Folk Implosion

Billy Bragg and Wilco continue to decipher the mystery and misunderstood legend of Woody Guthrie with the second installment of Mermaid Avenue

The second record offers interesting thematic turns as well. Bragg's "Hot Rod Hotel" revisits a night of revelry à la "Walt Whitman's Niece" from the first Mermaid, but from the point of view of the clean-up crew. Wilco puts a cracked mirror to the fond, almost hokey reverie of "California Stars" with Vol. II's "Remember the Mountain Bed." It's a wiser, sadder reflection on a long-ago idyll, rich with sensual details: bleeding holly berries, "turpentine smells from eucalyptus and pine," the taste of chewed twigs, fingers playing in grassy moss. In nine long verses, Tweedy, and Guthrie, move the mountain between intimate flights of romance and the bittersweet burden of a meaningful life and legacy.

Most of the outright differences between the two Mermaid releases actually comes at the hands of Wilco. As on Mermaid Avenue, Bragg continues to play himself as Woody Guthrie, the philosopher, humorist and visionary, yet his tracks wouldn't seem the slightest bit out of place on one of his own releases. Wilco, though, seems to have taken the project as an opportunity to pursue its own evolution, lyrically and musically, as it has with its last two efforts, Being There, and its production-pop masterpiece, Summerteeth. If Wilco had broken new ground with "Christ for President," the group has all but conquered and planted its flag on the territory in Mermaid II.

In the opening track, "Airline to Heaven," Tweedy launches a Guthrie barb at the contemporary equivalent of money lenders in the temple in a catchy pop number which, aside from its strident lyrical content, is a radio-ready single. Elsewhere, the wordy soliloquy "Feed of Man" turns on a phrase in which Guthrie promises to help "squeeze yourself up a new kind of God." Still, the darkest and strangest Mermaid II track is Wilco's "Blood of the Lamb," delivered as if Nick Cave were fronting a Salvation Army band. The song is, in fact, very much about salvation, and includes a verse suggesting that learning to love your neighbors "of all colors, creeds and kinds" is essential to the process.

Bragg (far left, standing) and Wilco keep Guthrie's memory alive with Mermaid Avenue Vol II.
Ken Schles
Bragg (far left, standing) and Wilco keep Guthrie's memory alive with Mermaid Avenue Vol II.
Bragg on Guthrie: "People like to think of him as some simple guy; well dammit, he lived half his life in New York City."
Bragg on Guthrie: "People like to think of him as some simple guy; well dammit, he lived half his life in New York City."

Even Wilco's music on Mermaid II underscores the band's evolution as a thinking person's pop-rock outfit. It's entirely likely Guthrie had been exposed to the Buddy Holly motif that Wilco mines in the music to "Flying Saucer," with its "Peggy Sue" rhythm guitar part, or to the coffee house jazz arrangement the band lends to Tweedy's beat-poet reading of "Feed of Man." Guthrie even might recognize a Fats Domino rhythm or Chuck Berry lick in the group's treatment of Bragg's house-rockin' "All You Fascists." And in his delivery of "Airline to Heaven," Tweedy even offers the sincerest form of flattery to Guthrie's best-known acolyte, Bob Dylan, a frequent performer in Guthrie's sick room during his final years.

Wilco recorded four new tracks especially for Mermaid II, and those set Guthrie's lyrics in contrasting post-rock effects, with melodies and arrangements that could only have arisen from the combined influences of American popular music over the years since Guthrie left this mortal coil. Bragg puts it best: "They do sound very post-Summerteeth, don't they? I don't think that's a bad thing."

When the first Mermaid album was recorded, Bragg explains, he'd been working on it with Nora for 18 months or so. Wilco had been on board for only six months and worked on the project in between studio stints for Summerteeth. "I think that's probably why they wanted to do some new ones," says Bragg, "because they've added some new ideas, you know? They were in a very nice position of being able to look at the album and say, 'Okay, it doesn't have a pop song, here's "Secrets of the Sea." It doesn't have a long ballad, here's "Remember the Mountain Bed." It doesn't have a "Walt Whitman"-type song to kick it off, here's "Airline to Heaven."' I think that really helped the record."

As for whether the resulting Mermaid music would have been to Guthrie's liking, there's just no telling about that any more than about his knowledge of baseball. Guthrie often appropriated traditional folk melodies to fit to his lyrics, and as for his own melody making, Bragg notes, "He's like myself. He didn't write music. The new songs I've got words written down for -- if anything happened to me, you'd never know what the tunes were. It just so happens the last 15 years of his life, Woody did no recording."

Guthrie did provide hints, though, in some cases. For instance, in the margins of the lyrics to "Flying Saucer," he wrote, "Supersonic Boogie." Says Bragg, "When I read those words . . . Woody had written this message to me 50 years ago . . . that not only gave me the key to this song, but opened the doors to everything else."

The lyrics to "Joe DiMaggio" had instantaneous appeal for the same reason, and, with "Against Th' Law," (spiritedly performed on Vol. II by Cory Harris), those were the first of Guthrie's lyrics that Bragg set to music. "The thing to me that was important about 'Joe DiMaggio' the song was that it put Woody clearly in the second half of this century, in the frame with someone who had married Marilyn Monroe. It kinda gives us Woody with tail fins, if you know what I mean. People like to think of him as this kind of simple guy from out in the prairies; well, dammit, he lived half his life in New York City. That song really drew me in."

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