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Robert Burke Warren: Faith, Love, Tomboy Girls and Sissy Boys, and the War of Northern Aggression
and: Remembering Andy Morris, 1966-2000
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records
(more articles from this author)
2000-10-11
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Home Office Records, home of Mr. Cyrano. Dateline: New York City. This time of year night practically ripples as it laps in to stroke the brisk paling days into calm rest. Even the crustiest New Yorker slows to take in our urban shard of the Grand Scheme -- which, for us, is a shivered sigh of crisping foliage glimpsed between buildings, and a pale, evocative moon promising chill to come. Even our radioactive Mayor must take his occasional thoughtful pause. I guess. And we shrug into our annual boasting jackets, wondering why anyone else in this country bothers to play pro baseball when they must know we're waiting for them at the end of the line. Next up: moments after the Halloween momentaries come down and the turkey and pilgrim decorations are mounted, we'll start bellowing that it's way too early to start thinking about Christmas. And then, the snow.

Robert Burke Warren: Man in Black, in Austin
Kicking off our slice of SXSW 2000 at the Pecan Street Cafe.

The sap is running up north of here. Your Mr. Cyrano spent a couple of cold ones wrestling nature and allergies up in the grand rurals of Maine in younger days (land of scenic names like Goosepecker Ridge, the Passagassawakeeg River and the township of Misery Gore), and the New England seasonal sway is so overpowering that it takes up easy home in the blood: tang of woodsmoke, crackle of passing leaves, mitten-cold morning sprints to fetch maple sap buckets; bitter coffee, the spoonful of brewer's yeast stirred into an icy glass of orange juice, and the reassuring reluctant rumble of the heat grumbling on when the grownups relent at last with the thermostat. All of a picture. My ancestral people were nowhere near the Mayflower, mind you. We were fishing the moon out of the lake in Chelm about then. But this coast is so redolent with the leafy airs of New Englandry that every October run-in with a barn, a harvest, a leaf-rake, a maple spile, a hex sign, or a hay bale strums resonant notes in the heart.

I'd never thought much about turpentine, and was tickled and surprised to discover that it's rendered from the sap of many conifers (larches, pines, pistacia, etc). Sap is a fortieth part of syrup in my book, and turpentine springs full-blown from the hardware store. But there it is, printed right on the cover of Sunny Side Up in Suicide Town, the debut (and out of print) CD by Robert Burke Warren's band Turpentine: "Produced as a by-product of the fallen Southern Pine." Who'da thunk it? Cool. Robert's current (and in print) CD, ...to this day, carries a picture of his grandfather, Josephus, on its front cover. It's a daguerrotype, a stiff portrait of a thin young man in a florid ascot, a white shirt with a high starched and crimped collar, and a dark felt dinner jacket. He looks awkward and posed, wary of the photographer, no doubt braced against the powder flash. The picture is a still video image, photographed on a television monitor, and Josephus is shown gazing indistinctly out through a stipple of video snow, an instant of the past captured and recapitulated on the machinery of the present. Inside the package the picture is repeated, but this time in a wider frame. In dark silhouette Robert Burke Warren is seated before the video Josephus, bare foot up on the shelf by the television. And inside the booklet still further is a high-contrast shot of Robert holding his infant son, Jack, who gazes placidly in turn at the camera.

Ruby Red: Robert and Turpentine at Mercury Lounge
A boy and his Rickenbacker.

The message in the medium is of poise: he portrays himself balanced between generations, a fulcrum levering history against the future. It's a finely-minted frame for this marvelous album, in which Robert gives us a couple of sharp, dangerous love songs (the extraordinary steaming "Dark Angel Eyes" and the ambisexual romp of "Tomboygirl") to scratch the pop itches, and then heads straight off the beaten path into dark thickets of Southern Gothic storytelling. He doesn't lead us to the smalltown soap-operatic world of "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia," or "Ode to Billy Joe." Neither is this Faulkner's luxuriously excessive and inbred Yoknapatawpha County -- Robert is not one for high theatrics or prurient splashes. He hails from Atlanta, and the odd and earnest characters that populate the dozen songs on ...to this day are the sorts of people that you might meet in a New South city (if you looked real hard, and stayed out of the city center -- kind of like Queens and far Brooklyn, only warmer); more to the point, they're analogs of the wacky people you might find dangling from some of the bent branches of your own family tree.

