Death, Taxes and Brad Armstrong

There are some things that are unfair in this world: death, taxes…. Brad Armstrong not being a hugely rich and successful folk singing musical artist with his own private plane, a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, and Grammy Awards being hurled at him by the music critic mafia. Sorry Brad, but hey, from one loser-writer to one lost-boy singer the main thing is you still created it all. All that music still exists, even if he was were never adequately compensated for his art, and that music will sit there, and one day people will realize just how good he actually is and mythologize his work alongside the rest of the talented folksingers with their acoustic guitars and social commentary. Brad is gonna live forever…if not in that Calabasas mansion he should be occupying right next door to Neil Young, at least in the annals of music history, for what little that recognition is worth. Suffering for his art, instead of enjoying the trappings of wealth and fame at least leads to some interesting songwriting material: Brad is singing about death, how he can’t pay the ‘fucking rent’, let alone worry about the taxes. The fact remains that Armstrong should be preparing to go to record his own Exile on Main Street, running from the taxman, instead of avoiding the landlord’s knocks on the door.

Brad should have been big. Brad should have been big a long time ago. 13 Ghosts should have been a hit. With all the affection for Garland of Bottle Flies that I have, they needed to ditch the keyboards, move away from that Sparklehorse influenced faux Beatles schtick and take their southern thang north to California, or New York. I see a lot of recordings on youtube where they are playing locally, but that clearly wasn’t enough to launch them into the stardom they should have had. They were a great band, and Brad can play his guitar well enough to impress, he also writes one mean song. Brad is a master of song writing and a hot guitarist both when he is cranking out thumping anthemic electric guitar songs and when he is immersed in his gentle deeply affectionate and self depreciating ballads.

It is an absolute travesty and a comment on the state of the culturally demeaned tastes of music-loving and buying punters everywhere that we are not seeing Brad’s face all over the press and award shows. I suppose it used to be that to listen we had to purchase a physical copy, but the internet led to not having to pay for music, and when that happened artists stop getting paid like they used to. This is not good for music, but unavoidable a trap. Progress happens and art has to catch up with its pitfalls. I guess the music industry’s money is now to be made by touring and merchandising the band. I once read that CBGB’s made more money from selling tee shirts than they ever did at the door or from the bar. The cash aspect of the music industry, the “Come here dear boy have a cigar you’re gonna go far…?” has never interested me. I suppose I am not so nearly as interested in money as I should be, after all if an artist doesn’t ‘bring home the roast’ as Lou recounts Andy Warhol preaching to him, in his track, Work, from Songs For Drella, the artist doesn’t eat, pay the rent, and therefore live to create another day. The starving artist cliche is all well and good, but it just doesn’t play out in the real world. In the real world, Brad Armstrong has to make money from his music in order to survive, and that isn’t embarrassing, or problematic, it is a case of paying the piper if the tune is good.

Yes, there are three things in this world that are certain: death, taxes, and artists like Brad (and especially Brad) are not currently getting paid or promoted half as aggressively as they should be. If Bob Dylan walked into Columbia today, he would be thrown out and directed towards the door and the nearest methadone program. The fact is, if Brad was producing his music in 1970, he would be sitting pretty, snorting lines of coke that spelled out ‘Brad’ carefully arranged onto the bar of his own personal private Lear Jet as he crisscrossed the world playing packed out stadiums, and more importantly in this capitalist nightmare we exist in, the music mogul types would be ‘so happy they could hardly count’, as Pink Floyd put it. If anyone would know, it is the creators of Dark Side of the Moon, which made some counters very happy indeed.

Can you imagine the lumbering, homely Neil Young appearing with that reedy voice of his in 2021? He would not get his foot in the door! It is all plastic fantastic, carefully curated, coiffured and pre-selected, panel-chosen pop factory buzz, with a little interesting stuff going on in the realms of rap and hip hop. But no, Brad is doing it the old skool way, and last I heard had taken himself up to New York to play the bars and cafes like any good folk-rock singing southern boy with an acoustic should. I suppose the pandemic put an end to that good ole honest gonna make it if ya try, laudable troubadour quest for glory. I keep up with Brad’s social media and see he is heading out on tour opening for Maria Taylor. I hope it goes well, and that people really hear him, because he is more than good: he is actually great.

