Not too long ago, one of Jack Logan's friends paid him a strange compliment.
In assessing the 39-year-old Georgia singer-songwriter's sophomore CD--the endearingly ragged 1996 Restless release Mood Elevator--Logan's pal said he liked the album because he could tell that Logan was reading his words off a lyric sheet as he sang them.
It wasn't exactly the most glowing rave ever heard, but Logan got a laugh out of it. Then again, this relentlessly self-effacing working-class hero has a unique ability to poke fun at his own artistic quirks.
But if the critique had a tongue-in-cheek air about it, it still wasn't far off the mark. Logan is a compulsive songwriting machine who can create on command in the pressurized atmosphere of a recording studio, and who rarely lets the ink dry before committing a song to tape. Most often, Logan and a bunch of friends will gather around a portable tape recorder until one of them comes up with a riff or a chord sequence. Within moments, he'll usually have a complete lyric and vocal line to match the music. As a result, when he goes on tour, he often finds himself struggling to relearn songs that were written in a matter of moments and just as quickly forgotten.
Logan knows this instant-coffee working method has its artistic risks, but he's learned not to question what feels natural.
"It has its good parts and its bad parts," he says during a break from his current tour with pal/collaborator Bob Kimbell and backing musician Kevin Lane. "Sometimes you get something amazing that you'll never recapture, and other times you're just being lazy. I just have kind of an affinity for that of-the-moment thing, as long as it's not consciously so."
Although Logan's output is prodigious (closing in on 1,000 recorded songs), it's not so hard to fathom when you consider that songwriting isn't just a creative outlet for him, it's a social activity. Some guys get together on the weekends to play cards, watch football or shoot a round of golf. For Logan and his buddies, sitting around with a six-pack, a few guitars and a four-track has always been their way of bonding.
Between 1979 and 1993, Logan and collaborators like Kelly Keneipp (a friend since their junior-high days in southern Illinois) built up a stockpile of more than 600 songs. It seemed likely that these gems would remain unknown to all except the few who caught Logan's sporadic low-key club gigs in Athens, Georgia. Unbeknownst to Logan, however, one of Athens' favorite sons was a fan. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck had caught Logan in the act, and he recommended the obscure songwriter to Peter Jesperson of Medium Cool Records. Jesperson immediately fell in love with the stark literary quality of Logan's vignettes, and he enthusiastically rummaged through Logan's vaults and came away with a stunning, 42-song double CD, appropriately titled Bulk.
There had never been a debut album quite like Bulk. Beyond its sheer scale, it was unique because it documented 14 years of creativity, on a series of recordings that were made for personal amusement, with no thought that they would ever be released. In a way, it was akin to what The Basement Tapes would have evoked if Bob Dylan and the Band had toiled in obscurity for years at Big Pink, and introduced themselves to the world by unloading a career's worth of lo-fi classics. Bulk played into all our fantasies that somewhere, at this very moment, a secret genius is putting something magical on tape, which we may never get to hear.
"To me, the whole thing was just so surreal--the idea that we would try to put out a double record of these songs," Logan says in his patented, down-home Southern twang. "So I was just going along with the joke. I thought, 'Yeah, let's do it.' Of course, I don't think everything on there is good, by any means. I'm pretty critical of all the stuff I do. But at the same time, I'm not ashamed of any of it. It was what it was. [Jesperson] was so enthusiastic about it, it was flattering. And, oddly enough, I wasn't laughed out of the world."
Not only was he not laughed at, Logan earned astonishing acclaim for the album. Of course, part of the fascination was rooted in Logan's biography. The media were struck by the blue-collar baggage of Logan's story: a middle-aged swimming-pool-pump repairman making a bid for rock stardom. He was treated as a curiosity by many writers and TV talk-show hosts, as though the idea of a talented musician with a day job was an astonishing concept, when in fact it's the rule and not the exception. One of Logan's great gifts has always been a lack of self-consciousness, an ability to describe small details of everyday life without any sense of embarrassment. In the wake of Bulk, for the first time he had to guard against playing up to people's expectations. His hometown helped him maintain his proper perspective.
"If I'd been living in some small town in Idaho, and I'd gotten these reviews and been on TV and stuff, the local people would probably freak out," he says. "But in Athens, it's like, 'Big fucking deal.' I probably wouldn't even make the Top 10 best songwriters in Athens list in the local rag. I mean, there are so many good bands and, of course, they've gone through the whole R.E.M. thing.
