Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Marty Robbins - El Paso City

The El Paso Trilogy Part 3

The final part of Marty Robbins' El Paso trilogy, after the original massive hit and its eight-minute follow-up Feleena, must be one of the oddest songs in his catalogue.

By the early 70s Robbins was as interested in Nascar racing as he was in music. He left Columbia Records in 1972 and in the next few years released a handful of decent albums for Decca but struggled to find hit singles.

That all changed with his return to Columbia in 1976 and the album El Paso City. It became Marty's only number one album and its title single his first chart topper since 1970.

So why do I think the song is so weird? Well, for a start it borders on the post-modern. As Marty flies over El Paso "from 30,000 feet above the desert floor" he looks down and ponders "I don't recall who sang the song but I recall a story that I heard/ And as I look down on this city I remember each and every word". Later, as he becomes fixated on the hero of El Paso, the hit he wrote nearly 20 years before, he sings, "There's such a mystery in the song that I don't understand".

I find it fascinating that Marty Robbins visited the same subject matter three times in three decades. If El Paso City's lyrics are to be believed there's a metaphysical root to his obsession with that West Texas town:

My mind is down there somewhere as I fly above the badlands of      New Mexico
I can't explain why I should know the very trail he rode back to      El Paso
Can it be that man can disappear from life and live another time?
And does the mystery deepen 'cause you think that you yourself      lived in that other time?

MP3: Marty Robbins - El Paso City

Find it on Marty Robbins - A Lifetime Of Song

The truth behind the song is more prosaic. After Marty Robbins' biographer Diane Diekman left a comment on my previous post I asked her if she had any information about El Paso City. Diane kindly sent me this titbit:

Marty told Ralph Emery in 1977, "I was going to write a song about an airline pilot and a stewardess. They were married, see. He flew for one airline, she flew for another, and she went to El Paso. He flew over El Paso on his way to Los Angeles... He was trying to compare his love for this woman to the cowboy's love for Feleena in the song El Paso." One day Marty was flying over El Paso, and the reincarnation idea hit him. He had the song written by the time his plane landed in Los Angeles.

Related Posts
Marty Robbins - El Paso - part one of the trilogy, plus a great version by Tom Russell
Marty Robbins - Feleena (From El Paso) - the follow-up tells the story from the female perspective

Related Links
Diane Diekman - author of forthcoming Marty Robbins biography
Ultimate Twang: El Paso City - overview of the 1976 album

Monday, 21 June 2010

Marty Robbins - Feleena (From El Paso)

The El Paso Trilogy - Part 2

In my previous post I wrote how Marty Robbins had to fight his record label bosses to release El Paso in 1959 because they felt it was too long and too wordy. Marty won and the song became a Grammy-winning hit and country music standard. Robbins revisited that West Texas town with a sequel on his 1966 album The Drifter. Feleena (From El Paso) tells the story from the girl's perspective and at over eight minutes is twice as long as the original.

As well as a lengthy back-story before Feleena reaches El Paso the song also adds an extra layer of tragedy. The original El Paso ends with the narrator dying in Feleena's arms. In the sequel Feleena then takes her own life with her lover's pistol after hearing his parting words. There's then a marginally upbeat coda as we learn that the two lovers' voices can still be heard in the streets of El Paso.

MP3: Marty Robbins - Feleena (From El Paso)

Find it on The Essential Marty Robbins

Here's a video of Marty performing the song. Unfortunately I have no idea where it's from.

Rosa's Cantina features in both songs. I actually discovered the photo at the top of this post on Jim Peipert's cycling blog. It really is the same place that inspired the song. According to Jim, Marty Robbins stopped off at Rosa's on his trips back home to Arizona after performing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.*

As far as I know song sequels like Feleena are pretty unusual. The only other one I can think of is Chuck Berry's Bye Bye Johnny, which tells the story of Johnny B Goode from his mother's point of view. If you know of any others, please do leave a comment.

I'll be concluding my posts on Marty Robbins' El Paso trilogy later in the week. Stay tuned for a particularly odd song.

* In a comment below Marty Robbins' biographer Diane Diekman says my trivia that Robbins was inspired by a real-life Rosa's Cantina is nonsense. I'm always happy to be corrected!

Related Posts
Marty Robbins - El Paso - part one of the trilogy, plus a great version by Tom Russell

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Marty Robbins - El Paso

The El Paso Trilogy - Part 1

Marty Robbins' El Paso was a number one hit in 1959 on both the country and pop charts. I'm sure I probably first heard it on one of the country compilations my dad used to play in the car when we were kids. I didn't really hear the song though until I bought Tom Russell's tremendous album Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs after seeing him play for the first time at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2006. The way Tom sings it, starting with his cowboy yelp against the accordion that plays throughout, it's like an old Western movie in miniature. It's certainly not hard to imagine Katy Jurado playing Feleena and Randolph Scott as her ill-fated lover.