13 Ghosts, his band before he set off by his lonesome self, was a pretty cool band and I played their Garland of Bottleflies on heavy rotation for a while. It was a great band even if they did have a tendency towards everything sliding towards Sparklehorse and British Invasion homage territory. I swear I heard a little Oasis in the jingle jangle, a soupcon of Beatles in the keyboards which just didn’t work and confused the entire matter. This band should have been drum, bass, guitar/singer and perhaps another guitar. All that tinkly jangle Octopus’s Garden mess, jarred with Brad Armstrong’s strong personal style which is closer to the Americana of Neil Young, and in his wilder moments the southern gothic rock of the Allman Bros Band. Richard Buckner is a lazy but enjoyable comparison. Big, southern accented, dark hair, kinda balding – the link with Buckner is strained and does neither party justice: Brad has far more grit and dirt than Buckner ever summoned. Brad’s voice and idiom is where the stumbling block is, or at least was for me with 13 Ghosts because the voice leads you to expect country, and have certain expectations of the band which are not realized. Brad defies those expectations. Brad is as much soaked in Whiskey and Alabama as he is in Folkways folk collections, the bible, social deprivation, struggling to live, survive, and at the end of it all be left howling about whether ‘all the children that come from my cock come to resent me!” This is cock rock, but not as you know it, Jim! This cock has a conscience. Brad welds heavy-metal wrought deep southern gothic, with expertly picked folk. Not bad for a guy with a beard that is more lumberjack than rock star: it is neither as lush as ZZ Tops’ nor as hipster as anything anyone in Mumford and Sons produced, yet is definitely nowhere near as pathetically ill-advised as the whisp of fluff of Dylan’s chin and lip during his Rolling Thunder disturbingly beardy period. He might have had one for the Basement Tapes too, but he was just fucking with us by then. Brad is an enigma, a rare beast, a slightly strange bird, and all the better for it.

I used to put Garland of Bottleflies or Empire onto the stereo on those occasions when we had electric in campgrounds on the road, traveling over to Minnesota through the endless stretches of road, with a man who was not a stranger to sleeping with the 45 next to his pillow, and whose most mortal fear was losing his boots. When Brad sang, in I Have Brought Fire that ‘in all my roaming I have never seen such a sorry wretch as losing my boots,” I knew that man. He was sleeping in the cab next to me, and when he stroked out on a vodka binge, right in front of me, he managed to pull his boots on with palsied hands, not allowing me to help; and when they discharged him from the ICU later, he was demanding and hollering for his boots like a man possessed. Brad knows these ‘bottle flies too’, the sweet picking guitar they spin, and the loves they leave behind, I suspect because he is one, and has loved them in return: “When you pour that wicked drink away and down your gullet….well the coldest wind doth cease to blow through here”, but the flies smell the decay of the drinker and so does Brad. “Your grave I shall visit nevermore,” he promises his drunken-to almost-death beloved. I have said much the same thing over and over again. I have never stopped caring about my own drunk, and the tenderness in the sweet folk hiding behind the album version fuzz shows Brad has never stopped caring either, even if he has reached his own breaking point with that slow dance to death the alcoholics that we love make us tango with them. Whiskey is trickled into the very bones of his oevre.

Brad knows that a man who is so fucked up he can’t get his boots on is a man in mortal danger. When Brad’s voice comes through the headphones, he transports me back to the campfires and the trees, and the sound of children laughing outside as I pour another brandy and pretend I don’t notice my own hillbilly was putting a little of the banned stuff into his jam jar of Mountain Dew…it ain’t a mixed drink when it is mostly MY booze. In 13 Ghost’s Billy Dee, Brad sings about Billy having ‘put the crank down for something stronger’ making my heart was thudding in appreciation of the realness of the dialogue. Crank? No one has said crank for a thousand years, not unless they were a biker, or of a certain age and cultural background. Not meth, not speed, but crank. If I said the words peanut butter to Brad, he would wax lyrically about that good peanut butter crank, thick, wet and light brown – a rough and ready wild ride, not rarified Walter White Blue Crystal Persuasion. We are talking Sonny Barger shit, not some disco in a gay bar in early ’90s Manhattan. Listening to Brad is listening to peanut butter crank, or sometimes that nasty yellow stuff that did the job, but shit man, did it have to be so brutal and mechanical? Brad Armstrong with either with 13 Ghosts or alone is very rarely mechanical, there is not much of that music-by-the-numbers filler. This is a glorious album written by a real person about real things. In the trickle, tap and twang of his acoustic guitar as Empire plays through, he promises quietly into my ear, that he cares for all of us sisters, and the dreams we hold while men like Brad pour salt on them, sterilizing the once fertile ground. Hey, at least he is self aware in his inadequacies and failures, and for that Brad Armstrong always has a place on my playlists.

