Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Song Of The Day - John Barleycorn Must Live

One of my favorite authors is Nick Hornby and one of his brilliant pieces of work is a collection of essays called, "Songbook." Hornby picks favorite tracks and writes about them in a brilliant, funny and sometimes incredibly poignant way. The stories go off in various directions with the only rule seemingly being that at the beginning of his thought process is that particular song. Cool idea. So in the best tradition of mediocre non-writers stealing the ideas of far superior writers I thought it would be cool to do this sometimes. So with apologies to Nick Hornby...

On October 1st, 1994 my buddy Trevor stopped by the pizza place where we both worked - he was off - and asked me if I wanted to hit the Robyn Hitchcock show with him that night. I had moved to Seattle after college about four months earlier and Trevor was pretty much my first friend there. We had already bonded over a shared love of the indie music (though Trevor's knowledge far surpassed mine and he was a guitar player himself who knew the Seattle scene really well). He was one of the rare people I met that actually knew who Robyn Hitchcock was and he was also a big fan. He had an extra ticket to Robyn's show that night at the Backstage, which I would discover that night was the best music venue in Seattle (sadly, no longer there).

This would be the first of many shows that Trevor and I would see together while I lived in Seattle, he would turn out to be my favorite concert buddy.

When we got to the Backstage we went straight to the bar and got some beer. Trevor asked the bartender who was opening and the guy told him, "Scott McCoy". I asked who and Trevor said it was the guy from Young Fresh Fellows. I'm pretty sure I said something like, Oh, cool. Yeah" but in reality had no fucking idea what he was talking about. But being 24-years-old I did not want to expose my relative lack of indie rock knowledge.

I would learn later, of course, that his name was spelled Scott McCaughey and just sounds like McCoy. He was great that night in his short set he did with Ken Stringfellow from The Posies, but I mostly remember the awesome Robyn Hitchcock show. I had seen him before but it was with his band in bigger venues opening for REM. This was my first Robyn show in a small club with him on stage by himself, I didn't know then I would see him dozens of times over the next 20 years; by himself, with a band, with violinist Deni Bonet, with Peter Buck from REM, with Scott McCaughey, and many other combinations.

Over the next few years going to concerts in Seattle I would see McCaughey all the time playing with other musicians I had gone to see, including when he became REM's permanent sideman on the Monster tour.

One year I got a job at a law firm - one of those great 90s slacker jobs that were so abundant in Seattle where I didn't have to actually do that much work. My favorite co-worker at the firm was this great guy named Gary. Gary was around 40 while I was in my late 20s and he had a wife and kids. I would discover that Gary was Scott's best friend since high school and that they had once been in a band together. I believe they also followed Mott the Hoople on tour through Europe.

Gary would be something of a role model for me during my time there. First of all he loved music, and despite being over 30-years-old he still loved hearing new bands. He also took his kids to concerts, introduced them to cool stuff, but also didn't begrudge them for liking some pop stuff he couldn't stand listening to. Gary showed me you could actually grow up without becoming "old." He was the first parent I ever met that made me think that it was possible to breed without becoming an asshole or a boring shithead. He had a lot to do with my thinking that having a kid might not be so bad after all. He is exactly the kind of dad I'm trying to be today

Through these years I had actually become more familiar with Scott McCaughey's music and had become quite a fan, especially of his project The Minus 5. I didn't realize it at the time, but that first show I saw him play back in 1994 was pretty much an early version of The Minus 5 since Ken Stringfellow and Peter Buck were his main collaborators on it back when he put together the first version of the group, which has had a rotating cast of characters through the years (including all the members of Wilco and The Decemberists as well as Robyn Hitchcock at various times, among many others).

Seems to me that people love to work with Scott for several reasons. It looks like he can play just about any instrument well, which is a great guy to have in your band. He also seems to have an insane musical knowledge when it comes to the history of rock-and-roll. Having talked to him a few times after shows over the years, I also know he's a hell of a nice guy. (I'm sure the number of times I've dropped Gary's name to him over the years  - "Hey remember me, I used to work with Gary in Seattle..." - has gotten a little annoying but he is always very cool to me).

And most of all, the guy knows how to craft a song. Seriously, how he has not become a bigger star has always surprised me since he can craft a pop song like nobody's business. Listen to John Barleycorn Must Live (off the excellent record Let the War Against Music Begin) and you are listening to a pop gem as good as anything The Beatles put out. Catchy, with lots of cool instrumentation going on underneath, it is also both an homage to music history - John Barleycorn being a British folk tune famously recorded by Traffic in 1970 - and a kind of redemption for the poor Barleycorn, who in the original song, "...should die." Scott McCaughey just decided that somebody must finally stand up for poor John Barleycorn, so this catchy tune is the result.

Scott's sense of humor as resulted in other beautiful pop numbers like With a Gun and also serious rockers like Aw, Shit Man. The man can make a song that makes you think of The Monkees and then turn right around and rock out with his cock out.

People who know how much I go see live music will ask me who I've seen the most and my answer is always, Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Bragg, and Jeff Tweedy/Wilco; all of whom I've seen between 40-60 each, with Robyn being the most for sure. But it dawned on me a couple years ago that I've probably seen Scott McCaughey almost as much as any of them, maybe even more than Billy Bragg or Tweedy. I've seen him play with Tweedy. I've seen him many times with Robyn Hitchcock - especially after he was a part of Robyn's backing band for a few years. I've seen The Minus 5. I've seen him in Tuatara, a kind of Seattle indie super group. I've seen him play with Peter Buck and Alejandro Escovedo. And for the past few years I've been loving seeing Scott play in The Baseball Project, a band composed of him with Steve Wynn (ex-Dream Syndicate) as the songwriters and guitarists along with Peter Buck and Mike Mills from REM, and excellent drummer Linda Pitmon. And as the name suggest, all the songs are about baseball.

Scott McCaughey has very stealthily become a major part of the soundtrack of my life. There are many artist/albums/songs that I think of when looking back on parts of my history and without my noticing Scott McCaughey became one of the dominant artists on that list. I really didn't even realize it until recently. On Record Store Day this year my number one target was The Minus 5 record called Scott the Hoople in the Dungeon of Horror, a sprawling, ambitious 5-LP boxed set of all new music with each disc playing on a theme (one of them being all songs about the band The Monkees, including a 9-minute track called Michael Nesmith, which just may be Scott McCaughey's American Pie and it is just as good if not better).

One of my favorite musicians, even though I didn't know that for years. Makes me think of seeing shows with Trevor, hanging out with the coolest dad I've ever known - which in turn reminds me that I'm happy I married my wife and had our daughter, and how much I love a well-crafted song and a great night out in a club watching great musicians.

Scott also reminds me that life is good.