MP3: Tom Russell - El Paso

Find it on Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs

Two things have recently made me think about the original. First, I finally got a copy when I bought an Ace Records compilation of cross-over country hits from the 50s and 60s. Secondly, I'm currently reading Dana Jennings' fascinating book Sing Me Back Home. It mixes a thesis that country music from 1950 to 1970 represents a "secret history of rural, working class Americans in the 20th century" with memories of Jennings' own Faulknerian family of "adulterers, drunks, and glue sniffers; wife beaters, husband beaters, and child abusers; pyros, nymphos, and card cheats; smugglers and folks who were always sticking their cold, bony hands where they didn't belong."

It's always worth thinking about the context in which music was created. As Jennings points out, country music really only became known as country and western music in an attempt to "shed its 'hillbilly' stigma" and "take advantage of the nation's love affair with Westerns, with singing cowboys and their faithful horses". In 1959 Westerns were ubiquitous, especially on TV with Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Rawhide and Maverick just the well-known small-screen cowboy adventures. In the same year cinema-goers flocked to see John Wayne in the Howard Hawks classic Rio Bravo.

MP3: Marty Robbins - El Paso

Find it on The Golden Age Of American Rock'n'Roll - Country Edition

With six-shooters so prevalent in pop culture it's no wonder that El Paso was a hit. Yet Columbia'a A&R boss Mitch Miller wasn't so sure and nearly rejected it. He felt the song was too long (singles in the 50s seldom exceeded four minutes) and too wordy. In rebuttal Robbins cited Johnny Horton's hit The Battle of New Orleans from earlier in the year as proof that there was a market for narrative songs with a Western flavour. As a compromise Columbia released a radio edit. America's DJs vindicated Robbins by choosing to play the full-length version that was on the flip.

El Paso became Marty Robbins' signature song. Although he was born in Arizona and is buried in Nashville, the Texas city he made famous even named a park in his honour. Robbins was also unable to leave the song alone. In 1966 he released its first sequel, Feleena, which he followed ten years later with El Paso City. More on both of those songs later in the week.

Related Posts
Feleena (From El Paso) - Part 2 of Marty Robbins' El Paso trilogy

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Tom Waits - Theme Music for Iron Man 2

Fans of the Song Wars segment on Adam & Joe's much-missed 6 Music radio show will know the pair are parody song maestros. This week's edition of Adam's Big Mix Tape, guest presented by alter-ego Ken Korda, had a film theme and featured this brilliant imagining of what might have happened if the theme song duties for Iron Man 2 had been given to Tom Waits rather than AC/DC. There is of course a loose connection between Tom and Iron Man 2: Scarlett Johansson released an album of Waits covers back in 2008.

Here's Ken Korda's introduction followed by the song itself.

MP3: Ken Korda - Iron Man 2 backstory

MP3: 'Tom Waits' - Iron Man 2

Related Links
Adam Buxton's Big Mix Tape - listen online to the 6 Music show
Adam & Joe's Blog - contribute to their shows
Adam Buxton's personal website - includes Adam's blog
Tom Waits - official site

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Willie Nelson @ Hammersmith Apollo 11/06/10

My ticket for Willie Nelson's concert at the Hammersmith Apollo last night stated "Doors Open 6.30pm. Start 7.30pm (prompt)". In my mind that meant either the thrilling prospect of a legendary three-hour marathon or that Willie's main priority was getting back to his hotel in time for Newsnight Review. Things commenced on the dot at 8. Willie strolled onto the stage wearing a black Stetson as an enormous Texas flag unfurled behind him and immediately kicked into a swift version of Whiskey River. 90 minutes later he was gone.

I'd expected a more laid-back vibe from a man famed for his daily marijuana habit; perhaps anecdotes from his storied life or introductions to some of the songs. While it was great to hear classics like Me and Paul and City of New Orleans they lacked the resonance I know from the records. Willie Nelson is now 77 and has been playing these songs for decades. As he gets older, his voice weaker and battered guitar ever more knackered it's inevitable that the thought and feeling he once invested in his performances would wane. His solution seems to be playing the songs by rote and getting through as many hits as possible in an hour-and-a-half.

The gig's breakneck pace was set early when three of Willie's classics Crazy, Night Life and Funny How Time Slips Away were breezily dispatched as a medley. These are wonderful, timeless songs you want to wallow in and absorb but Willie rushed through them so quickly and without evident reflection on his brilliant lyrics to make that near impossible. Similarly his attempts to get the audience singing along to the choruses of Beer For My Horses and On The Road Again were somewhat thwarted because we couldn't keep up! Willie's band includes his younger sister Bobbie whose preference for lightning-quick honky-tonk piano rolls hardly helps slow things down.

It's rare at a gig that you're desperate to hear the words, "And now I'd like to play some songs from my new CD" but I was really looking forward to hearing tracks off Willie's latest album Country Music, preferably his ominous new version of Merle Travis' Dark As A Dungeon. We got Man with Blues and the haunting Nobody's Fault But Mine. Perhaps because they're relatively new additions to the set list Willie did seem to take a little more time over them.

