Exiles Road (version 1).
Exiles Road (version 2).
Let’s begin at the end:
Elvis Costello has a song, from 2010, called “Jimmie Standing In The Rain.” It appeared on National Ransom, part of that record’s and indeed that era’s backwards glance at early-twentieth-century American songwriting tropes. This was just as Costello was moving toward lengthy spoken-word introductions to his songs in performance, and he used to preface “Jimmie” with a ramshackle story about the fictional title character, a 1930s Vaudevillian “who’s picked the wrong time to go into cowboy music – that’s if there was ever a right time to go into cowboy music…” Though Costello would nod to his less hardcore audience’s demands by dutifully running through “Peace, Love, & Understanding” after it, “Jimmie” was the show-closer. It was the end of every night. It was played a capella on a barely-miked acoustic guitar, and Costello would conclude it with a few lines from the Depression-era standard “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” sung unamplified, his bellow filling the room just as his forerunners once had to sing, without electricity raising the volume of their voices, standing on similar stages in an era long before anyone had ever heard of rock and roll.
The song remains a concert staple in 2016. Its introductory story has developed, however: the current “Detour” finds “Jimmie” still in its penultimate spot in the set, but in keeping with the night’s theme of an anecdote-filled flip through the Costello/MacManus family photo album, it has become a portrait of Costello’s grandfather, the first in a line of MacManus musicians. A black-and-white image of a very young Pat MacManus, in uniform and clutching a French horn, appears on the giant screen to the rear of the stage as Costello tells of the orphan boy’s enlistment in the army, where he was trained to play the flugelhorn and the bugle; of his being shot in France, “in the chest and in the stomach by a man who he never met, and who had no quarrel with him”; and his decision, after spending the rest of the Great War in a military hospital, to give up the soldiering life. More photos scroll past: we hear of Pat’s career as a musician-in-a-different-uniform on the White Star Line, crisscrossing the Atlantic, snapping illicit pictures of bathing beauties and smuggling fashionable items like a cloche hat and a fox-fur wrap back to Birkenhead for his wife Molly. We’re told, in words Costello has crafted perfectly over years of rattling off the tale, of the way the slump of the Thirties brought an end to this luxurious mode of travel and indeed to Pat’s seagoing years: “They cut the liners in half,” Costello cracks, his timing well-honed, “which was a really big surprise – because they were in mid-Atlantic at the time! And the half that contained the tycoons and the robber barons, and the dukes and the earls, and the Duke of Earl, sailed on to New York to continue their important work of swindling the working man out of every last penny. And the half that contained the musicians… Well, they could fuck off back to Liverpool.” The tonal disconnect between this fanciful image of a halved steamship drifting east and west with very different passenger manifests, which Costello has gotten laughs out of countless times, and the grisly antiwar sentiment at the story’s outset, which was added only recently, is indicative of the story’s ongoing evolution: one senses that Costello no longer sees the song as a vaguely comical tale of a “cowboy musician.” Indeed, the intro to “Jimmie Standing In The Rain” acquired an ominous conclusion at the kickoff to the current leg of the tour, with suggestions that an era of yuks is fast coming to an end. As Costello conceded grimly in telling it in Santa Barbara back in April, the story once felt like a joke, but it seems less funny now:
They sailed home, and Pat came ashore and went looking for the work that he used to do in the pit orchestra at the Argyle Music Hall, and in the Futurist Cinema that had a full orchestra to accompany the silent pictures. But the talking pictures had come in, and they didn’t need him no more… So my grandmother used to have a voodoo doll of Al Jolson, that she’d stick pins in – she held him personally responsible for putting my grandfather out of work… I’ve told that story for many years, and people think I’m just being funny. But it’s not that funny. All Pat ever did then was play his corner, on the street corner, for coppers. And so I wrote this here song about those times, imagining them. Because those times are coming back, I assure you…
This is an interesting note to conclude an evening on. For close to three hours, Costello has been in raconteur mode, jovially talking about early performing misadventures with his bandleader father and describing misunderstandings with boorish computer-operator co-workers and peccadilloes with comely Arizonan cabdrivers – but now, with nothing ahead save a fairly rote farewell storm through the Nick Lowe number he’s cursed to encore with for the rest of time, Costello has gone back to the very beginning of his story, to the primal source of his familial connection to music, and he’s presenting it as a somewhat dark tale. “Jimmie,” a “forgotten man” in an “indifferent nation,” tubercular and fading into obsolescence, is Pat, and the vicissitudes of taste that have relegated “cowboy music” to the dustbin of music history are as cruel as that German’s rifle shot to the chest. Costello’s memoir, which is really what his concerts are drumming up interest in now that he seems to have set LP-making aside, is entitled Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. Grandfather Pat was the first MacManus to discover just how unfaithful music can be.
