The Secret Museum
By Jim Webb and Michael Mooney
February of 2010 saw the release of Johnny Cash’s last studio recordings from 2003, titled “American VI: Ain’t No Grave.” These were his final sessions produced by Rick Rubin in a project that originally started in 1995. A few weeks later in March came Texan Johnny Dowd’s latest CD called “Wake Up The Snakes.” Two musicians: one who left a musical legacy as a certified American legend, the other a little known singer, writer, guitarist who’s happy to add a few more fans with every new CD and club tour. Each man brings a personal intensity to his darkest songs that few others can match.
Johnny Cash was a deeply religious man his whole life. Even in the midst of his problems with drug addiction, he always looked at it as a test from God. Cash’s contradictions are apparent from early on as he embraced the wild rockabilly music of the ’50s while still singing gospel music every chance he had. He was known as “The Man in Black” who released hit albums and toured constantly. Throughout his career he sang thousands of songs; some of his best were about liars, robbers and killers. The main line from the title song on Cash’s last release goes “There ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down.” Near the end of his life the only songs that mattered spoke of faith, and the coming glory. He quotes scripture on “I Corinthians 15:15”—“Oh death, where is thy sting. Oh grave, where is thy victory.” His wife June passed away four months before him in 2003, and you can hear on these final recordings how ready he is to join her. There is a contemplative spirit that pervades these last recordings and the selection of buddy Kris Kristopherson’s “For The Good Times” was another beautiful choice. At the end of his life such lines as: “Don’t look so sad. I know it’s over. But life goes on, and this old world will keep on turning. Let’s just be glad we had some time to spend together” carry a gentle goodbye to his fans. “Ain’t No Grave” is a somber, melancholy album, but this poignant selection of final tunes ultimately becomes a touching farewell from one of America’s most popular performers.
Johnny Dowd is now 61 years old and was born in Ft.Worth, Texas, but raised in Oklahoma and Memphis, Tennessee. He didn’t get his first CD released until he was almost 50 years old, so you know his early songs had been fermenting for quite a while. His overall sound could be compared to the carnival barker Tom Waits colliding with a ’50s psychobilly singer named Nervous Norvus. His voice isn’t as soothing as Cash’s, and at times he treats it with a megaphone effect, along with the static of a fading radio station. “The Wrong Side of Memphis” was his first studio recording that finally got released in 1998, and following efforts like “Cemetery Shoes” and “Cruel World” are just as strong. These evocative lines are from a tune called “Final Encore”: “He died in a motel, surrounded by women’s shoes. Lipstick on a mirror had the words—I’m the king of the Jews. A Fender amplifier was still warm to the touch, in the corner a telecaster against a wall, like a cripple’s crutch.” 2010 finds Dowd releasing his ninth CD, entitled “Wake Up The Snakes,” and it’s a continuation of the mangled garage/blues sound that has been his trademark from the beginning. The organ is a little more prominent now, but Dowd’s still sitting on the front porch of the Bates Motel singing mysterious songs with black humor and intrigue. It’s a shame that Cash never recorded any songs by Johnny Dowd before passing away in 2003 from a diabetes related illness. They would have fit perfectly with his other Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings, and given Dowd a much needed boost as well.
Johnny Cash was a master singer of country, folk and gospel music whose sincerity and shared convictions with the common man appealed to a huge group of people. If Cash was a musical Billy Graham, bringing in large numbers of music lovers to his shows, then Dowd right now is just a small time itinerant tent preacher, scuffling to add a few more converts and barely having enough gas money to reach the next town. What Johnny Dowd does have is the storyteller’s gift, and a few more tales of his own still to tell. The circle remains unbroken.
I used to be a big fan of Lisa Germano back in the ’90s. There was something indefinable about her haunting, catchy music that struck a chord with me, and I had great affinity for her remarkably confessional (and frequently very funny) lyrics. Mainly, though, it was her voice that first caught my attention. Soft, measured and unaffected, with a barely-discernible Midwest twang, hers was the slightly cracked sing-song Voice Of The Prozac Nation. If you asked me in 1995 which female musical artists Rock Division were my all-time favorites, I would have obviously answered, "Number one: Kleenex/Lilliput," but Lisa ran a close third or fourth, right after Poly Styrene's consumerism-obsessed X-Ray Spex and—I'm almost embarrassed to admit (after all, it being 1995)—Huggy Bear or Bikini Kill, both of whom I stubbornly believed were about to rid the world of the growling Eddie Vedders (despite ample indications to the contrary).
So what happened to Lisa? Well, for one thing, there's evidence of creeping decline in the Germano disco-chronology, and, for me at least, her tales of dejection, uncertainty and woe eventually began to lose their appeal. I can’t say that Lisa’s lyrics became farcical or myopic over time (her subject matter never changed), I just didn't relate to them personally anymore. It’s as if she got stuck in her own discomfort zone and invited everyone to join her there, then decided she didn't like the company. What once was self-deprecation became self-pity. Loyalist that I am, I responded by attempting to tune out the lyrics to her new songs and focus solely on the music instead. That didn’t work (and it never does): Lisa's trademark mix of creaking parlor recording and studio-created sound collage now appeared increasingly dull and indistinct. Look no further than 2003’s dreary Lullaby For Liquid Pig, in which, after a five-year recording hiatus, Germano returned with more of the ol’ mopey-dope (bizarrely, this particular dud was reissued in 2007 by infamous Rock Creep Michael Gira on his Young God imprint—just to piss me off further?). The humor is gone and she simply won't let you in; on this record the listener is left with nowhere to go but OUT. But I can take a hint. Here's hoping Lisa Germano will one day lose the funk and rediscover her creativity. Maybe she already has; In The Maybe World was released in 2006. I haven’t heard it.
This bit comes from Lisa's own blurb for Lullaby For Liquid Pig (on her website):
"ok i give up
too hard to trust people
stay alone and LOVE your addictions
NOT A GOOD WAY TO LIVE
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