We're Not in Kansas Any More: When I first heard this record I was hunched up in front of Horse, the trusty 486 that clatters me along the slower secondary roads of the Internet (clop-clop, clop-clop) every two weeks to bring you this column. In the middle of the day's email, the stereo suddenly blurted out a ringing chorus of "Daddy died / In the War of Northern Aggression / His spirit rose while Dixie played / And whiskey flowed from cuts and battle bruises / 'Til the sadness was sown into the red clay." Eh? The War of Northern Aggression? I couldn't have heard that right, could I? But sure enough. The song, "Josephus Cries," grew from a conversation Robert had with his elderly grandmother, and it equably presents a post-bellum memory of bellum life, leached of heat and color by time.

Robert at Pete's Candy Store: Bar Chords and Grille
White shirt, blue Impala, brown liquor ... works for me..

The same grandmother appears in "I Want Her Faith," a song about her profound religious feelings and a showstopper in Robert's live set. With a sure hand he sketches her quickly as a character, then describes her belief and lets her speak for herself through his music: "She says it's not as hard as you think it is / Just broaden your mind and see / A miracle in an act of kindness / The hidden heart of your enemy / She's no fool, she's not waiting for a spectacle / She's not waiting for the seas to part / She says it's not just sweet surrender / She says it's work, and the work is hard." Because he doesn't editorialize, either for or against, the song is powerful in its serenity and hasn't got a trace of maudlin or preaching. Performing it live, when he comes to the chorus ("I want her faith, I want her strength / I want to believe in a better place / Put my trust in a mystery / I want her faith") Robert hangs back at the fringes of the range of the microphone, and then steps away from its amplification, singing out in a hushed tremble of certain beauty. I've seen him do this in clubs in New York and in Austin during the SXSW Music Conference, and frankly you can shut some of the people up some of the time, and you can shut most of the people up the rest of the time, but you can't ever shut up that fat drunk guy in the Pecan Street Cafe, which sort of ruined the moment for everyone. But every time, in silence or with some yobbo yammering away, it's a moment that leaves the house a bit damp.

It's a Little Bit Country: Robert has gotten into the bad habit of mentioning the word "country" when he describes his music. Roots country, he'll offer. Or country-flavored Americana. In our current climate ("I like all kinds of music. Except country"), this is not a great idea, and it's not very accurate either. When Robert plays solo the music is deft singer-songwriter stuff with a Southern bent, which leaves it a far cry from the Opry. In shows with Turpentine, which features snaky and atmospheric lap steel guitar by Josh Roy Brown, stand-up "doghouse" bass by Mr. Richard Doll, drums by Glenn Reynolds, and percussion and harmonies by "Hot Toddy" Todd Eastland, it's Mr. Cyrano's guess that the "country" thing is just a function of having a lap steel on the stage and wearing natty lean black vests and cowboy shirts. Hmph. Turpentine is a crack outfit that's about as country as The Band ever was, and as a group they are flexible enough to color the soft numbers with easy penetration, smooth flow and coverage as comfortable as good snug leather gloves. On the uptempo tunes, several of which are not yet recorded (like live-set mainstays "Spitshine" and "Junkman"), they rock hard and with hard good sense, serving the music and avoiding self-indulgent sweaty rock-god contortions.

Live at the Living Room: Vested Interests
Does he look country to you?

Robert Burke Warren left Atlanta a long while back. He played with The Fleshtones for a time, during that band's limelight days, and backed RuPaul (but won't tell me what he wore during those shows). Tall, lanky, personable, and given to wearing cool black cowboy hats, he speaks with the languid rhythm of someone from a sensible place where the subways don't run all night long. He's been in New York long enough to call it home, complete with very hairy cats (note to self: refill Claritin prescription) and cramped East Village railroad digs. ...to this day is home-made and self-produced, and it thrums with the energy of a labor of love; it gives plenty of room to Robert's clean, dusky baritone, and plays crisp guitars and vocals against heavy energetic rhythm tracks. The lushest of the songs on the record is "Dark Angel Eyes" ("You've got everything I want / You're leading me astray / You've got everything I need / To help me lose my way"), a must for every unrequited mix tape (I've used it myself). This is the kind of album that keeps unfurling over repeated listens, showing more plumage each time around. It's on Mr. Cyrano's short list for one of the year's best records.

