Friday, June 3, 2011


Everyone has them... amazing albums that form part of the soundtrack of your life, but you've never met anyone who has even heard them. Or even hear of them, which is the case with what I am presenting today: Ted Hawkins.

So who the hell is Ted Hawkins?

Hawkins, a repeatedly discovered rough talent from Venice Beach by way of Mississippi, was primarily a busker once he turned to music. In and out of correctional facilities the first half of his life, it's said that a visit by Professor Longhair to Ted's jail inspired him to become a musician, and he was a natural. Hawkins, much like the Delta blues troubadours that predated him by a few decades, wasn't picky about what genres of music he played and was influenced by. His songs (original or otherwise) fell somewhere in between blues, soul, country, gospel, pop, and folk. His voice is best described as somewhere between Sam Cooke and Bob Seger, and in fact Cooke was one of his largest and earliest influences. Raw, honest, soulful... it is Hawkins' voice that most fans say is what grabbed them initially. His guitar playing is as minimalist as it gets- open tunings, a couple of capo changes, and major chords only.

Apart from his Venice Beach busking days, where he was always a huge crowd draw, Hawkins released a handful of albums between 1982 and his death from a diabetes-related stroke in 1995. None of these achieved him any particular renown or success- though his debut was given 5 stars in Rolling Stone- at least not in the US. After working with Andy Kershaw in the late 80s, Ted was convinced to move to the UK, and became a favorite there in Europe, thanks in part to Kershaw's radio show.

After his unceremonious return to the States, Hawkins seemed to be on the verge of success yet again, until his life was cut short. A fabulous live CD "The Final Tour", documents exactly that. I'll be going through it track by track to give some commentary on this lost legend and his music.

"Intro/There Stands The Glass"

The album kicks off with a short command from Hawkins for everyone to have a good time tonight. "I don't know what you came to do... I came to have a good time." And then-

His voice, emphasizing the relatively bland word "there" in what can best be described as a wail torn from the bottom of the world's pain. This song (originally performed by Webb Pierce) is a simple ode to drowning your sorrows, and is a powerful opener.

"Watch Your Step"

After a short break where he informs us that having been through Hell together, Ted and his guitar are both "a lil' scorched," we have "Watch Your Step." This next track is perhaps the most basic on guitar, but here Hawkins shows his range in both lyrical sophistication and vocal dynamic. The narrator's outrage at finding his lover in flagrante veers between vulnerable (Think I can take it?/You're mistaken/My heart's breakin'/I won't make it) to macho (I don't mind the things you do baby- if you do 'em my way). At the end of the song, he also showcases his signature technique of doing a manual fade-out by leaning back from the mic.

"Strange Conversation"

'Conversation' has a strange sort of loping rhythm. The studio version had "whooo-whoooo" choral background vocals, and an electric lead line, and limp session rhythm section. It's served well- like all of Hawkin's originals- by being stripped down to just the man himself. The song is just about an undignified breakup over the phone, but Hawkins does manage the seemingly impossible: rendering the cliche pop vocal tic "Baby baby baby" as the terrifying plea of a desperate man.

"Sorry You're Sick"

It probably takes someone who has lived the life to really write a song like this.

Good morning my darling, I’m telling you this
To let you know that I’m sorry you’re sick
Those tears of sorrow won’t do you no good
I’d be your doctor if only I could

What do you want from the liquor store?
Something sour or something sweet?
I’ll buy you all that your belly can hold
You can be sure you won’t suffer no more

There's not much more to say here, just try not to weep.

"Bring It On Home Daddy"

A great example of how a song can combine a number of well-worn love song tropes, and with a dash of gravity bought at a great price with personal experience, turn it into a true declaration of love and loss.

"Big Things"

You have to wonder whether it was the philosophy expressed in this song that kept Hawkins on the move the way he was. Everyone has a story tell- (gotta hurry, cause there ain't no time left!)- and some people tell it, some people deny it, and some people like Ted Hawkins have to exorcise it, every day.

"The Revenge of Scorpio"

This is a fun little number. Now, whether or not you believe in the validity of astrology(even as an acausal social construct like Carl Sagan did), you have to admit that Scorpios are fucking amazing. Here Hawkins recounts his time with a woman who is clearly the archetypal Scorpio, and Ted is on the business end of it when he slights her. His ending fadeout while repeating She pulled the rug from under me is chilling, and he sums it all up during the applause by stating "Good people... but I'd hate to have one as an enemy."

"Groovy Little Things"

"Any lovers in the house? How many of you fellas can testify tonight that your baby tastes like good gravy? Ain't no shame in my game." 'Groovy' is a testament to just loving the everliving fuck out of your partner.

"Ladder of Success"

It's always interesting to think about the relationship between art and personal experience, and consumer perception of same. Everyone has probably heard me rant in support of Adorno's theories on the gravity of art and the experience that informs or inspires it. It's true, though, so I won't stop mentioning it. Early in her career, Sheryl Crow was questioned about the biographical nature of her songs, and whether perhaps they were all auto-. She gave an answer along the lines of her not being a drugged-out Vegas whore, so why would they be about her at all? Similarly, I was always disappointed in the racist overtones of critics' displeasure over the disparity between the 3rd-world themes in Tracy Chapman's songs and her 1st-world upbringing. So what have we established? That artists can create works of universal truth around an issue without direct experience of that issue? Sure. But, as I have above noted, there's something special about art and artists that are directly 'scorched', so to speak. "Ladder of Success" is an interesting example. The message veers between straightforward encouragement of getting out there and plugging yourself(which Hawkins did not do) and a perhaps sarcastic command to "trust somebody" (which Hawkins did do, in the person of Andy Kershaw). Arguably, the latter was one of the best thing Hawkins did for himself, but popularsuccess ultimately shunned him, for the most part, and it was just a drop in the bucket of his tragic life. It is refreshing, though, to see someone give advice on climbing the ladder, while still giving the middle finger to the people at the top of it.
No matter what you know
Its who you know
No matter how great you are
You got to know somebody
That knows somebody
Who knows somebody
That is somebody
So run and tell somebody
To find a somebody
So they can pay somebody
To push somebody
You have to trust somebody
You have to trust somebody

