The Cowardly Traveler Pays the Toll

It’s only been almost 2 months since I created the music section of this blog and I’ve written an astounding 0 posts in it.  Promises from me cannot be trusted.  Better later than never I suppose.

So, the first musician I have to introduce is Simon Joyner.  I’ve told a lot of people about Joyner and thus far I haven’t found a single person who knew of him.  That’s really sad because he’s awesome.  Also, I swear to God (I know, I know, that doesn’t count for much coming from me), if you steal his songs rather than buy them, I’ll hunt you down like an animal.  I don’t care if you steal Lady Gaga’s personal jet and both kidneys, but seriously this man actually needs his music revenue.

Ah, he’s probably doing alright.  Success is such a relative term in entertainment these days.  Nobody’s ever happy with the niche market.  Like when Star Trek Into Darkness came out and was deemed a financial failure after it only brought in 13 million dollars it’s first day.  Now, of course, it’s the highest grossing film of the series with 450 million world wide, but can you imagine creating a product that makes 13 million dollars in a day and yet people could still call you a failure?  The same problem seems true of music these days.

Joyner is described by Wikipedia as being Americana.  I wouldn’t say that, but then again I’m not entirely sure what Americana is sound-wise.  Perhaps I’m trying to translate the writings of Mark Twain and John Steinbeck into music.  The only musician I’ve heard that I would call Americana is Arlo Guthrie.  Joyner is better represented as indie folk.  He was part of the one man Omaha folk underground movement that he created and whose torch Conor Oberst would later pick up.  Most of his songs are about failure and imperfection.  Lamentation about the common banalities of modern life.  Ugly, ragged and tattered.  He doesn’t have a great voice and while he has made some beautiful songs, most of his work is discordant and broken.

One of the earliest songs of his that I liked is the “Simultaneous Occurrence of True Love and Nausea at an Omaha Burger King Oct. 12 1992“.  While a rough early work, it shows the beginnings of his style.  Most of his songs focus on simple characters in simple situations.  Strange, unique and common at the same time.

The work he was the most famous for (and what this post is about) was the album the Cowardly Traveler Pays the Toll.  The whole album can be found through that link to stream for free.  Known for inciting the first Peel Incident in which British radio DJ John Peel played that album from beginning to end.  Considering that most radio stations butcher individual songs to shorten them, playing a whole album is a major rebellion.  It’s definitely an album worth hearing from beginning to end in my opinion, though it might not be the best place to start.  It begins with the rough 747, which is the quintessential Joyner style.  You can find the scene it describes in any major city, but seen through his own unique eyes.

Address is the classic example of a friend who transitions from suicidal gesture to suicide attempt.  The discordance is so palpable.  The melody is creeping and slinking, trembling over the metaphor of a phone line that has just become a lifeline.

Our Lady of Perpetual Healing always strikes a chord with me.  It’s an interesting look at the constant battle between logic and emotion, mind and body, morality and nature, and the other dualities that make up a human mind.  Every test you encounter in life is really a struggle with yourself.  It’s all about your weaknesses and failures, your strengths and your successes.  We use them to define ourselves and yet our real identity comes from the struggle rather than the outcome.

Montgomery is about his father, who spent his last years in the Montgomery V.A. hospital and hospice system.  Later in his career he would write the Veteran’s Hospital Song, which was also about his father and veterans in general.  Like him, I’m not a big fan of the long lingering deaths our society feels are the only God approved way to die.  If I’m miserable and the doctor tells me that the only thing I have to look forward to is further deterioration, I’m not going to some elderly concentration camp.  My philosophy about continuing to live can best be seen in the division between being prepared for a disaster and readying yourself for doomsday.  Bad times are always around the bend.  You have to try to plow through.  But if there’s only bad.  If that’s all there will ever be.  Then count me out.

August (She Must Die) is a little tongue-in-cheek tribute to the culture of summer.  When you think about it, summer is quite the spectacle.  A time of adventure, romance and foolishness dictated by the planet’s seasonal equilibrium.

Target is lamenting getting old.  Maybe he’s drawing a connection between his father in Montgomery and all of us.  We can go to Montgomery and pity what we see there, but we’re all headed there.

Josephine is about his wife of the same name and how, in his imagination, she left him.  They’re still together last I heard and they have a kid.  I think he’s a little bit like me.  Sometimes he has to let his mind take that dark path to see a present that could have been or a future still possible.  Pessimism is a way of life for many of us.

Fallen Man is one of my favorite songs.  The annoying background sound, the painful voice and disorganized melody all combine with the psychedelic lyrics to paint a vivid picture.

