Saturday, September 28, 2019

And on the other side of town...

Dave Alvin and John Prine
Two songs. Two fucked up couples. And two wildly different fates.

Such is the human condition. The great songwriters John Prine and Dave Alvin have made careers by weaving their stories with a fiction writer's eye for detail and for the great themes of being alive as dramatized in ordinary folk leading ordinary lives. I first heard Alvin's "Wanda and Duane" the mid-1990s via Marshall Crenshaw's rollicking version on his album Marshall Crenshaw Live...My Truck Is My Home. It's pretty clear what drew Crenshaw to the song, who knows a good one when he hears it: the title couple's characterized so memorably and artfully with just a few trenchant details, and the whole sorry story swings.  

Their tale: Wanda meets Duane in a bar "next to an industrial park." He doesn't dig her clothes but "she felt real good in the dark." After only a few dates they shack up at Duane's place ("on the second floor next to the 605 freeway"), and fuck all morning, afternoon, and evening. Alas, he soon gets sick of her voice, she of his breath, and the final act dawns much sooner than either hoped or expected. They give it a try: she joins a gym and thinks of stepping out, but doesn't have the nerve or the courage to act; he smokes three packs a day and falls for the girls in his dirty mags. She thinks: Maybe someday I'll blow out that door and I won't blow back again—he thinks: Maybe someday I'm gonna jump out this window and I won't say goodbye when I leave. The kicker:
Well, ain't it a shame, but there ain't no one to blame
when love just slips away and only the lovers remain
So the names have all been changed to protect Wanda and Duane
Meanwhile, on the other side of town you'd be forgiven if, peering nosily into the window of another joint, you figured you're watching another couple go under. He bitches that she don't like her eggs "all runny," thinks crossin' her legs "is funny," scoffs at money, and gets down like the Easter Bunny. Her turn: nope, they haven't gotten it on in a long time, and one day she caught him sniffing her underwear. Oh and he drinks beer "like it's oxygen." His turn again: she thinks that his jokes are cheesy, and get this, movies about convicts turn her on; she puts ketchup on her breakfast and swears like a sailor when she shaves her legs. But he's a "whacked-out weirdo and a love bugged junkie." When his paycheck arrives he howls at the moon.

Yet unlike Wanda and Duane, neither is gonna ever let the other go:
In spite of ourselves we'll end up a-sittin' on a rainbow
Against all odds, honey we're the big door-prize
We're gonna spite our noses right off of our faces
There won't be nothin' but big ol' hearts dancin' in our eyes
I love these two songs immoderately: each is funny, sad, brutal, and hummable. What more can you ask for in a song? "Wanda and Duane" appears on Alvin's second solo album Blue Blvd, released in 1991, and in his gruff manner, Alvin sings about the couple with affection and knowing sympathy. (Check out Crenshaw's live version if you like your vocal with some sweetening.) He seems baffled but shruggingly OK about the couple's fate, recognizing the way men and women pull apart in mysterious but sorrily inevitable ways. Their story's sad, but so common it's like the weather: if you don't like it, wait, and the sun will be around eventually, and then gone again. It's that elemental, that unavoidable. That humbling.

Meanwhile, Prine and his partner Iris Dement sing in the first-person, and their rustic intimacy makes the couple's love-against-odds all the more graphic and beautiful. "In Spite Of Ourselves" is, I feel, one of the great love songs of our era. It's the title track of and sole original on Prine's terrific album of duets he released in 1999—he also sings with, among others, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood, Melba Montgomery, Emmylou Harris, Dolores Keane, and Patty Loveless—and so effortlessly catches, in its wry details and characterful touches, a partnership strengthened by the pull of opposites, a winking recognition that bitching and moaning and pulling faces at your partner's shitty habits might mask a genuine tenderness and frankly vulnerable admission that you want and need that person beyond all else. Love: it's complicated. As in so many of the great songs, Prine and Alvin sketch a dimensional portrait of men and women in just a few words, a clutch of smart, catchy phrases, and a melody, and by the time the chorus comes 'round again the second time, the discoveries inside are only bigger and even more affecting. "Wanda and Duane" isn't a love song, though it's kind of an anti-love song; anti-heroes abound in "In Spite of Ourselves," but they'll both improbably ride into that sunset together, snortin' and cussin' but lovingly side-eyeing each other all the way. Life is surprising and funny and unpredictable, and these songs sing that so well.


Here's the great pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green's instrumental version of "Touch My Heart" (written by Aubrey Mayhew and Johnny Paycheck, and first cut by Ray Price in 1966, who had a hit with it; Paycheck cut his version a year later). It's got lyrics, yet not here. Take a listen. What story, what messy life, do you hear this song scoring?

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