Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Rodney DeCroo: On Guns, Crows, and Redemption (and his time at Monroeville Mall)

I've been aware of Rodney DeCroo for a long time, but I have never done him justice. I know my higher ups at the Straight respect him up and down, and I have dim memories of sitting at the (original) Railway Club with Rodney and (I think) Adrian Mack talking about life, music and writing, maybe from as far back as the days of the Nerve Magazine, where Mack was my editor (the Nerve, for those who don't know it, was a smart local music paper - kind of the Beat Route of its day, but edgier - that folded around 2006 or 2007). I've heard a few of DeCroo's tunes, watched Flick Harrison's compelling, surveillance-themed video for "War Torn Man", and I might have even been somewhere doing something else while DeCroo was onstage, but mostly my relationship with DeCroo has been one of neglect, so much so that, listening to a press download of Old Tenement Man, his new album, my reaction is one of embarrassment (at having arrived so late to the party) and shock: holy shit this guy is great! And... what the hell, he rocks! 

Turns out that's partially about sequencing. The album begins with two extremely - and atypically - heavy and dark songs: "Jack Taylor,' sung from the point of view of a young man that murdered his father, and "Jacob's Well," about finding respite from darkness and pain in, yep, drugs and alcohol. There's distortion, there's an oppressively heavy drumbeat, there's a stoned evil menace to both songs that puts them on a spectrum, for me, between Nick Cave's Let Love In and the second LP by Black Mountain, maybe. Folk music they ain't. I suspect that it might be possible even for people who know DeCroo's other albums well - Mike Usinger recaps them in this week's Straight feature - to be going, "Holy shit, this is Rodney DeCroo?"

Anyhow, that was my reaction. I was both relieved and a bit disappointed to discover that the album calms down after those two numbers, ventures into more redemptive, even at times upbeat territory, introducing some light to the darkness; why I was salivating at the prospect of a journey through hell I cannot say. But it's a very strong, compelling album. I know nothing of the backstory besides what is in Mike's article - nothing about Mark Evans, a friend and neighbour of DeCroo's on Commercial Drive who inspired the album, nothing of PTSD, and nothing at all about DeCroo's book of poetry besides the title, Next Door to the Butcher Shop. But DeCroo will be playing songs from the album, and reading some of his poetry, at the Cultch this Wednesday, so we managed to do a quick email interview - meant as an adjuct to Mike Usinger's piece (so do read that first, eh? Among other things, it contains some information DeCroo's painful background, growing up in Pittsburgh, which will inform some of his answers here...).

Rodney DeCroo by Rebecca Blissett

Allan: It suits the more "rock" aspect of the album, but "Jack Taylor" is a hell of a place to start the journey. Is Jack Taylor a fictional character, based on a real person...? Where did the song come from, and why put it as the first track? (Is prison part of your experience? I kinda thought of Steve Earle's songs about executions while listening to this...)

Rodney: Honestly Allan, sequencing is something I struggle with. My impulses always seem to go against the conventional wisdom. I played my original Old Tenement Man sequence for my friend Rob Malowany and he said Rodney, you're doing your contrarian thing again, you're placing the best songs near the end of the album. For example originally I started the album with "Ariel" and "Jack Taylor" was close to the end. So, Rob and I sat down and sequenced it together. He recommended that the album start strong, hence "Jack Taylor," "Jacob's Well." etc. "Jack Taylor" is based on someone I knew growing up. But the actual crime he committed was grotesque. His father was brutal, a terror of a man who abused his wife and children horribly. Sadly the boy I knew grew up to become an abuser as well and was sent to prison for many years. In memory of the boy I knew as opposed to the man, I wrote a song that still results in a brutal crime, but it's committed for arguably noble reasons. No, prison isn't part of my story though my biological father is rumored to have died in prison in California, but I don't know if that is true.

Do you have favourite examples of other writers or songwriters who manage to have compassion for the brutalized, dangerous and degraded?

