"Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone" - I was flying out of Minneapolis-St. Paul, toward the end of a tour. I had this vision of the look on Sabu the Elephant Boy's face in the old jungle movies; he always had this dazed and confused look. And I saw myself like that in the mirror. I just looked like, "What am I doing here?" When things get really crazy for me or confusing, I usually turn to humor and try to explain the situation in a song.
It was one of those songs that kind of wrote itself. I wasn't even sure, while I was writing it, what I was writing about. I wouldn't show it to anybody for about a month. I was pretty introspective at the time going through a very low period emotionally. And that song, I'm not sure I saw the humor in it initially. But as soon as I started singing it, people really dug it.
"Automobile" - I think I was playing "That's Alright Mama" on my guitar and putting my own words to it. The first verse about "the battery died in the cold outside" was from a song I wrote one morning as a mailman. You would accumulate sick pay by the hour working for the government. So when I would accumulate eight hours, I would get "sick." My medical record had me with everything from the German flu to water on the knee. So I wrote a song about the sick-call called "Mailman's Holiday." Never finished it, so it came out in "Automobile." We never throw anything away!
"Killing The Blues" - That was written by Roly Salley, who came from the Woodstock, New York, scene. With a name like that, you'd think he was some great, obscure rockabilly guy. I didn't know who he was previous to recording his song. I heard it on a compilation album, The Woodstock Mountain Revue, which also featured Happy and Artie Traum. The track was just Roly and this girl singing his ballad. I really dug it, so we worked up a version.
"Down By The Side Of The Road" - The girl in this song could have been Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard, somebody who just got stuck out there. As for that line about the tattoo on her breast, "God damn, my socks are still hard"- I figured if your socks are dirty enough, they're bound to get hard.
"It's Happening To You" - This is simply a song about the over-the-top joys of falling in love and how quickly those joys are gone when it's all through. It's been written about a million times. Johnny Burns, who cowrote the song, and I went for a million-and-one.
"Living In The Future" -
I always liked phrases like "jumpin' Jehoshaphat!" and "great Caesar's
ghost!" Also, I had this vision that if you drop a cat out of a window, it's supposed
to land on its feet. But if the cat doesn't, does that mean that the cat had problems at
home? Did it have suicidal tendencies?
But the idea I had came from Parade magazine in the Sunday papers. When I was growing up, it seemed like once a year some guy would write a story about how this is the way your city is going to look in 20 years. And the only city that ever looked like that was Seattle, and they built all that for the World's Fair. None of the other places had monorails. Instead, everybody's standing in soup lines or looking for jobs.
"Storm Widows" - I grew up on a four-lane highway. Lots of
trucks. Lots of traffic. I used to have these spells every so often as a child where like
the ceiling of the room was in normal perspective, but the doorway would appear much
farther away than it was. Coupled with this, all noises seemed muffled and distant,
particularly the traffic moving on the wet or snow-covered pavement. I was really in
another world. I finally worked up the courage to tell my mother and father about it, and
Mom made Dad take me to the eye doctor. I love them both.
"I can hear the wheels of the automobiles....... So far away.......... Moving along through the drifting snow."
"One Red Rose" -I stayed overnight at my cousin Charlie Bill's. It was the back of a general store in Paradise. There was a tin roof and a wonderful thunderstorm going on above and around us. We were telling ghost stories and staying up late, and there was a curtain separating the bedroom from the mature adults' kitchen. Our light was off. Thus, their "kitchen light fell asleep on the bedroom floor." I was nine.
"Souvenirs" - - When I was first performing at the Fifth Peg in Chicago, I thought I should have a new song every week so that people wouldn't hear the same songs they heard last week. I wrote this song in my '65 Malibu on my way to the club on a Thursday night.
"Aimless Love" -Love's just an aimless idiot walking down the street. You might bump into him or you might not. The song reminds me of an old Johnny Cash or Ernest Tubb song.
"The Oldest Baby In The World" - I got the idea from the Weekly World News. On the cover, they had this picture of a kid with a terrible disease where they age real quick, and the headline said "The Oldest Baby in the World." I thought, "Wow!" I mentioned it to Donnie Fritts, who cowrote it, and said, "Man, we know a whole bunch of old babies." You're out there on the road, and you see these ladies standing around the stage door afterwards, wearing their wigs sideways and the heels on their shoes are broke. We kept that all in mind when we wrote it, But it's not meant to be mean. That's too easy, to me. Also, I think I do this better. It's not in my nature to just tear somebody down in a song. And I've always loved the line in there, "Well, she would if she could/And she should but nobody will."
"People Puttin' People Down" - It's the only defense some people have.
As long as you got somebody to look down on, you ain't on the bottom. So cold. I have a
tape a kid gave me at a radio show last year. I came out to the parking lot after the
show, and there was the usual crowd. This mailman walked up to me and whispers, "You
want to hear a tape of Bob Dylan doing one of your songs?" I said, "Sure!"