The highlight for me came after Willie swapped his cowboy hat for a bandana and played three Hank Williams songs - Jambalaya, Hey Good Lookin' and Move It On Over. There was an energy about these songs that made its way to our seats towards the back of the circle.

With the exception of a bloke wearing an I Love Slayer t-shirt most of the audience looked like Willie Nelson veterans: white-haired couples in their 50s and 60s, some wearing western shirts and bolo ties, who enjoyed hearing the hits no matter how they were performed. There was no encore but before leaving the stage Willie generously shook hands and high-fived the fans in the front rows. The set closed, as I suspect it always does, with The Party's Over. Its weary refrain "Let's call it a night, the party's over, and tomorrow starts the same old thing again" unintentionally summed things up perfectly for me. Willie is on a treadmill. I hope he knows when it's time to get off.

Related Links
Willie Nelson @ Hammersmith (Songkick) - set list and user reviews
Willie Nelson official site - has a good on the road diary
Willie Nelson @ Edinburgh Playhouse - perceptive review by Graeme Thomson for the Arts Desk
My Night Out With... Willie Nelson - a post by me on the Word magazine site

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Around North London with Bob Dylan

I was not at work today and ended up taking a sunny stroll to Crouch End, a leafy enclave of North London I'd not visited for years. My first stop was the excellent Flashback Records where I bought a CD called Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan. It's a new Righteous Records release that compiles original versions of the folk and blues songs Bob Dylan recorded on his early 90s acoustic albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. The purchase turned out to be prophetic.

MP3: Bob Dylan - Stack A Lee

Find it on World Gone Wrong

After picking up some other goodies at Oxfam I stopped at Banners restaurant, a local institution that prides itself on a family atmosphere and "global home cooking". By coincidence I was directed to a small table under this plaque:

I've been to Banners a few times and knew that Bob had apparently eaten here in 1993 but until today had never seen the table he'd enjoyed his burger at. 

An August '93 story in The Independent claimed that as well as enjoying Crouch End's casual dining scene Dylan had also been house-hunting in the area. The paper reported that Bob "viewed a semi-detached house priced at around £310,000 two weeks ago. Sandra Parker, who owns it with her husband, Stephen, answered the door to a tall man and a woman. 'Behind them was a little guy,' she said. 'I was a bit annoyed because they were an hour early and I told them to wait so I could get the dog out. When I realised who the little one was, I was speechless.'"

All Dylan related Crouch End tales are in some way linked to local resident Dave Stewart. A month before Bob ate his meal at Banners Stewart directed the wonderful video to Blood in My Eyes in Camden Town. In his Bob Dylan Encyclopedia Michael Gray (no fan of Mr Stewart) reckons "it's one of the few Dylan videos that's any good". What do you think? 


The Mississippi Sheiks original, titled I've Got Blood in My Eyes For You, is one of the tracks on the Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan compilation and I thoroughly recommend the Dylan Encyclopedia entry on the group.

MP3: The Mississippi Sheiks - I've Got Blood in My Eyes For You 

Find it on Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan

Dylan wrote good liner notes to World Gone Wrong. About the Sheiks he opines "all their songs are raw to the bone & are faultlessly made for these modern times (the New Dark Ages) nothing effete about the Mississippi Sheiks."

I can't write about Bob Dylan, Dave Stewart and Crouch End without relating one of the greatest of all Dylan anecdotes. In 1985 while Dave and Bob were recording together the former Eurythmic invited Dylan to his house. The Sunday Telegraph reported the rest of the story:

Dylan, at a loose end one afternoon, decided to take him up on it and asked a taxi driver to take him to Crouch End Hill. With the bewildering array of streets in the area all named for various permutations of Crouch, End and Hill, the cabbie accidentally dropped him off at the right number but in an adjoining road.
Dylan knocked at the front door and asked the woman who answered if Dave was in. As it happened, her husband was also called Dave, so she said: "No, he's out on a call at the moment", and Bob said he'd wait. Twenty minutes later, Dave - the plumber, not the rock star - returned and asked the missus whether there were any messages. "No", she said, "but Bob Dylan's in the living room having a cup of tea".
Bob and Dave's ramshackle North London sessions are immortalised in this Whistle Test sequence that also features fellow Crouch Ender Andy Kershaw bravely asking Bob's thoughts on his dire Live Aid performance and whether he's been "going wrong in the past"

The result of Dylan and Dave's musical efforts can be found on the 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded, a record that's been called a "depressing affair" and "the absolute bottom of the Dylan barrel". 

MP3: Bob Dylan - Under Your Spell

Find it on Knocked Out Loaded

Related Links
L'Etranger ( - story behind painting on World Gone Wrong cover
Bob Dylan Encyclopedia - Michael Gray's blog
Expecting Rain - superb Dylan resource
Banners Restaurant - I recommend the hash browns
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