When I was 12 I found a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. It devastated me. I was a patriot. I wanted to be a Marine like my Vietnam vet ( step) father. I read books about Paul Revere, George Washington, the American Revolution. I believed in the fairy tale of America as the champion of freedom. My childhood was steeped in trauma, violence, sexual abuse, addiction / alcoholism, bigotry and religious mania. My patriotic fantasy gave my life some crude form of dignity, purpose, a higher calling. I thought George Custer was a tragic American hero! Then I read that book and I couldn't make sense of it. It destroyed my fantasy. I was surrounded by far right Christian zealots and bigots so no one would answer my questions. No book has ever impacted me like that since, though Howard Zinn's A People's History of America is right up there for me. I can't say it was a "favorite" because there was nothing entertaining about it, but it decimated my patriotism and made question everything I thought I knew.

Mike's feature says the title of "I've Got a Mirror, I've Got a Gun" is "pretty much self-explanatory" but I went somewhere totally wrong with it before the song started playing: Travis Bickle ("You talkin' to me?" - I mean, he had a mirror and a gun, right?). Seems to me that it's actually about choices - between reflection or other-directed violence - but I could imagine different readings of the song... Where did it come from? Any unusual interpretations so far?

I'm not sure where it came from. The line "I've got a mirror, I've got a gun" came to me one night and I sat down and the song poured out of me. Yes, it would seem to be a choice between reflection,- in my case songwriting, poetry- or other-directed violence. Of course I've done both and still face those choices. But as the chorus implies maybe it's not that simple. I mean, I've gone to some pretty dark places in my drive to create. Maybe all roads in the end lead to the gun, for me.

There are actually a fair number of guns in your lyrics, at least on this album. Were guns part of growing up in Pittsburgh? How do you feel around them?

I was surrounded by guns. I hunted a lot all through my early and late teens. But hunting rifles and shotguns were a mundane part of life, a kind of tool. However hand guns were a different story. I stole a handgun from a hardware store when I was fifteen. I got caught but before I was grabbed by the manager, when I got that gun in my hand, the surge of excitement, the sense of power, was exhilarating and terrifying. I felt like Billy the fucking Kid. Guns are potent symbols for me. They have a dark, seductive, violent aura. They terrify me and fascinate me. In short, I'm an American.

The Biblical Jacob comes up a couple times on the album (and fittingly enough I actually first read the title as "Old Testament Man.") So do you have a religious background? Where did the Jacob story resonate for you? (I actually don't know my scripture well enough to know what's important or isn't, here - I'm trying to do a refresher on Wikipedia but I'm just getting lost and overwhelmed. Jacob actually sounds like a piece of shit, buying his brother's birthright and then lying to his father to get a blessing... it's not exactly a heroic beginning for a patriarch!).

My family were Fundamentalist Christians of the Jesus Camp variety and Southern Baptists. I didn't like the Biblical stories of Jacob when I was a kid, my sympathies were with Esau, I felt a connection to him. It's funny but I felt way more connected to the bad guys and rejects in the Bible. I felt for Cain, for Saul, for Absalom, for Judas etc. I hated the biblical heroes like David. In the story of Jacob and the Angel, Jacob fights the Angel all night and they fight to a draw. But then the Angel wounds Jacob's hip socket. For the rest of his life Jacob walks with a limp. He is maimed by God, but he is also given a blessing. However the character in the song "Like Jacob When He Felt The Angel's Touch" is eternally defiant toward God, like Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost. He views God as an oppressor, a tormentor and he longs for revenge against him. I initially thought of calling the album Old Testament Man but it just didn't ring right for me and some people would have misinterpreted my intentions. Old Tenement Man is meant to "echo" the other while saying a lot more.

 I confess, I am not a big "poetry" guy - and I actually grinned at the line about poetry in "Jacob's Well" about it being "such a fuckin' bore." What's your history with poetry? (Bukowski was a poet who was pretty cranky about other poets, come to think of it - though again, Mike goes somewhere else with this line, that you're speaking in another voice to address yourself, not other poets...)

Yeah that line is directed both at myself and at other poets. Frankly a lot of poets are academics. They're not poets. I have what I think is a healthy dose of contempt towards them but I also find my poet as class warrior attitude a bit tedious at times. The launch at the Cultch is both a CD release as well as a launch for my second collection of poetry Next Door to the Butcher Shop with Nightwood Editions. My poetry is written out of my life. I'm not an academic.