Now, back to the beginning:
One of the very earliest songs in the Costello canon is “Exiles Road,” recorded on two separate occasions with Flip City in 1974 and 1975. Biographer Graeme Thomson has suggested – without supporting evidence – that its lyric dates back to earlier still, which would make it perhaps the very oldest Declan MacManus song we have. Regardless of its provenance, it stands as probably the catchiest number in Flip City’s repertoire, and if it suffers from the same limitations as most of the band’s numbers – indifferent musicianship, particularly on the part of its guitarists, and a certain songwriting restraint that suggests MacManus was holding, as he always did, his best and most personal material back – still it’s enjoyable enough. It makes sense that it would have been considered of high enough quality to be revisited on a second trip to the recording studio, in search of that thing so elusive to Flip City: a releasable single. That they failed to nail it, even after getting a rare repeat chance to lay it down, pretty much sums up why Flip City was never anything more than an also-ran in the pub-rock scene.
But it should have worked. The song’s hook, though frankly obnoxious, is unforgettable – that idiotic guitar line, duh-duhduh-duhduhduh-DUH, stays with you for days, working its way insidiously through your mind. Maybe it never leaves you, like a swallowed bit of chewing gum lodged in your intestine. Pushed ever so slightly back in the song’s revised version by giving it to the bass instead, it affords the guitars a nice little dancefloor for show-offy moves, and anyway there’s a fine percussion shuffle underlying everything, augmented in the redo by a conga peeking out here and there the way a gopher might stick its head tauntingly through various holes in your yard. If the drums are a shade lead-footed, they’re still sturdy enough, one imagines, to prompt dancing among inebriated pubgoers, and in the midst of everything there’s a midsong guitar solo that, by Flip City standards anyway, is borderline great. Bassist Mich Kent, percussionist Malcolm Dennis or Ian Powell – whichever one was behind the kit – and even guitarist Steve Hazlehurst are at the top of their game, for what that’s worth. Best of all, the garrulous lyrics are fun, and smilingly defiant in a pre-punk sort of way, and they’re delivered – MacManus rarely fell short in this department – with fire and fluidity. All this is to say it’s a pretty fine Flip City song, particularly in its slightly-more-uptempo second go-round. If it wasn’t destined to be a single, blame producer Dave Robinson for its dull sound, or for losing his nerve about backing Flip City for a burgeoning record label he was thinking of putting together. (Or don’t blame him, and credit him instead: after all, Robinson pretty much founded the pub rock movement, and can’t be faulted when he was still learning the ropes as a producer, the song being laid down in the Hope & Anchor Studios he’d assembled more or less to teach himself how to record music. Moreover, his commercial instincts pretty much proved faultless, being well borne out when he co-founded Stiff Records a few years down the line. But more on that later.)
For our purposes, we’re interested in a few minor points in the lyric, and one major one. The song, once it’s declared itself with a few repetitions of that assaultive hook, opens with a charming little travelogue:
Back in the days of the forty-eight stars, when a man’s best friend was a horse and not a car
My best friend, he took a trip – he was playing for his money on a cruising ship
Sailed across the ocean in a big old liner, away down to Rio and across to China
Kissed his wife as he tipped the waiter, waved goodbye and said, “I’ll see you later…”
The song thus situates itself in an American context from the start, and a nostalgic one at that: there were forty-eight states rather than today’s fifty between 1912 and 1959, so the action of this first verse could take place as recently as fifteen years before the song’s composition, or more likely – given that, as Costello notes nightly nowadays when he describes those ships being cut in two, the “cruising ship” industry died with the Depression – it takes place back in the twenties and thirties. In other words, “Exiles Road,” like “Jimmie Standing In The Rain,” touches on America in the early part of the twentieth century. This fellow MacManus is speaking of – spoiler alert: I’m going to argue in a moment that it’s Pat – left his family, and traveled the world, and had all sorts of adventures thanks to his ability to play music. It’s a young musician’s fantasy of the escape from the familiar that his talents might bring him.