“With the care of a surgeon, transplanted a dead heart.
All his veins and his vessels are sudden dead ends.”

It has everything a great song should have:  Screaming, bizarre metaphors and vicious pigeon attacks.  I can’t and won’t ask for more from any artist.

Appendix depicts a man going back to his childhood home of New Orleans to find his roots and it has a sort of bluesy feel to it.  Like all searches for your childhood, you find only the skeletal remains of your past.

I’ve made many pilgrimages to the various sacred sites of my childhood over the years.  Not too long ago my mom and I went back to the city where I spent my teen years.  We went to our old house that we had lost to foreclosure after her stroke.  When we lived there, there were trees in the front yard to offer shade to a beautiful raised block wall garden.  The back featured a pool with a rock waterfall and a natural flowing style to it with more trees and another garden.  We got in trouble with the neighborhood watch for running a poultry farm.  Said poultry farm consisted of 2 silkies that could each fit in the palm of your hand.

Well, with us gone they got their wish.  Now ours and everyone else’s houses look alike.  They cut down all our trees.  They re-sodded the garden to cover over where they had been.  They tore out the flower gardens in the back and graveled the back lawn.  It looks like the American Dream or any episode of a Sci-Fi series that features a normal looking neighborhood that is secretly infested with monsters or aliens.  The good neighbors are gone, the assholes are older and grumpier.  The leaders of the neighborhood watch that complained about our poultry farm were still there.  I imagine they still give out pamphlets about finding salvation through Christ for Halloween.  Eggs and toilet paper seem magnetically attracted to their house.

As a complete aside, they once planted a tiny tree in their yard.  It half-died fairly quickly.  For the next 3 years, this tiny little undead sapling stood watch over the yard, the sole form of arboreal life in a span of three lawns.  One year they put a bird house on it.  The bird house was a third the size of the tree and only about 2 feet off the ground.  No takers.  Unlike all their predators, birds don’t appreciate a ground floor apartment.  That winter there was a wind storm and the tree snapped in half from the weight of the bird house.  Only a fool builds their house upon the sands and only my idiot neighbors try to build a bird house upon a twig.

Cole Porter features some fascinating ideas about personal and cultural identity.  Like all the other songs, it’s about death.  Not death itself, but how we deal with the death of what we love and our own mortality.  What concepts do we invent to salve the pain?  How do we cope with the knowledge that our time here is limited?  Power, money, cosmetics, reproduction, religion, and everything else are used to armor ourselves against time.  As far as we know, no one’s armor has ever withstood it.

Joy Division finishes the album.  The name comes from the band of the same name, whose lead singer killed himself after a long struggle with poorly controlled epilepsy and his wife leaving him.  He was 23 when he killed himself.  The song itself finishes the death theme of the album.  It centers on powerlessness in the face of death.  Grief is always the hardest thing to deal with.  If you’re in a situation you don’t like, you can try to change it.  If you can’t change it, you can always check out early like Ian Curtis of Joy Division did.  But for the people left behind, there’s nothing they can do.  Regardless of how you lose someone you love, it always leaves you feeling so powerless.

“They say my head on the plate
Might curb the debate
Over the unbearable high cost of living
But papa, everything falls apart!
Everything falls apart!
And the grass will grow
As surely as they’ll break your heart.”

To me, that finishing line, implies hope in the face of inevitability.  The grass keeps growing.  Through broken hearts, lost friends and fading memories, life moves on.

Some time later, I’ll have to talk about his other songs.  He has had a very long career and albums full of beautiful songs.  The Cowardly Traveler is a brilliant work and one of my favorite albums, but many of my favorite songs of his came later.

“Well, all the medicine in those sermons
Still can’t keep his brazen nose from turning
Because salvation, may be free of charge
But faith always costs him something.”


About fanaticalhypocrite

I'm your average agnostic Irish Catholic Welsh Jew born in rural West Virginia as the mildly autistic son of a motorcycle riding nurse and an unemployed, ex-military, atheist theology major (likes there's any other kind.) Just another tragically disconnected member of the bitter American proletariat living in the twilight of U.S. world dominance. I'm a medical transcriptionist by day ("They're going to fire me tomorrow" has been my motto for 11 years), a security guard/campground host/lost & found department/problem solver/bouncer/bookkeeper understudy 24/7/365, and a nerdy wannabe writer by night. And also day. My life is basically a non-linear blender full of random activities. And now I run a blog because... why not? It's not like I was using my precious time to cure disease or end world hunger. Might as well tell a bunch of strangers about why [insert anything here] really pisses me off.
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