There can be few worse places to be on this earth than Houston in a July drought/ heat wave. Chicago in a January blizzard can't hold a candle to this for sheer misery -- the hair-curling humidity, the obnoxious sunshine, the 110-degree heat indexes, the ozone alerts, the smog, the mosquitoes, the fire ants All that stuff that the "Houston. It's Worth It." ad campaign tried so gamely to love about our city -- it all gets really hard to accept this time of year.
And if you look down the annals of Houston music history, it seems that this depressing weather seeps over into our songs. I submit to you that no American city has come up with more profoundly depressing songs than Houston, that only the English, Irish and Appalachian mountain folk can match us in misery.
Take Chris Whitley, for example, who comes to the Rhythm Room on Friday. Whitley was just born here -- he didn't live here for any meaningful amount of time. And yet that was enough, for Whitley has come up with some of the darkest, downest and most depressing music of the last 20 years. Local singer-guitarist and huge Whitley fan John Egan -- no stranger to a sad song himself -- is hard-pressed to come up with Whitley's bluest tune. "They're all like that," he says. "They're all about life, death, desire and oblivion. It's hard to say what's the darkest. I guess it would be that Den of Ecstasy album, the artistic suicide one that ruined his career with Elektra. And if I have to pick one song, I guess it would be 'Narcotic Prayer.' "
So in honor of Whitley's upcoming show and this horrid weather we've been having lately, it seems a good time to come up with a list of some of Houston's most depressing music ever. And what the hell, we'll include Beaumont and Port Arthur too, since they've come up with some good stuff as well.
First and foremost, George Jones. The Possum is the king of honky-tonk misery. There's "The Grand Tour," with lines like "Over there, sits the chair / Where she'd bring the paper to me sit down on my knee and whisper 'Oh, I love you' / But now she's gone forever / And this old house will never / Be the same without the love that we once knew." There's "These Days I Barely Get By" and "If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)" -- the mere titles say it all. (Bonus sadness points: "These Days" was co-written by Jones and wife Tammy Wynette, who left him two days after the song was recorded.) And, of course, there's "He Stopped Loving Her Today," which most people consider the most depressing song ever to come from Texas.
But not us. We think it's not even the saddest song to come from a Beaumont artist. That honor would belong to gospel-blues slide guitarist Blind Willie Johnson, whose haunting Depression-era masterpiece "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" takes abject depression to a whole other level. Indeed, Johnson is so sad that words fail him -- the lyrics are just eerie, heart-rending groans set against his keening, intricate guitar. The song was blasted into space on the Voyager probe in 1977, no doubt in hopes that any hostile aliens who heard it would be scared to come to a planet that could produce such sadness. (And though Johnson professed his music was strictly gospel, no bluesman's bio could match his for sheer, well, bluesiness. As a child in Marlin, long before he moved to Beaumont, he was blinded by lye hurled in his face by his stepmother in an act of vengeance for one of his father's infidelities.)
Of the three smash hits and future standards that former Houstonian Willie Nelson wrote in one week in his car while commuting from Pasadena to his steady gig on Hempstead Highway, two -- "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Night Life" -- are merely melancholy. "Crazy," the third product of that fruitful week, spikes the misery-o-meter more dramatically. A couple of years ago, Patsy Cline's luminous rendition of it was dubbed the No. 1 jukebox tune of all time by the American Jukebox Association. What more compelling proof of a song's sadness do you need? After all, if the barflies are punching it up on the juke, you know it's a sad'un.
With Kenny Rogers, there are levels of depression to deal with. First, there are the songs like "She Believes in Me" and "Don't Fall in Love with a Dreamer" that are depressing in the same way a root canal or a case of dysentery is. And then there's the Mel Tillis-penned "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town," which isn't as bad as his other stuff. But it is bleak as an Icelandic mountaintop, a tale of a wounded Nam vet and his faithless wife and, eventually, her funeral and his trial.
Like Whitley, Charlie Robison didn't hang around here long enough for the ink to dry on his birth certificate, but he did soak up plenty of our bayou blues. Exhibit A is "The Wedding Song," his 2001 duet with Natalie Maines. Though Racket considers this tale of a loveless marriage in "suburban Seguin" a Top 100 all-time country song, the tune went nowhere on the charts, probably because nobody wants to hear their marriage assessed in such starkly honest terms. Frankly, we're kind of surprised the United Divorce Lawyers of America didn't organize some kind of guerrilla marketing campaign on behalf of this little doozy, because had they succeeded in getting this tune in more people's heads, their business would have gone through the roof. And fair warning -- do not play this song in your house if your marriage is not on a rock-solid foundation.
Despite its rampant bravado, gangsta rap's very cornerstone is misery, and Houston's gangsta rap is second to none. A song like the Geto Boys' still-disturbing "Mind of a Lunatic" seemed to come from a neighborhood that made the South Bronx and South Central L.A. look like West U, and the GB's smash hit "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me" pretty much invented the "vulnerable gangsta" subgenre. (As Craig D. Lindsey has pointed out in these pages, the Geto Boys were among the first rappers to discuss mental illness frankly.) Z-Ro mines this vein today with tunes like "I Hate U Bitch," in which the title's words are less yelled in anger than choked forth as a sob.
Janis Joplin's life will make you cry if you sit and think about it. A tomboy who was never a good fit in what passed for high society in Port Arthur, Joplin went on to UT's greener pastures, only to be named "Ugliest Man on Campus" by some asshole frat or other. All of that pain came through in everything she sang, not least "Cry Baby," one of the most enduring songs in her catalog. (I would rate "Me and Bobby McGee" as the perfect melancholy tune, but it's not quite truly miserable.)
And we've come all this way and have yet to mention Townes Van Zandt. When the first serious song a guy writes is called "Waitin' Around to Die," you know you've got a master of misery on your hands, and Van Zandt fulfilled that promise early and often and right through No Deeper Blue, his all-too-aptly-titled final studio record and quite possibly the most depressing album of all time in any genre. The hard-living Van Zandt's father was a teetotaler who died at 52, and Van Zandt always believed that he too would die at the same age. He was fast approaching that date with destiny -- which he fulfilled -- when he made this record in Ireland, and there's an easy-to-see farewell-cruel-world air to all of the songs. There's "A Song For," which Van Zandt liked to call a suicide note in song. (Sample lyrics: "My sky's getting far / the ground's gettin' close / my self goin' crazy / the way that it does / I'll lie on my pillow / and sleep if I must / Too late to wish I'd been stronger.") There's clinical depression portrayed as an all-consuming supernatural witch in "The Hole." There's "Katie Belle Blue," which you could interpret as a simple lullaby to his then-preschool daughter, but you would be more accurate to see it as a forever farewell. And then there's "Marie," your basic homeless-boy-meets-homeless-girl-who-dies story. "Marie didn't wake up this morning / she didn't even try," Van Zandt half-talks. "She just rolled over and went to heaven / my little boy safe inside / I laid them in the sun where somebody'd find them / caught a Chesapeake on the fly / Marie will know I'm headed south / so's to meet me by and by."
As for me, I'm headed north. This hot weather's got me down.
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