Indeed, the speaker goes on to articulate his envy of his friend’s having made that escape. He hasn’t made it himself, and there’s a hint that he fears he never will. Music itself, listening to it and dancing to it, affords a kind of getaway, but it’s a temporary one compared to the sailing-the-high-seas journeys of his “best friend”:
Wish I was leaving to take that flight, still we drank all day and we danced all night
Listen to that old sweet sound, we danced till we dropped and we drank till we drowned
Now I’m not scared of fire or water, still I held my breath till they had landed
I lost my heart to a city daughter, I lost all my money and it left me stranded…
The juxtapositions are nice, if slight: he can’t run away, so he loses himself in drinking and dancing; the music is sweet, but the dancing leads to exhaustion and the drinking to intoxication. Things get a little harder to read from there – I couldn’t tell you who’s “landing” in the third line, though the point is that the speaker claims to be unafraid of the dangers of travel but secretly has trepidations about it. Then he describes the entangling processes of maturity that threaten any hope for the sort of flight a young man, wandering the world on the strength of his talents, might be capable of making: you fall in love and you can’t leave; you start to need money so much you become aware, as you weren’t before, of how little of it you have; you’re “stranded,” because you’re tied down.
But that’s no life, MacManus declares. Working, and doing what you’re told, and toeing the line… (Duh-duhduh-duhduhduh-DUH.) All that stuff is desperation, perhaps even the quiet brand of it that Thoreau spoke of, and MacManus, for one, isn’t having it:
Somebody told me to stand in line, they gave me a number and they say that’s mine
Just about all I own these days, and a desperate man just fights that way
Now I’m not one for senseless grieving, dry your eyes and stop your crying
Pack my bags and I’ll be leaving, you gotta sell the saddle when the horse is dying…
The only thing he owns, the speaker declares, is the number that tells him his place in line – somewhere in here is a hint of a Springsteenian sentiment, of feeling that being stuck in your hometown “rips the bones from your back, it’s a death trap,” or of being determined, as the son says to his father in “Independence Day,” that “they ain’t gonna do to me what I watched them do to you.” But MacManus’s song is cheerier in tone than those later tunes will be, and he’s speaking not to a girl he’s begging to come with him, or to his father for that matter, but, one supposes, to that “city daughter” he’s linked himself to, whom he seems determined to leave behind. She doesn’t understand the need to leave – she weeps, protests, pleads with him to stay. All he has to offer in reply, though, is a flippant farewell, a wordy and callously clever version of Pat’s shrugging flinging of money down on the table and promising that “I’ll see you later.” No point in beating a dead horse, goes the cliché – and the man who will be Elvis Costello, cliché’s most dedicated deconstructor, reworks that into “you gotta sell the saddle when the horse is dying.” That life with her is a “saddle” is surely no comfort to the weeping woman, but cruel as it is to say, doubtless MacManus means it: a stationary life is one he’s been saddled with; the life of the wandering musician is the one he’s meant for.
Which brings us to the chorus, sung only twice – after the second verse and after the last one – amid all the bludgeoning reiterations of that earworm hook. The Elvis Costello Wiki transcribes it thus:
You can’t cheat on Exiles Road, leaning out of this dead horse town
Molly and me don’t shift no load, it’s going down, it’s going down…
I don’t want to argue with so esteemed an online resource, but I hear the words a little differently. For starters, I think it’s possible MacManus says that “you can cheat on Exiles Road.” This is a quibbling difference, as the line means the same thing either way: out in the world, de-linked from ties to a single place, the traveling musician is freed from the standards of regular society – you can’t cheat, because there is no such thing as cheating, so in fact you can cheat all you want. Again, we’re being treated to a young man’s sentiment here – one looks ahead to the oblique, shamefaced admissions of infidelities on the road that pepper Costello’s memoir, written from the wistful perspective of age and experience, and that contrast strongly with this jovial little kiss-off. (“We are not old men,” Keith Richards once told a magistrate defiantly, “and we are not worried about petty morals.”) I also think, though it’s hardly crucial to interpreting the song, that he says Exiles Road is “leading” out of town, not “leaning.” The second line, meanwhile, could just be Flip City Irishing up The Band’s Bessie or Gram Parsons’s Annie Rich, or any of Bruce’s Marys for that matter, giving us a woman to map our own loves onto and conjuring a singalong line without it meaning much – unless, as I suspect, it does. “Molly and me” is, of course, the same phrasing we find in Walter Donaldson and George Whiting’s “My Blue Heaven,” a tune we know, from Costello’s discussion of it in his memoir, Pat loved deeply. Molly was, of course, the name of Pat’s wife: “Molly and me, and baby makes three/ we’re happy in my, in my blue heaven…” MacManus’s line is a shade garbled in both versions of “Exiles Road,” but I think it might actually be “Molly and me don’t share no load,” which would make this an attempt to offer an excuse for leaving – the speaker says he and his woman have nothing in common, and anyway there’s no stopping his departure: “It’s going down, it’s going down…” There’s no getting away from it: this thing is happening. Everybody sing together: “I’m leaving my woman, lighting out for the territory, starting life on ‘Exiles Road’!”