He hands me a tape from Rome, Italy, with Dylan doing about 30 Dylan songs and
"People Puttin' People Down." Great version too. Incredible. So I saw Dylan last
year and told him about this tape. And he goes, "Where did you get it? Where'd you
get it?" I told him a mailman gave it to me. I'm sure he believed that.
"Unwed Fathers" - I wrote this with Bobby Braddock; he wrote "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and "D-I-V-O-R-C-E." We got fooled into writing together. There was this girl that worked at Tree Publishing. She was good friends with Bobby, and she told me Bobby was dying to write with me. And she told Bobby that John Prine was dying to write with him. So we called each other, flattered, and found out neither of us had said any such thing. But it turned out to be a really good thing.
We decided that we were going to write at his house the day after the Super bowl, I wrote down 15 titles, including one called "Children Having Children" and "Unwed Fathers." I was reading the list off to him, and all the lights went on with those two. We kind of combined them and went right into it.
"Angel From Montgomery" - I had a buddy named Eddie Holstein in
Chicago who was a songwriter - he later became a club owner - and he wanted to
with me. I'd just written "Hello In There." I said, "Eddie, that's all I
got to say about old people. How about one about a middle-aged woman that feels older than
she is?" He said "Okay." I wrote the first verse, and he lost interest in
her. A week later, I finished the thing. Eddie always used to tell people that I was
writing about the Montgomery Ward building in Chicago, which has an angel on top that
sticks out on a flagpole. I didn't know that, but that's where Eddie thought I got the
The woman, she's gonna keep fixing dinner, living in this house, staying married. She probably won't get up the nerve to leave the guy. But it's just that - a portrait of a lot of people who are doing that.
"Linda Goes To Mars" - "Linda Goes To Mars" is like you're sitting in this room, and there's this couple with a million miles between them. Willie Nelson told me he wanted to record it. I just can't imagine him doing it, although I bet it would be good.
"Bad Boy" - It's a really proud song about guilt. "I'm proud to be guilty, I've been a bad boy again." Around that time, I fell under the spell of Merle Haggard's songwriting. There was a period there when he just seemed to be churning out some really great stuff. He was bringing out great albums every six or eight months, and I considered "Bad Boy" sort of in the vein of what he was doing.
"Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness" - That song just came all at once. I had this picture in my head of this old photograph - I think it was in Life magazine - of one of the astronauts in the '50s with his face all contorted by G-force. I was thinking of somebody's heart being pulled apart by G-force like that, from going through this real intense breakup of a relationship. The song actually reminds me of The Louvin Brothers, the song they did called "Runnin' Wild." It's written about somebody that's runnin' wild out there, breaking the speed of the sound of loneliness.
"It's A Big Old Goofy World" - It turns out "goofy" is one
of my favorite adjectives. If I think something is funny, or if I feel exasperated, I go,
"That's really goofy, I don't get it." I had a guitar player who worked for me
for two years, and he was the one who pointed out how many times a day I used the word
"goofy." I had no idea. You need other people to tell you these things.
So this was an idea I had in my back pocket. I'd ask people if they had any saying that I'd never heard of before, something the family used or something. And people would come up with some real gems. They'd think for half an hour and then whack! They'd jump up like they had the answer to a quiz.
I was over in Ireland once, sitting around with four or five friends, and mentioned I was working on this song, that I was looking for similes and explained what a simile was. They all look at me and then go on with their conversation. Half an hour later, one of the girls stands up and goes, "Happy as Larry!" Huh? "It's a phrase - 'He's as happy as Larry,'" I never found out who Larry was, but he must have been a pretty happy guy.
"The Sins Of Memphisto" - I never do my homework until after I'm done
writing. And at the time, I thought that Memphisto was the city in ancient Egypt that
Memphis, Tennessee, was named after. But the city in Egypt is Memphis. I also got it
confused with Mephisto, Mephistopheles, the devil. But I thought, that's okay, it's kind
of like the devil going to Memphis, Tennessee.
I wrote this one under pressure from my producer, Howie Epstein. We were 12 cuts into The Missing Years, and Howie says, "We need one or two more cuts." And I went, "You're kidding. From where? We've been working for nine months. I don't have anything hiding on the shelf. You could take a autopsy, and you won't find a song inside of me." So I went and locked myself in a hotel room and went, "If he wants a song, he'll get a song." I tried to write one from as far in left field as I could and came up with "Memphisto."
I'm convinced I was just working the whole song to get around the punch line "exactly Odo, Quasimodo." It's just hip lingo, kind of like " "No shit, Sherlock." I'd had it for about four years, trying to work it into song.
"All The Best" - "Hasta luego!"
Special thanks to, of course, my producers - Arif Mardin, Steve Cropper, "Cowboy" Jack Clement, Steve Goodman, Knox Phillips, Jerry Phillips, Sam Phillips, Barry Beckett, Jim Rooney, and Howie Epstein.
This collection would not have been possible without the efforts of David Fricke, James Austin, Richard Foos, and the staff of Rhino Records.
I'd still be singing these songs to the walls if it hadn't been for Al Bunetta and Dan Einstein.
Thanks to my entire family, real and imagined...I love you all.
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