Robert's shows are terrific both with Turpentine and when he's playing on his own. In fact, the two flavors complement each other beautifully. A full-band gig is more musically intense, and when Robert accompanies himself alone on guitar his more subtle lyrics have a chance to perk and twirl. At a Panty Party solo outing this summer, his rendition of "Tomboygirl" (which he introduces as a song dedicated to "the men who love the ladies ... who love the ladies") had the crowd up at the Cutting Room laughing out loud at some of the more, er, rounded double entendres. ("Tomboygirl / Come and play with all my toys / Tomboygirl / Let me be your sissy boy ... She don't need no smoking gun / Just what's on the tip of your tongue.") His last email warns of a Busy October, so you've got plenty of chances to see him.

Upcoming Robert Burke Warren shows: Monday Oct. 16 at Pete's Candy Store, 9 pm (Brooklyn); Monday Oct. 23 at The Living Room, NYC (hosting an evening of music and poetry from 7 to 10 pm, with your very truly Mr. Cyrano reading early on); Wednesday Oct. 25 at The Internet Cafe at 8 pm (Red Bank, NJ); and Monday Oct. 30 back at Pete's Candy Store. Be there.

Andy Morris playing with Joe Bendik & the Heathens (Anne Husick, left; Joe Bendik, right)
Andy, we hardly knew ye.

A Death in the Family: I did not know Andy Morris, who was a drummer-around-downtown and beyond. I've seen him play with many bands: with The Dan Emery Mystery Band before we signed them; with The Humans, with Joe Bendik & the Heathens. There were lots more -- he played with Nancy Falkow in Philadelphia, and with Chubby Checker. But I didn't know him. Andy Morris died on August 18th this summer of a heroin overdose.

It's easy to be sanguine about drug deaths in this day and age. It's the year 2000, after all, and there aren't a lot of mysteries left about heroin: it kills people, most don't survive it. But that's not the point. It's easy to be angry about the loss, and that's not the point either. Those who knew Andy Morris were moved by his person and his talent. That's the point, I guess. The rest, we can only imagine.

To close this week, I want to let a couple of people speak briefly for Andy Morris. Steve Espinola, singer and songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, worked with him in the early Dan Emery Mystery Band. "As a musician, he was a great listener," Steve wrote, in a distraught email shortly after hearing the news. "I can't think of a better compliment than that."

Joe Bendik heads Joe Bendik & the Heathens, and is the bassist for The Humans, and so played with Andy Morris a great deal. "The first time I ever played with him, around the end of '96, after the first song we played ("Stayin' Alive"), I turned to him and said, 'you're not a drummer, you're an artist.' We played together ever since," he wrote. "Andy did everything in his life beyond all limits. He had an insatiable appetite for everything life offered him. He was always driving at 100 miles per hour in a 30-mile speed limit zone." The rest of the words this week belong to Joe, and to Andy.

"Being in the same room with him, there was always this chaotic energy; always the feeling that something is about to break (and often did). Beneath all of this, was a fine human who never had a bad word to say about anyone. He was a total musician, my dear friend, my musical compatriot & my partner in crime. They found him on Friday the 18th of August in his 'drum room.' Knowing Andy, he probably had a set list there too. That night was to be a Heathens show. I ended up playing a solo set as a memorial. I must thank Sanjay for being there at the front table with his drum. That made it much easier. The funny thing is, there were certain times at that gig when I forgot and would just turn around to groove with the drummer, but there was (of course) no one there.

"Andy, wherever you might be (if anywhere at all), I hope you found some peace at last my brother. You were the best musician I ever worked with. The tragedy within this tragedy is that the world will never hear you perform. If he was here right now I'm sure he'd say 'sorry man.' I'm sorry too Andy. Rest in peace."

See you in two.

Linkography:

Robert Burke Warren: www.robertbwarren.com

All photos by Pierre Jelenc, who will be on vacation next week. What on earth are we going to look at while we're reading...?


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