Brad is the master of the story song. Hands down Brad has written the best story songs since David Crosby laid down the unimpeachable number one perfect story song of all time – the over 8-minute long epic: Cowboy Song. Who knows, in time maybe he will deal that card so high and wild, as Cohen put it, he will never need to deal another, and surpass that perfect piece of lyrical musical storytelling. He just needs to find something to rival the glorious heights of “You know that Indian girl, she wasn’t an Indian she was the law!” I hope he finds it.

Brad can really do a story song. Whether with 13 Ghosts with whom he produced the glorious Billy Dee, or the stunning Dylanesque Brother Ford he produced solo, Armstrong’s stamp is clear. Great Southern epics, with warring brothers, traveling preachers and dust bowl droughts, the music whirring and thumping along, electric folk, Americana storytelling, with a dark heavy edge. When Brad rocks, Brad rocks hard, the guitars and string swirl, and his deep drawl authentic and unapologetic. There is a Hemmingway-like forward propulsion to the simplicity and colloquial outward veneer of his lyrics and the reality of the unnatural artifice for his words. This shines through in Brother Ford, an archaic, or perhaps authentic southern mode of talking, a little out of time, a little out of place in 2021, yet absolutely perfectly real and fitting the song.

Brad is telling stories about America, about people who live their lives with a brood of kids in trailers, work hard, have their dreams crushed, and watch their loved ones die from hopelessness parading as opiate or alcohol addiction. Armstrong is closer to Chris Whitley in that regard than Buckner. This is a world where some babies are ‘Born Haunted” and Cherokee Nosejobs are given to unfaithful women (nose split in half to mimic the appearance of a pussy), women who Brad’s narrator wants to redeem or save or destroy, he ain’t sure which; a world where brothers fight over a girl with a hyphened double-barrelled first name while the law looks on dealing with things the way things have always been settled: violence and humor. Not only this, this folk is both tender picked flowery, and feedback soaked thrashing, and sometimes a bit of both, and that is when it really works, that is really when those sparks start to fly. His voice is fragile and longing with that Appalachian just after the beat delay that is impossible to mimic if you don’t have it in your soul. He is best when he is at his most lonesome and drunk.

I am starting a new push towards honesty in musicians. I want to know what it is that Brad is drinking apart from The Holy Spirit of revival meetings, and the tears of bitter disappointment. I want to know his routine, how he gets up, picks up that guitar and writes the next song, because Brad must know what anyone with ears to hear knows: Brad Armstrong is a superstar, he just ain’t getting the payday he is worth. I tell myself I don’t write to make money, I write because if I didn’t I would go insane, but that just isn’t enough, and Brad is worth more than he has got out of the music industry. His songs hold up and his lyrics are mostly solid, and more than that he is ‘it’ – that something you can’t fake, that quality of delivery, and ability to make a song reach into the listener’s heart. I can’t listen to much of Empire simply because it is so evocative of a time that means so much to me that it is too painful to look back on. Bad music doesn’t do that. Bad music refuses to become soundtracks to the lives it impacts. Brad’s music has had an impact on my life, and provided both smiles, comfort and tears and that is very special indeed…

I hope Brad makes it, I still think he might breakthrough to the mainstream so long as he takes heed of Townes Van Zandt’s advice in The Hole, where after “fame and fortune just laugh at (him)”, and he falls into the hole of the green eyed hag who beckons him into destruction. As long as Armstrong don’t go sneaking around any holes we should hear much more from him and that can only be a good thing.

Brothers I have loved you all…So deeply felt…worth listening to.

Leave a Reply