You haven’t read Motherless Child yet (though of course I hope you will, someday), and I’m not going to summarize the moment we’ve now reached. Let’s just say it’s the novel’s first fulcrum point, where very human hungers and longings careen into their less complex but more perverse extra-human analogues. As I wrote the scene, I was sure I was climbing a musical mountain of harrowing heartbreak, past George J., past the Brakeman, heading toward a tune of positively preternatural, if not supernatural, sorrow. Something like…
…well, like almost anything but what actually bursts from the Whistler’s mouth.
Warren Smith’s “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache” is the opposite of preternatural. Or supernatural. It may be the least spooky towering rockabilly classic I know. No blue suede shoes here. No mystery train. Very little reverb. Just an ordinary joe who’s been gone somewhere– for work, we sense, not for fun, certainly not on any kind of joyride– and comes home to find his girl gone. No– worse than gone. About to go. Swept off by another, but still there. The song’s rhythm is jaunty, irresistible. But Smith sings it with a barely– and I mean barely– suppressed desperation. No histrionics, but an angry, almost nasty edge. “Who you been lovin’ since I’ve been gone…”
What makes the song so delicious, and so devastating– the Whistler’s ideal combination– is the source of the singer’s desperation, and its depth. How does the interloper lure our poor guy’s girl away? He’s a long, cool cat, sure, he’s got that flashy car, he’s tall. But what does he actually do? “He held your hand and he sang you a song…”
In other words, the stranger pays court, romances, makes love to this girl, in the corny, magical, swooning way pop songs always tell us love should be made. Meaning, in the way that– for most of us, most of the time– work, and exhaustion, and lack of confidence, and self-consciousness, and self-doubt, will never quite allow. The interloper isn’t just stealing this guy’s girl. He’s stealing all girls. And the singer’s confidence that he deserves a girl. That he has anything to offer that any girl would want.
Which brings us to the other reason I think this track surfaced at this moment:
Where “Blue Yodel #9” (see post below) hides its sadness in its strut, it’s effectively the interloper’s song. This one’s the joe’s song. And in the jauntiness of its rhythm, the singer’s dawning realization that he really is in the process of having his heart broken, there’s a wild-eyed, amazed sort of liberation. A moment of forgetting to be self-conscious and giving in to the angst and the anguish– and the hope being dashed, and the love he understands, too late, that he really was ready to offer. A moment of just letting the feelings he really does have in him rip. The bridge bounces and claws right up to that underplayed but breathtaking punch-stop… and then, instead of a yowl, or a yodel, we get one of those astonishing rock music moments, the words and the cadence as smooth and hard and perfect in the mouth as a marble in the fingers, impossible not to play with, to repeat, to flick against the wall to hear its echoes. “He had a RED Cadillac and a black moustache…”
Warren Smith was always going to lose. He seemed always to know it. He was an afterthought on 1950s Sun, in the shadow of Presley and Lewis and Perkins and Cash, and even before he got himself addicted and took to robbing pharmacies, he sang with a disappointed edge. In the late 70s, when rockabilly had an unlikely resurrection, he went to Europe and was reportedly astonished to find himself playing to packed houses and standing ovations. The fact that he dropped dead of a heart attack at 47, right in the midst of a resurgence that seemed likely to eclipse any success he’d had in the decades before, seems sadly apt, somehow.
Early this year, Thomas Anderson– an occasionally terrific heartland rocker/songwriter who has never found his audience– released a track called “The Late Great Warren Smith.” It’s lovely, pretty much an elegy for another tryer who “did your best.” It’s plenty spooky. An ode to a myth.
But “Red Cadillac” remains something else. Something worse, and more wondrous. It’s neither elegy nor myth.
It’s the not-entirely-defeated ballad of the doubting, nearly desperate, whistling rest of us.