, to knock us off balance for the rest of our lives. Maybe—and I hope so—the boy learned what his body and will could do: some occurrence he did not have time to consider, something that made him act before he knew he was in action.
Maybe. The narrator's working through hopeful possibilities, as unlikely as they might be. "Like Rose." he continues, his thoughts focusing now. "Who volunteered to marry; even, to a degree, to practice rhythm, for her Catholic beliefs were not strong and deep, else she could not have so easily turned away from them after the third child, or even early in that pregnancy."
So the life she chose slowly turned on her, pressed against her from all sides, invisible, motionless, but with the force of wind she could not breast. She stood at the sink, holding the children’s glass. But then—and now finally I know why I write this, and what does stand out with unity—she reentered motherhood, and the unit we all must gain against human suffering. This is why I did not answer, at the bar, when she told me she did not deserve the children. For I believe she did, and does. She redeemed herself, with action, and with less than thirty minutes of it. But she could not see that, and still cannot. She sees herself in the laundromat, the supermarket, listlessly drunk in a nightclub where only her fingers on the table moved to the music. I see her young and strong and swift, wrapping the soaked blankets around her little girls, and hugging them to her, and running and spinning and running through the living room, on that summer night when she was touched and blessed by flames.
"Now finally I know why I write this." There's the essayistic moment in "Rose"—it comes at the end, naturally. This woman has confessed something virtually unutterable, and the story expands in the narrator's mind, changes him, charges him with the need to make sense of it. The occasional direct address to the reader, the conversational tone, and the constellation of connections the narrator makes—the boy in Chicago, volunteers for yellow fever in the Panama Canal, the strangers in the bar that night, events and people in his own life that remain unspoken, or unknown—are all hallmarks of the essay, borne of a generous and patient imaginative mind. The narrator, struck, certainly drunk, but genuinely moved, intellectually as well as emotionally, enacts David Lazar's great essayist's credo: "When I become interested in an idea, I want to know what I think of it—so I write essays."

Granted, most of us aren't told gripping, ready-made stories by quasi-friends in bars. (Wouldn't that be something if we were?) Regardless, the work was still left for the narrator to relate the story back to himself, to attempt to make sense of it (after Vivian Gornick), not only because of its dramatic urgency, but because of the insight it might possess. Earlier in the story the narrator describes himself this way: "I am fifty-one years old, yet I cannot feel I am getting older because I keep repeating the awakening experiences of a child: I watch and I listen, and I write in my journal, and each year I discover, with the awe of my boyhood, a part of the human spirit I had perhaps imagined, but never had seen or heard."

Is there, I wonder, a greater definition of an essayist?

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Disrespectfully Yours: Porter at the Bottom

I've long found myself drawn to country music produced in the 1960s. As the so-called "Nashville Sound" was taking over, replacing fiddles with strings and supplementing lone warbling with female-backed choruses, there were a few men and women still devoted to the kind of honky-tonk that was quickly becoming unfashionable. In the 1970s, as the temptation of the pop crossover chart hit became too tough to resist, the music produced in Nashville became watered down, mild, its rough twangy edges smoothed over. There were, of course, rebellions: the Outlaw Country movement arose in part as a response to a market- and label-driven uniformity that was harming country music's ornery soul, though Jennings, Shaver, Willie, et al, smoked a lot of weed and to my ears (and eyes) were pretty laid-back; by the late-70s and early-80s when Gary Stewart was charting with honky tonk songs about drinking he was considered a kind of revivalist. In the mid-1960s, country music could still be commercial (aspirationally, anyway) but hard and hillbilly-twangy, its pedal steel guitars wailing; the mainstream wasn't quite so soft.