"So, in a strange way, nothing has changed for me, except that I know that some of these songs may make it on a record. That is a big change, and once we're out touring, it really sinks in, but when I'm around home, I'm still working with the same people. If I play a local gig, it's still my friends who come out to see me. So nothing has changed, which is nice, really. I don't think it's affected my writing at all."
Logan followed up Bulk with the equally strong Mood Elevator, but when he presented Restless with a third album last year, the label's new owners balked. They didn't hear a "radio song" in the bunch, and they wanted Logan to rework the record. Logan chose to leave the label, and while he was in limbo, he talked with his old friend and occasional songwriting partner Kimbell about teaming up on a project.
Kimbell, the leader of indie-pop band Weird Summer, is the light to Logan's darkness, the McCartney to his Lennon. Kimbell's love of Big Star and the Beach Boys lends a buoyant, harmony-rich flavor to even Logan's most morose, Flannery O'Connor-inspired word play.
In typically humble fashion, Logan describes himself as having "tonally challenged eardrums," and he credits Kimbell with helping him develop a knack for harmony arrangements. On their stark new Parasol Records release, Little Private Angel, they sound like two grizzled Everly Brothers who've soaked their melancholia in too much booze. If these guys sang "Wake Up Little Susie," it would sound like a guy trying to jar his girlfriend out of a drug-imposed coma.
Yet Kimbell's sharp musical instincts help to sweeten the medicine, and lend a heartbreaking air of possibility to Logan's brooding. On the printed page, "Just One Kiss" probably reads like the lament of a man who's obsessed and frightened with the possibility of losing the woman of his dreams ("To have when you have not/To realize what you've got's worth keeping"). Yet when Kimbell bathes Logan's low tenor in his warm, soaring harmonies, the song feels like a cautious rapprochement with hope. Similarly, the New Orleans funeral tale "Marchin' With the Saints" is about as upbeat as any death song has a right to be.
The two songwriters met in Champaign, Illinois, in the early '80s, when both were stuck in what Logan calls their "New Wave punk-rock-pop" periods. Logan was in a band called The Anglers, which he remembers as being highly influenced by his fondness for Gang of Four and Echo and the Bunnymen.
"That was the first band I was in," he says. "I'd written a bunch of stuff before I ever got the balls to go out and play in front of people. Back then there weren't that many places, especially in the Midwest, that would let people play their own stuff. When there were a couple of clubs that would allow that, I thought, 'They're letting the idiots play, I'll take a stab at this.'"
Logan and Kimbell began writing together in the mid-'80s, and would get together every couple of years to collaborate. Nothing ever came of it until this February when they decided to record a few tracks and see what happened. It worked out so well that Logan hopes they can follow up Little Private Angel with another collaborative effort. His partnership with Kimbell even encouraged the notoriously set-in-his-ways Logan to experiment with an alternate songwriting method.
"Me and Bob went out of our way to do something different, so I wrote some words and had him come up with music to fit that," he says, adding with a laugh that "the results were pretty similar. It didn't really make that big of a difference."
The biggest recent difference in Logan's life is that he's finally given up the 9-to-5 grind to concentrate fully on his music. The demands of his tour schedule with Kimbell, which included a European stop, simply precluded him holding on to his most recent job, working at a factory that specialized in making pants for cops. He welcomes the change, but hasn't quite adjusted to it yet.
"I'm usually having to do something during the day to make some money," he says. "So it's been a strange few weeks off."
His newly elastic schedule should only make Logan more prolific, which would be a frightening thought if the results weren't so consistently strong. If it's tempting to consider what Logan could produce if he took a little more time to craft his songs, it's hard to argue with the guileless immediacy of a tune like "Frozen Rope," probably the only pop song ever to evoke the sensation of being in the batter's box in a tight baseball game.
"It's always best to be prepared in any kind of situation you get into, but at the same time, this is fucking rock music," he says. "You're not trying to build the perfect airplane. At times, you want things to be a little out of control, or sketchy, or to be able to improvise."
He says he enjoys writing now more than ever, and confesses that he's driven by a need to reach for the seemingly unattainable, the one song that says everything you're hoping to say.
"I don't think I've ever got there, and I think that's what keeps me going," he says. "You hope that one day you'll just write that perfect thing, where everything in it is right. But the best part of it is, you'll probably never get there, so you just keep going, and hopefully you'll produce more than just one perfect song."
Jack Logan and Bob Kimbell are scheduled to perform on Sunday, October 4, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa. Showtime is 8 p.m.
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