After a five-year absence to write three works of fiction, Mark Germino came back to music with a great album in 2007. UnfortunatelyAtomic Candlestick
hardly raised an eyebrow in the national music press. Even the Bible of alt-country,No Depression
, passed on my offer of a review.
If you live in Houston and you know about the album, you either found out through Larry Winters’ “Spare Change” show on KPFT, you saw Germino’s packed show last year at Anderson Fair, or you’ve known about Germino all along. The crusty, bull-necked Tarheel doesn’t exactly make it easy to get his record. Sig’s has a few copies, but otherwise you have to track Germino down on the Internet and mail him a check in an envelope or buy one at his shows. Probably not the most effective marketing plan in the business, but suffice to say the man’s been burned in record deals.
If you do have the record, I’ll bet it grabs you by the ears and brain every time you come in contact with it. I hadn’t listened to it for a few months, but half way through I was again drawn magnetically to how-the-hell-does-he-think-this-stuff-up songs like “Married Man,” “Finest Brand of Southern Degeneracy,” and “Odessa Queen.” The final track, the epic ten-minute “Farrowhagen Plays Odetta,” would be this era’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” – if enough people ever heard it. I almost never get all the way through that one without choking up a bit.
When I tried to tell the Significant Other that the reason Germino is different is that he is so much more poetic than the average Nashville or Texas music writer, she, who saw him recently at the Bluebird Café in Nashville, said, “No shit. It’s like hearing someone singing The Odyssey. Even if he’s just talking to a junk man, he finds a way to tell the story like it’s some thrilling adventure. Who cares that there’s no chorus or whatever? He’s Bob Dylan with a better voice.”
I think it is safe to argue few if any on the scene today write verses like this one:
I can see you running naked down that old tobacco highway I can hear that country station signing off As a thunderstorm rehearses I can hear you humming verses Of ‘Sheherazade’ by Rimsky Korsakov
No matter the size of the memory bank, no one can sing The Odyssey without looking at some notes. I used to think there was something bogus about guys using music stands and shuffling through papers. But for Germino to remember just the poetry on his five albums would be like memorizing a volume of Encyclopedia Britannica, so I’ve softened my view of music stands.
This time through town, Germino will be playing some new ones that he hasn’t recorded yet; he’s got more than album of new material, but right now “I can’t afford it.” His last show at Anderson Fair saw more Veterans Against the War in attendance than at most peace marches. A Vietnam vet with two Purple Hearts, Germino knows war like few of our modern troubadours. His pithy as-yet-unrecorded challenge to Al Qaeda, Holy War (Infidel), is probably the most unblinking song anyone has written about the current conflict, and it doesn’t come from either a particularly liberal or conservative point of view. Germino isn’t one for party lines or easy answers; he simply points out the deception and falseness behind the Al Qaeda message, and ends with the chilling “If I see you I’ll kill you, though I do not hate you, you see, I hate the infidel too.” You get the idea he means it.
The achingly beautiful “All Wars Are Cut With Love” is another straight-to-the-heart-of-the-matter statement from a fellow Purple Heart who is a junk man these days:
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I’ve lost some eye sight and some recall and my will to anticipate I lost my left leg in the Ah Shau, May the Fifteenth, ‘Sixty-Eight
If you’ve never heard Radartown or Atomic Candlestick but you’ve got the entire Pat Green catalog, go back to Go and start over. Like Hemingway once said about Nelson Algren, this is a man writing. – William Michael Smith
Mark Germino performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 31, at Anderson Fair, 2007 Grant, 713-528-8576.