"Part Time Love"

The banter at the beginning discusses how some "have accused Ted Hawkins of not liking the blues." He explains that he simply can't play them, and demonstrates a cliche blues lead line by singing it and proclaiming "That don't make no sense!" This heartbreaking song makes you want to give Hawkins a blanket, hot cocoa, and teddy bear. It's about settling down in the wreckage of your life (which you're probably responsible for) and making the best out of what is at hand. There's a passage in the middle that offers a lyrical gearshift, another hallmark of Hawkins' style:

People in the cemetery, they aren't all alone
Some have dust, and some have bones
I'd rather be dead, sleep in my grave
Than to live lonely each and every day
She came home this morning, I asked her where she'd been
She said don't ask me no questions daddy
Cause I'll be leaving again

"I Got What I Wanted"

This Brooke Benton cover seems simple- much like Hawkins himself. There's a subtle complexity, so just hunker down and listen. "Take heed, gentlemen," as he says in the banter.

"Bad Dog"

This is probably the most interesting of all Hawkins' songs, and the most rewarding of repeated listen. After a misleading start where it sounds like it's going to be another regular love song. Then Hawkins launches into a bizarre tale, his rapid-fire delivery reminiscent of a 'filk' singer trying to cram as many references into a measure as possible. The story, as best as I can figure out, is the narrator confronting his sweetheart over some occurrences since he got out of "you-know-where"(Azkaban?). The sweetheart's titular dog has decided that it hates everyone except some lucky new "dude" in her life. Part of the humor lies in Hawkins' use of the rhetorical technique of anaphora, where he enumerates all the people in the neighborhood the dog barks at, culminating in a bad experience for the narrator as he tries to be get in the same graces as the "dude".
He'd bark at the icecream man
He'd bark at the cockroach man
He'd bark at the welfare lady
I tried to give him some barbecued ribs once
He bit my hand

Hawkins does a manual fadeout while repeating the last line, and it is tempting to read into it that the narrator is coming to grips with his predicament. The banter bears this out, stating that the titular dog was "Well trained. It was something about me."

"The Good and the Bad"

How do you follow that one? With a meditation on love and loss. A simple sad song, there is a sly come-on woven into the lyrics.

"All I Have To Offer You Is Me"

Charley Pride's 1969 hit was an important point in civil rights: opening up the #1 Billboard spot to African-american country-western singers. I will leave it up to the reader to decide the ultimate significance of this event in the context of racial equality (and hyphenization), but what is not up for debate is what an amazingly plaintive and heartfelt song this is, written by a man who helped Johnny Cash kick drugs. You can almost hear his huge brass balls chiming in the background. As far as Ted Hawkins is concerned, it's almost as if Pride wrote this song for him to perform. On a personal note, I have decided that this is the song I want played at my wedding(my wife would like "Glycerine" by Bush).

"As Long As I Can See The Light"

This John Fogerty composition represents the culmination of Hawkins' minimalistic interpretations. In the studio, calling its arrangement sparse would be an understatement, but live, Hawkins does the whole thing acappella. Jesus, give me a fucking tissue already...


From what I understand, this is pretty much direct autobiographical reminiscence of Hawkins' childhood, despite not having been written by him. There is an undefinable frisson about the way he sings that "The sky was red from off toward New Orleans," and it's best just to soak this one in and think about your own childhood.

"The Lost Ones"

This was the first Ted Hawkins song I ever heard, playing on the CD player in my stepdad's VW split. My stepdad only listens to trad jazz, so it should be self explanatory that Hawkins would be his only exception. It grabbed me instantly, because, for lack of a better word, this song is terrifying. It serves as a prequel of sorts to 'Sorry You're Sick'. The narrator, here an adolescent, lists the things that he doesn't have- chief of which is a way to take care of his dying mother and young sisters. You can easily see that when he grows up in 'Sick', how helping your partner drink themselves to death might be one the most merciful options. Now, in this, as all his songs, the subject matter could tip from overwhelmingly sad to fucking stupid in less capable and experienced hands. It never once approaches the glurgey levels of a Christian charity video- despite Hawkins himself being a Christian very vocal about his faith (vocal everywhere but... his vocals!).

"Missin' Mississippi"

This song has been covered by everyone from Charley Pride(hello again!) to Bob Dylan to Ronnie Milsap, and in Hawkins' hands it forms a much more straightforward counterpart to the childhood mystery of 'Biloxi'.

"A Thing Called Love"

There are those who feel that this is a weak closer for the album, but I maintain that the listener should use this cover of Johnny Cash's hit as perhaps... a digestif, or part of a denoument if you are so inclined. It would be hard to come down off of 'The Lost Ones' if this track and the previous one weren't there.

Well, that's it for the first installment of THE BEST ALBUMS YOU'VE NEVER HEARD. You should be hearing other bloggers' picks from the far corners of the musical world... soon. So, until next time, happy listening!


Subconscious Groove said...

Powerful biography with even more powerful music. Why have I never heard of this guy? Thanks for sharing it with the blogosphere.

John said...
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