Teenage Titan (February 5th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

I bet every Wanda Jackson fan can remember where they were when they first heard her.

My good friend Bryan Stuart and I were riding up U.S. 67 after midnight, sometime in the mid-Eighties, on the way to his home in Jacksonville from Little Rock. Of course, we had the radio on–Arkansas when it’s late at night, you know. We’d just witnessed a classic show–Gatemouth Brown, with Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks–and we were in very high spirits. Suddenly, a feral voice ripped a hole in our post-concert meditation:

Some people like to rock

Some people like to roll

But movin’ and groovin’s

Gonna satisfy my soul!

I was like, “Fuck!”; I like to avoid degrading the language, but that is what I was like. At that point in my life, I was still foolishly believing I knew what I needed to know about rock and roll history (bulletin: I still don’t). Before it’d started, the song was over–ahhh, rockabilly–and like thunder claps after lightning cuts the skies, our minds were cuffed in the ensuing silence.

“Who the hell was that?”

I didn’t know, and I don’t think Bryan did. Oddly, I was sure the singer was black*, though today she doesn’t sound at all that way to me–as if one can always tell. Eventually, some way, the Queen of Rockabilly, the Wildcat of Maud (Oklahoma), Ms. Wanda Jackson, was revealed to me, and she’s been a fixture on my turntables ever since. Singing on the radio before Elvis did, forced by the Opry to cover her shoulders (she never went back), writing songs in class instead of doing homework, deliberately aiming to bring a Marilyn Monroe-influenced sexual shock to the early rock and roll stage, she is a true heroine–she did all that before she’d turned 19.@

This all comes to mind because I’m engrossed in her excellent new autobiography Every Night is Saturday Night. It’s charming, spunky, and revelatory–and you forget it’s a still-active octogenarian telling you the story, one of the last titans still standing.

*Oddly, Wanda is described on her Wikipedia page as belonging to the genre of “black country rock.” But I get that. And by the way, did you know that the Jackson classic “Fujiyama Mama” was a cover version?

@Nicole and I were lucky enough to see Wanda play here in Columbia in 1998, in the old parking lot of Shakespeare’s Pizza, with Robbie Fulks opening. She was very high energy–and she was 60 then!

Short-shrift Division:

SZA: CTRL–As I told my students last week, it is great time to be alive if you’re an r&b fan. This young lady can really write–in some ways, it’s one of the most confessional r&b recordings ever–and she has an ear for settings that is white acute. A St. Louis, Missouri, product.

The Lester Young Trio–1944. Prez in amazing form (check the stunning “I’ve Found a New Baby”!), and Nat King Cole’s very fleet and fluent pianistics provide a bracing contrast to Young’s laconic lines.

Heart of the Midwest: Money for Guns’ 21st Century Life


“When Pierre started this city
He set the streets just for you and me
But he never could have had all this in mind
And if you’ve got the time, I’ve got the time….”

“I’m Your Mark,” (Will Saulsbery)

From his early days in the Frustrated Bachelors, through his days doing dirty work as a substitute high school teacher, to his current work in St. Louis’ Money for Guns, Will Saulsbery, the band’s principal writer and lead singer, has never yearned to get the hell out. As a nearly lifelong Missourian (like Will), I can testify that that is, in fact, a yearning one hears frequently, particularly from artistic types. I can definitely understand such a yearning; often, particularly when my mind drifts to our state’s legislature, I feel the state name should be spelled “M-I-S-E-R-Y.” What I like about Saulsbery and his band is that, in their music and words, they capture fairly vividly what it’s like to live here, without condescending, which, for all our growing resemblance to dubious states that shall remain nameless, would be a dick move.

Paradoxically, though, part of what makes one a Missourian is the desire to escape, however temporary that desire might burn. The album begins with “Dead, Drunk, and Pretty”‘s persona lost in a dream of New Orleans (are the referenced “gutter punks” from the dream, or on St. Louis streets?), and ends with a drawn-out, dope-sprung dream of El Dorado, in which a lover uncomfortably comforts his junkie paramour with the likely-doomed idea of cutting and running from St. Louis’ radiating gateway. It’s hard not to notice, though, the telling, unifying details that evince an admirable rootedness: of interstates out of Kansas, of hawks’ eyes, of trains (three references, not sure if one is a MetroLink), of the founding father Pierre Laclede, of cold-eyed live burials, and of straight-out declarations like “I can’t wait to see St. Louis again”–without its “TV or the gunmen.” I wonder if all of this is all that Missourian, or if it’s U.S.A. circa 2015. I think it’s Missouri. “The Catholic kids drowning this town” of “I’m Your Mark”–which, by the way, lead into another suggestion of leaving–might be the tip-off.

I don’t trust labels as far as music goes. They usually sell the creators short. 21st century Missouri seems most known for Nelly, Tech9 (sp?) and, vaguely, Americana. The former two rappers couldn’t be more different, though they are underrated in how of this place they are; the latter genre has to stretch a little to incorporate The Ben Miller Band, whatever Mark Bilyeu’s up to, Kentucky Knife Fight, and this group of ne’er-do-wells–just to name a few I know well. Kansas City, St. Louis, and Columbia all have their bohemias, but, from my experience, they don’t seem rooted in this place. What feels Missourian about Money for Guns is the touches of Americana, especially Dr. Todd Jones-Farrand’s mandolin, which doesn’t always do the usual things (check out his runs and comping on the at-times-punk-jazzy “Red High Heels”!), without the abandoning of a straight-ahead Midwestern kid’s love of straight-ahead rock and roll. Epitomizing this strategy (that seems like a cynical word, and I do not mean it that way) are the album’s two lead cuts, the title track, and the flat-out beauty quoted twice already, “I’m Your Mark.” I wouldn’t call a daringly extended piano-fueled coda “Americana”; I’d call it guts and growth. And vocals are sure enough music, as well; Saulsbery’s tenor has matured considerably from American Trash, where at times he seemed to be trying to catch the elusive (but fading) tail of Conor Oberst’s hyper-emotive star. On 21st Century Life, he’s content to let the natural tears (rhymes with “bears”) in his singing convey the matters of his Midwestern heart. I find that Kyle Kelley’s baritone changes of pace need a little work, a little nuance. But I don’t remember him taking verses or leads on the debut, so perhaps all he needs is time.

I really like this album. I can tell you from three listens that “Dead, Drunk, and Pretty” (the production of which shows up the rest of the album a shade), “Red High Heels,” and, especially, “I’m Your Mark”–a definition of the heart of the Midwest if anything I’ve heard is–are worthy of your downloading if you are just wanting to tire-kick or dip your toe in the Money for Guns pool. I would lay down a Jackson that the album will grow a layer of intensity performed live, so look for them in your town. And, thinking about the band’s (and the, um, auteur‘s) future, I will also wager that the opening out of this record into the wild air of the state’s streets, highways, and rails, from American Waste‘s dank and dangerous club interiors, indicates creative minds focused on more than just the song at hand. That is the sign of artistic endurance, folks.