Friday, October 23, 2015

My history with Dar Williams' music, plus Dar and the Berrigans: outtake

One of the main reasons that I wanted to talk to Dar Williams - and certainly the main reason I got into her music - was because of her song about the Berrigan brothers, "I Had No Right." (Click the first link for the Wikipedia articles on two of them, Catholic priests who stood up against the war industry; I'm not going to explain my admiration for them here). That was the song that started me on what was a sort of positive slippery slope of admiration for Williams' music...

I mean, yes, part of my enthusiasm for Dar is that my girlfriend Erika Lax likes her a lot. But Erika likes a lot of female musicians - including ones I also like (Nina Simone, Big Mama Thornton, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Koko Taylor - all brilliant, and hey, wait a minute, not a one of them white), but there are also ones I do not have any strong feelings at all about (Florence and the Machine, Adele - neither offensive nor interesting to me). There are even, yes, a few for whom I have little tolerance (such as Sarah McLachlan: note that I did not write this, but...). Still, I was listening to Dar Williams (or at least the song "I Had No Right") before Erika and I really got together, so it gave me a point of musical common interest to latch onto with her, which seemed, in a semi-Machiavellian, this-will-be-a-good-thing-for-our-relationship kinda way, to be a wise thing to have. To put it crudely, if we're gonna be listening to white women now and then, unless I can get Erika into Patti Smith, Carla Bozulich, Nina Hagen, the whole Riot Grrrrl thing, or Laurie Anderson and such (no great successes so far on those fronts, and even I don't listen to Laurie Anderson much these days), it's going to make it wayyyy easier for me if we have one we both like!

Well, there's Ellen McIlwaine, Erika digs her, but I mostly only like her early work (see also here). And I don't listen to Mecca Normal much at home, truth be known, though Erika enjoyed the concert I took her to...

Anyhow, when it comes to Dar, for pretty much the first two years of my knowing about her, it was all about the one song on the one CD (The Green World). Had played the rest of the CD and not really paid close attention; I just didn't need it. Sometimes it's like that, you know? Ask any fan of Motorhead who only has Ace of Spades and No Sleep Til Hammersmith in his/ her collection: sometimes the stuff you like by an artist is so good that you simply have no need to dig deeper; you literally do not know what you're missing. Or take Larry Norman's "Six Sixty Six," that song is so great (thanks to Frank Black for bringing it to my attention!) that I have no real need to delve into Norman's other work (plus he's one of those Jesus People hippies, and I'm a little afraid if I dug around too deeply I'd find things that are offputting, y'know?).

But I didn't mind other Dar Williams songs I heard, even if I didn't pay close attention to them. I picked up a couple of her CDs during my thrift store scrounges to give to Erika, and sometimes (on "white woman nights," heh) I would put them on.

Then sometime really recently - maybe after I discovered that Dar Williams is coming to town - I heard and actually paid attention to "The Christians and the Pagans." It's an amazing song. It brings tears to my eyes. It's a powerful, very funny, and thoroughly enjoyable bit of songcraft.

Then I heard Williams' new album, and there's this ridiculously catchy, infectious pop anthem on it, "FM Radio." Which I can relate to completely, even though the references to early 70's culture, by co-writer Jill Sobule (who is a few years older than either Dar or myself) sort of predate me.

Anyhow, the slippery slope picked up steam heavily after that, and now there's a bunch of Dar Williams songs I'm in love with, spread throughout her career, and I'm totally excited that Erika and I are going to see her on Saturday. There's "Buzzer," about the Stanley Milgram experiments. There's a more recent song, also off Emerald, called "Mad River." There's "The Mercy of the Fallen" - that's a great live version of the song, by the way, and it's popped up on some of Dar's recent setlists, so here's hoping she plays it Saturday. Even songs like "The Babysitter's Here" are amazing to me, in spite - no, because - of the fact that it is about experiences I have nearly no reference point for, since I am not female and never really had any babysitters that mattered to me that I remember... It has ceased to be about sharing with Erika, or wanting to have common ground with her, or whatever; Berrigans or not, I'm now a full blown Dar Williams fan, convinced that Williams is way up there as a songwriter, maybe not QUITE on the level of Townes van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, or, say, Phil Ochs... but very nearly (I'm just not going to deal with Bob, here, okay? Let me off the Bob hook). And, like, Townes and Ochs are dead (and Kris is feeling mortal), so I'm getting close to being able to say, male or female, Dar Williams is one of the greatest American singer/ songwriters alive today... in fact, I think I say that in the intro to an upcoming Big Takeover piece that I did, with material that didn't pop up in my article for the Georgia Straight.

The irony is, I didn't manage to find room in either article for the part of the conversation that dealt with the Berrigans - the main reason I wanted to talk to her, but maybe not the best-known of her songs. Here are a few outtakes then, from my October 12th conversation with Ms. Williams (she is a great interview, by the way). Very excited about Saturday's show!
Allan: I’m an admirer of the Berrigan brothers, and that I know of, you’re the only person who has written a song about them.

Dar: I don’t know if I’m the only one! That’d be nice. But they are a pulse, and I’m glad I did it, because everybody knows them. It’s like, you read about them, but everybody knows them and knows their family and their work.
Allan: Absolutely. I grew up as a punk kid in Vancouver, and there were some people here who went to jail for so-called terrorist actions. And there was some graffiti that was spray painted on a wall on Commercial Drive for a really long time, “Jail the Real Terrorists - Litton, Hydro, Red Hot Video,” who were companies this group had done direct actions against. And it seems to have been paraphrasing something that Phil Berrigan wrote about them. He apparently said that blowing things up is wrong, but at the same time, you had to bear in mind who the real terrorists were. Jail the real terrorists.
Dar: Perfect, yeah.
Allan: Did you ever play the song for them? I mean, Philip’s gone now, but…
Dar: I played the song at Daniel’s 80th birthday.
Allan: Oh wow.
Dar: I met him, and I know Phil’s son. I’ve met all three of Phil’s kids, and I met Jerry, the oldest brother, I just met his daughter in Syracuse New York. Actually, can I tell you something great? Catholic Worker Houses were founded by Dorothy Day, so there’s an AIDS hospice Catholic Worker House that these guys work at, that these two men founded, and it’s called Friends of Dorothy. Which is great. So half of the d├ęcor is Dorothy Day, and half of it is Wizard of Oz. So all of that wonderful gayness is right in there in a Catholic Worker House, and it’s just the most beautiful thing. And that is the place that served as a hospice to Jerry Berrigan where he died [in July of 2015, at age 95]. He was the oldest, the one who didn’t get arrested [at least not til 2011, at age 91, protesting Reaper drones].
Allan: And your birth name is Dorothy, too…

Dar: Yes! (laughs). And… Friends of Dorothy is code for gay! I don’t know if you’ve heard that expression before. If someone’s a friend of Dorothy, it means he’s gay.

Allan: Did Daniel Berrigan have any particular reactions to hearing the song?

Dar: He said in some ways he liked it better than the action itself!


Celebrating Phil Ochs said...

You've Put Ochs in some good company there.

Allan MacInnis said...

As he deserves!