The second "Jacob" song (and here I meant "Like Jacob When He Felt the Angel's Touch", which appears second of the two songs that mention Jacob, but Rodney seems to have taken me to mean "Jacob's Well," which is the second song on the album) got me thinking on Nick Cave's
Let Love In - the arrangements, more than the lyrics, though he'd doubtlessly approve of the religious referent. Got me thinking of the Rolling Stone interview where Cave tells high school students to read the Bible, not Bukowski. But when it comes to compassion for the poor, it seems to me that someone can read BOTH the Bible and Bukowski. What do you think of Bukowski? Cave? Was Let Love In at all a touchstone, here, or...?

In my twenties I wanted to be Bukowski. I don't think much of his poetry now. It's just not that good though some of it is quite funny. I think as a writer his real achievement is his novels. I have to keep Nick Cave at a distance or else he'd overwhelm me as a songwriter. I am deeply impacted by his work but I try come to it solely as a listener, to be taken up, but not as a writer, or I'd end up just poorly imitating him. But I'm sure Let Love In has impacted me as a songwriter. How could it not? But not directly, in terms of "Jacob's Well." I would say it's more of a spiritual referent rather than religious in "Jacob's Well." When it comes to the Bible for me it's always about the poetry never dogma or religious practice.

Also wondering about a gamut of other songwriters who might have influenced you but... Art Bergmann has been on my mind lately. Is he someone you feel any affinity for? He also has a lot of darkness in his songs...

Yes, Art Bergmann is a songwriter I admire and listen to. I saw it as a good sign that he hired Lorrie Matheson to produce his last album. That was kind of what sealed the deal for me in my decision to have Lorrie produce Old Tenement Man. As far as songwriters who have impacted me, it's all the names you'd expect and some others you wouldn't. How's that for vague?

Was the album designed for vinyl? Because there seems to be a "side one/ side two" thing going on here, with the emotional arc of side one ending on the rather redemptive and forgiving "Radio," and then a fresh start with "Like Jacob When He Felt the Angel's Touch." Am I reading that right? Are you a vinyl guy vs. CD? Are you happy with the resurgence?

I knew the songs added up to an actual album, that they were of a piece. I guess in the back of my mind I was thinking in terms of vinyl but more because that's the format that shaped my idea of what an album is. I guess I prefer vinyl. I mean, CDs are fucking ugly, they're so disposable. Vinyl, the cover, everything about it is something that you want to engage with and keep around.

I pretty much love any song I've heard that has crows in it. Did "Half Blind Crow" take its inspiration from an actual crow? Any favourite crow songs?

A crow landed on the windowsill of my apartment. Half its face was burnt off and the other half was normal, black feathered and the other side was all white scar tissue, no feathers, there was no eye, it was just a burnt mass of scar tissue. Freaked me out. I thought it was an omen. Caused me to do some soul searching. Like Cash says "God's Gonna Cut You Down." "Half Blind Crow" is a similar type of song.

Any stories about Mark Evans that didn't make the Straight article? Are there moments on the album that reference your friendship with him that might not be so obvious to an outsider?

There are but I disguised them and they're going to stay that way.I feel that honors him more.

Not only have I paid far too little attention to you over the years, I have paid even LESS attention to Geoff Berner, a guy I know gets TONS of respect as a songwriter but whom I've never seen live, never listened to a full song of). Do you have any history with Geoff? Favourite moments in his catalogue? Have you collaborated?

I've never collaborated with Geoff. I pretty much like everything he's done.

Finally, a dumb, irrelevant question that  you're free to skip, but if I had grown up in Pittsburgh - growing up misanthropic and in love with George A. Romero - I would have spent tons of time at the Monroeville Mall. (The main mall in Maple Ridge always took me right back to Dawn of the Dead and it's nothing like the mall in that movie, except spiritually). Any Monroeville/ Romero stories?

I don't have any Romero stories, but Monroeville Mall was only about a 15 drive from where I lived. It was largest mall at the time in the area. My parents lost me when I was three in Monroeville Mall. I wandered off. Eventually a security guard found me. I skipped school once and took a bus there to meet a girl I had a teenage crush on - I'd met her at summer Bible camp- but she never showed. I was heart broken.

See Rodney DeCroo (with guests Geoff Berner and Fraser McKenzie) at the Cultch this Wednesday (note that it is an early show, eh?). 

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