And so we arrive at what I think is the big thing to observe about this song: it’s almost impossible not to think, despite his having been tagged as MacManus’s “best friend” rather than his grandfather, that the subject of the first verse and thus the inspiration for the speaker’s escape, is Pat MacManus. Now, Costello didn’t know his grandfather, who died when he was very young, but he seems constantly aware of Pat’s having lit the fuse that resulted in his own music career. He discusses him lovingly in Unfaithful Music; he affords him pride of place in “Detour,” which works in a similarly time-twisting fashion as this essay, ending at the beginning by bringing Pat up only in the narrow twilight of a long night of music. Pat pops up periodically in Costello’s songbook: he’s referenced obliquely in “American Without Tears”; he seems like the protagonist of “Any King’s Shilling”; he’s both the comic and the tragic hero of “Jimmie.” Indeed, in Costello’s imagination Pat invariably teeters on the knife’s edge of the two performative masks – as we’ve seen, he can be the chilling focus of an antiwar screed and the hapless victim of a goofily surreal boat-dismembering within the space of the same story; a man whose career’s being torpedoed by technological advancement is both high hilarity and somber warning; he’s a voyeur and a light smuggler and a dashing romantic and a sad failure, all at once. He’s the rascal Declan MacManus became when he changed his name to Elvis, and he’s the good-natured Vaudevillian Elvis Costello mellowed into once he set aside the angry-young-man thing and started doing long, discursive solo shows. Clearly Declan, singing of his grandfather’s jaunt “away down to Rio and across to China,” saw him as a sort of inspiration, and clearly Elvis, recounting for twenty-first-century audiences some of the very adventures he shorthanded in those opening lines of “Exiles Road” four decades earlier, sees him as someone whose life was as informed and enriched and betrayed and enlivened by music as his own would be. Pat MacManus is the Rosetta Stone for Costello’s understanding of what a life in music could be, the good and the bad alike, and it’s fitting that one of his very earliest songs is more or less a tip of the hat Pat’s way. “Exiles Road” is the path forward. For forty years and more, Elvis Costello will be walking it.
But after all let’s end, as we should, at the end:
Unfaithful Music’s Chapter 18 includes a more detailed description of Pat MacManus’s final years than Costello gave us from the stage in Santa Barbara. The entire story proves to be much richer when it’s not being thumbnailed for a live “Detour” audience – we learn more about Pat’s war career, and his wanderings in America, and his dandyish fashion sense and his eyecatching wardrobe purchases from the best tailors in Manhattan, and his amateur photographic efforts and paparazzo-like impulses, as well as his complicated romantic life and probably-wandering eyes, before Costello gets to the point where those boats are cut in two. Intriguingly, it turns out there’s a real dimension to the fanciful image he’s been presenting for so long in concert: new, streamlined sailing vessels, we’re told, slowly took the place of the majestic ships Pat sailed on, and one such was the RMS Georgic, which was “talked up as a new class of ship, fit for a duke, but it was half the behemoth of a vessel that Harland and Wolff had intended to build before the economy saw the steel of the keel cut in half to yield two vessels…” Pat, Costello tells us, “might have seen the end of his working life on luxury liners approaching but it was never really clear whether he jumped ship or if he was pushed.” Returning home, indeed Pat did find that the “talking pictures” had put him out of a job :
What work came Patrick’s way was often unworthy of his talent and training but it helped keep what little food they had on the table. Pat gave some music lessons to more well-to-do children, but this was a very meager source of income. Pat even played on street corners for coppers until his pride would no longer allow him to do it.
My Dad never spoke of his father’s harder times with any self-pity or sentimentality, but my Nana had bitter memories about the stigma of the Means Test.
The family moved to a two-up, two-down rented terrace house on Cathcart Street with only a few pieces of finer furniture and some embroidered lace covers to remind them of better times.
Patrick’s best American suits remained hung in a wardrobe, wreathed in camphor, until his shrunken frame was no longer able to fill them.
Sad, chilling stuff. But in the weeks since that Santa Barbara show in April the “Jimmie” introduction has morphed further still: once again showing that like his analogue in song Pat is, for his grandson, not easily pigeonholed either as a figure of pathos or an object of derision, Costello has started capping the story of Pat playing for coppers with a last little curlicue of sentiment and sweetness. Earlier this week in London, for instance, he said this:
…and Pat MacManus never ever made any more money playing the trumpet, except with a few pals of his on the street corner, playing for coppers. And I make no apology if that sounds sentimental, ’cause I’m very lucky to do the job I do. And I wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t for him. So I thank you very much for giving me that job. And I wrote this here song in remembrance of those times – because you never really know when they’re coming back, do you?
