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It’s cold again. The bipolar weather is having violent mood swings, one day cold, then warm with driving rain, and then sunny with strong winds, and today bitterly cold again. It’s like spring was here for a drive by shooting before winter came back.

So once again I’m packed into layers for a cold morning’s walk. One way to heat up the blood, though, is with some good guitar. So I dial through the iPod until I find one of my new acquisitions, Willie Nelson’s “Texas Flood.” It’s from Milk Cow Blues and has some gut-busting guitar solos.

After those eight minutes from Willie and Co., I’ve woken up, warmed up, and developed a yearning for some more plank spanking, as Q magazine used to call guitar playing.

So I decide to listen to the song in which I, your humble correspondent, appear live with Richard Thompson. It’s the version of “Can’t Win” he recorded live at the Bayou in Georgetown on November 7, 1988.

The Bayou, now long gone, was a nice little club nestled beneath the expressways at the bottom of Georgetown, not far from the Potomac River. Its setting, on a quiet street under tall highway bridges, made it feel like something on a movie set. I saw a bunch of bands there, including the Liverpool-based Texas, David Bromberg, and Jerry Harrison and the Casual Gods. The last show I saw there was Nick Lowe (The Impossible Bird tour). Shortly after that I pulled up stakes and moved to Pennsylvania and the Bayou closed down. Cause and effect?

It was a modestly sized club, with a low stage, a wooden dance floor that also held little tables with stools, and a bunch of tables along a balcony that ran around the perimeter. My not-yet-wife and I went to the Thompson show with another couple and we arrived early so we could eat dinner first. The husband liked Thompson; his wife not so much. She was a friend but the kind of person who believes you should eat a taco with a knife and a fork. We got a table right at the front edge of the balcony, looking down at the stage. When I went to the bathroom before the show I nearly bumped into Thompson, who must have been emerging from the dressing room.

Even during the show I realized I was seeing something spectacular. The band included Clive Gregson and Christine Collister, who had a recording career of their own. The drummer was Kenny Aronoff. Thompson mentioned that he had been recruited from John Cougar’s band at the last minute to replace the regular drummer, who had been injured.

The band played two sets that night. My wife-to-be and the other couple left after the first set. Even though I had work the next morning, I stayed and was rewarded with a completely different set without a single repeat. Then I went out into the cool fall night and trudged all the way home, up Wisconsin Avenue, past the big National Cathedral, and on through Woodley and Cleveland Parks.

I’m pretty sure they played “Can’t Win “in the first set. It’s another one of Thompson’s typical feel-good songs. It originally appeared on the Amnesia album. The chorus goes like this:

They said “You can’t win. You can’t win.
You sweat blood. You give in.
You can’t win. You can’t win.
Turn the cheek. Take it on the chin.
Don’t you dare do this. Don’t you dare do that
We shoot down dreams, we stiletto in the back”
Oh the nerve of some people, the nerve of some people,
The nerve of some people,
I don’t know who you think you are, who you think you are

As I said, feel-good stuff. Kind of the Thompson version of “Walking on Sunshine.” Except instead of sunshine it’s broken glass. And it’s not walking it’s crawling. On your belly. But pretty much the same thing otherwise.

more guitarWHFS broadcast the show and I taped it off the radio. I still have the tapes. When Thompson released a box set called Watching the Dark, he included this performance on one of the CDs. Years later, when I saw Thompson play at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I was looking over the merchandise table and saw a CD called More Guitar. I can’t recall how I knew it was the Bayou show, because there’s no indication on the CD. There must have been some sign on the table. Anyway, I snatched it up because I knew I was on the CD, too. In fact, I later found an online review of More Guitar that said this: “Hardcore Thompson fans will recognize ‘Can’t Win’ as the same version on the three-CD compilation Watching the Dark, complete with one fan’s frenzied “Yeeeeooooo!” at the beginning.”

I take exception to the word “frenzied.” I prefer “enthusiastic.” Because that fan was me.

You see, I knew that on every album Thompson likes to include a guitar workout song. The album versions tend to fade out just as the guitar solos are really picking up steam but the live versions—well, they give Thompson an excuse to do what he does best, which is playing the guitar as though his life depends on it. The album version of “Can’t Win” was fine, but I suspected the live version would singe your eyebrows. So when he started the song I let out with a “Yeeeoooooo.”

My enthusiasm proved to be completely justified.

“Can’t Win” starts out deceptively quietly. “I started to cry, they put gin in my cup . . .” (That’s my cue.) Then, like an argument that gradually spirals of control, it builds and builds. Slowly, steadily, with a place for the band to take a deep breath, count to three and calm down before heating things up all over again. The song gets angrier and angrier until Thompson is chanting, over and over again, “The nerve of some people, the nerve of some people, the nerve of some people . . .” And then words fail him.

His guitar, however, does not. What happens next is one of the most magnificent guitar solos in rock and roll history. It shifts and changes, transforming itself into something new every four bars, but always increasing in intensity. The guitar rages and roars and swoops and screams until, by the end, it’s just emitting howls of outrage and despair, coherent in its incoherence; mad, gifted, out of control yet so controlled. It’s like a cry from a tortured soul. And then the band comes together and puts an end to the thing, with just the notes of the organ hanging in the air like smoke until Aronoff’s drums add the period. Everyone—on and off stage—was united in some kind of catharsis. I still find it thrilling and amazing every time I listen to it, and I’ve listened to it a lot.

I’m glad I was present to experience that and add my exquisite bit of background vocals. I’m still waiting for my royalty payments, though.

Someone has posted the audio to YouTube and you can find it here:



February 2013
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