Porter Wagoner is an interesting figure in this regard. By the time of his death in 2007 he'd seemed to certain generations like a permanent old-timer—the way your grandfather seemed like he was always 70 to you when you were a kid. But before Wagoner was the hit-making Svengali to Dolly Parton, the host of safe, middle-of-the road television talk shows on TNT, and the Grand Ole Opry tourism spokesmen, he cut a series of albums for RCA that took on despondency, heartache and alcohol abuse. These albums are as famous for their striking covers as for their music, but each album has a handful of terrific, if borderline corny, songs about the human condition. His 1968 album The Bottom Of The Bottle, a collection of "Skid-Row Joe"-delivered tunes about drinking and its sorry aftermath, is uniformly strong. The album begins with the sound of wine bottles clinking and a sorrowful recitation, and ends with a paean to the bottle—and in between is pretty much the same. The sound flirts with the contemporary mainstream, but the arrangements and playing are still tough and hard, during one of the final periods in Nashville when such a blend was possible and before it became retro. Part of the appeal to me of this record is its reflection of the culture that bore it: popular country music has always had a stagy quality, but the mid-60s loosening of cultural inhibitions particularly encouraged theatrically social narratives and striking album covers such as Wagoner's. That these images look positively quaint to us now is part of their charm, as the artists were compelled to operate within a certain level of mid-century Southern decorum. Of course, Hank Williams and many others before him were writing and singing explicit songs about the dangers of drinking and the pitiable site of a drunk in the alley, but as great as many of those songs are I'm especially drawn to the 1960s cartoonish though earnest portrayals of these sad men and women. In this same period Hank Thompson was issuing themed albums devoted to drinking and its aftermath, and together these records reflect a certain Nashville era.

The liner notes on the back sleeve, "penned" by Skid-Row Joe himself, are worth quoting in full:
Wagoner in the studio
Skid-Row Joe Remembers…

Sometimes it all comes back to me: a boy running through an open field as free. as wild and as happy as the wind that is running beside him. His whole world being wrapped up in things that interest little boys—with no knowledge of just how cruel and cold life can be to one human soul.

And so it was as I grew older: the things that life has to offer always seemed to be offered to somebody else; and everything that I turned to always turned away, except this bottle of glowing wine. The contents of this bottle can let me be anything or anyone I desire. I can go back and once again be a little boy, or I can be a successful businessman, or I can live in a pretty little house with little feet running across the floor and children calling me “Daddy.” These are things that most of us want; but some of us can never achieve these goals for different reasons. Maybe were weak or we just have a problem that’s bigger than we are. It eats away at the mind until we can no longer face life alone. So...we turn to the bottle. It is so sad to have to depend on it in order to look the world in the eye and say. . ."Look at I am!" But, sorry to say. I'm not proud of what I am.

Disrespectfully yours,

Skid-Row Joe

P.S. Porter seems to know all about how we feel down here on the Row and he songs it to the point. (If I didn’t know him better, I’d think he was one of us.) 
For added verisimilitude, the notes add Joe's "hand-written" signature, as shaky and woebegone as any alcoholic's from your most pitying dreams:


Pop a top to the era of Nashville concept albums:

Friday, April 3, 2015

Hank, The Killer, J.B., and Beck

Shortly after Hank Williams's death in 1953, MGM Records released "Kaw-Liga." The song stayed at the top spot on the Billboard Country chart for over three months. The b-side, "Your Cheatin' Heart," remained at No. 1 on the Country chart for a month and two weeks, and has become one of Williams's signature tunes.


Williams' head-hanging, desperately-confident song has been covered my countless artists since its release. These three versions suggest the vast range covered by heartache, jealousy, and bitterness:

Jerry Lee Lewis recorded a version of "Your Cheatin' Heart" during his Sun and Smash Records tenures, but it's his sorrowful reading onstage in front of the rowdy, beer-bawling crowd at the Star-Club in Hamburg, West Germany on April 5, 1964 that will stand:

In late 1969 James Brown cut an album with the Louie Bellson Orchestra, with Oliver Nelson conducting. Bellson was a jazz drummer, bandleader, arranger, and composer, usually credited with being the first to play with two bass drums, and on "Your Cheatin' Heart" his 18-piece orchestra swings hard behind Brown—J.B.'s longtime sax player Maceo Parker was along for the ride, too—amping up the swagger that was lost in the fumes of regret and pain in Williams's original. This is a ridiculously good performance, Brown at his screeching, strutting, confident best. His vocal, elevated by the orchestra's giant sound, may sacrifice some emotional subtly for brashness—but there's room in there for the heart, too.

Finally, Beck's performance from the 2001 Williams tribute album Timeless goes the other way, the sound of 3 a.m., sleepless, numbed pain too late for any kind of hollow victory: