Go to a gig, read a book or watch a film it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that true Characters are few and far between. Where once there were performers, writers and actors who went to the trouble of living a little before they went to the trouble of becoming famous, we now live in a world that seems to impatiently skip that intermediate step. You only have to compare a 1970s Parkinson interview with its modern-day equivalent to see it in action. For actors like Robert Mitchum or Cary Grant, “Before They Were Famous” meant something more than an early appearance in a toe-curling breakfast cereal ad. In the case of Mitchum, he could talk about criss-crossing
In music it’s the same. How many contemporary performers have biographies that can compare to, say, Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker, Hank Williams, Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie? These are all artists who lived full, rich and sometimes dangerous lives before they became famous. What all these people have in common is that their experiences, their hardships and often their demons shaped their art.
Which brings me to Jim White.
Alt.country maverick Jim White is an old school Character with a capital ‘C’ who lived a full, rich and often dangerous life before he recorded his first song. A glance through his biographical details can be a surreal experience. He spent ten years as a New York taxi driver at the height of the city’s crack wars, during which time – and on more than one occasion – he nearly got a bullet in the back of his head [“I started doing it to pay my way through college,” he told the crowd on Thursday. “Bargain! Two educations for the price of one.”]. During another stage of his life he was an Fundamentalist Christian Evangelist [what is it about edgy, uncompromising artists and their close shaves with a religious life? Martin Scorsese, Johnny Cash and Bill Hicks pop into mind]. Oh, and he’s also worked as a boxer and an international fashion model. Yes, you read that right.
I mentioned in a previous post how the absence in between-song banter compromised my enjoyment of a gig. Well, Jim White more than made up or this. As a raconteur, he’s in the same league as Tom Waits [and that’s damned high praise indeed coming from lifelong Tom Waits fan]. The gig was interwoven with often painfully hilarious tales that included a theological arms-race that escalated to an Existential stand-off with the head of the Amsterdam branch of The Church of Scientology, as well as a harrowing account of the second time someone tried to kidnap him [it involved a late-night bedroom confrontation, an impromptu Bible reading and a hare-brained suicide mission to Mount Ararat].
He started the set with the menacing Static on the Radio and struck a nice balance between fast stuff and the slow stuff [A Perfect Day To Chase Tornados], between the old stuff that people wanted to hear [If Jesus Drove a Motor Home] and the newer stuff that he wanted to play, and between the “dark little songs” and a daft but lovely ode to the colour turquoise [Turquoise House]. Despite only playing with what he described as “3/4 of a band” [two guitarists and a midget Japanese drummer who later turned out to be fictional], they played tight and mean, and there was plenty of effortless on-stage banter between the guys [and some mock-redneck exchanges with the support act, Jenny Owen Youngs, who was invited up as a guest vocalist].
Anyhow, I’ve got to cut this short – it’s and I’m supposed to be going to a Jeffrey Lewis gig tonight. Must dash…