Where does “Exiles Road” end? Where do you wind up once you’ve sold the saddle, packed up, left your woman, and headed out on the road? Who’s to say. Maybe it leads to a street corner where you can no longer practice the art that defined your life; maybe it leads to the grand stage of the London Palladium, playing to a packed house applauding your every word. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s the journey that’s important – and that, as we move forward through the Costello songbook, is probably the idea we need to hold dear.
Recorded (version 1): Maida Vale Studios, summer 1974. DM: vocals, guitar; Hazlehurst, guitar, backing vocals; Kent: bass, backing vocals; Dennis?, drums; Faulkner?, percussion. Producer/engineer: unknown. Recorded (version 2): Hope & Anchor Studios, spring 1975. DM: vocals, guitar; Hazlehurst: guitar, backing vocals; Kent: bass, backing vocals; Powell?: drums; Faulkner?: percussion. Engineer: Dave Robinson. Unreleased, save on bootleg. Presumably played live in Flip City shows, 1974-75, though it isn’t found on the sole live recording we have of the band. Never played since.
Top to bottom: Pat MacManus in his later years, from Unfaithful Music; Flip City, ca. 1974; Pat in Central Park in the 1920s, again from Unfaithful Music; EC, speaking of Pat in his introduction to “Jimmie” at the London Palladium, 5/10/16.
Nice essay. I don’t think we can doubt that the subject of the song is, at least in part, Pat MacManus.
Interesting, EC’s father, Ross, gave an interview very early in EC’s career in which he draws a strong connection between EC’s and Pat: http://www.elviscostello.info/wiki/index.php/New_Musical_Express,_October_29,_1977.
Ross also says EC’s had, at that point, already written a number of songs about Pat, including one that sounds like it could be a reworking of “Exiles Road” or a sequel to it, or even an embryonic version what ended up part of “American Without Tears”:
“He also tells us Elvis had some great songs about his grandfather which have yet to be unveiled in public — especially one called “My Friend”, about his grandad’s New York experiences.”
I do thinking you’re misreading some of the tone of “Exiles Road”, though. I think the man his the first verse is being charmingly insouciant, not cruelly flippant, when he tells his wife he’ll see her later. If real life, Pat did see Molly later, and with plenty more coin in his pockets to tip a lot more waiters. At least in the construction of his grandparents’ biographies that EC’s gives in his memoir, the time Pat was working on the White Star Line were the best years of both their lives. Also, please note that while someone is crying his the last verse (we aren’t quite told who — perhaps this is the narrator giving himself a pep talk), no one is protesting or pleading with anyone to stay. I think the narrator is looking forward to better times with his girl, if he has had one — romantic misadventures with a “city daughter” on the far end of a plane flight (surely this is where one loses one’s heart, one’s money, and gets stranded… ideally all in one big night!) aside — not after ditching her. I hear this part of the song as more akin the crushing money anxiety that permeates so much of what came to be called the Honky Tonk Demos, written and recorded not too much later. And we know: by a young man who had been trying to support his little family by renting their “spare” room to hippie-freaks and drug addicts, getting evicted, bunking in with his in-laws, etc. Also: I think standing in line with a number might as well be a reference to being on public assistance as to working a crummy job, tying back into his grandmother’s painful memories of the “Means Test”.
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Thank you for reminding me of that interview with Ross! It slipped my mind when I was cobbling together this essay last week. I wonder if the existence of “My Friend” is what led Graeme Thomson to speculate that “Exiles Road” is a reworking of an older lyric – it does seem unlikely that there were multiple pre-1977 songs in which DPM referred to his grandfather as his friend. Perhaps one day we’ll get to hear that “album and a half – or at least a good album’s worth” of pre-My Aim Is True material that Costello mentioned to Simon Grigg a few years back, or even those “36 of [EC’s] songs” that Dave Robinson once told MOJO he has stocked away. If “My Friend” surfaces on one or the other of those collections, at last we’ll have a definitive answer as to whether it’s connected to “Exiles Road” or “American Without Tears” or anything else. Fingers crossed.
Your point about the tone of the song is extremely well-taken, and something I should keep in mind as I stumble through the rest of the Flip City material. I’ve tried hard to keep an impartial mind in reading these early songs, but it’s hard not to allow Costello’s own slightly-regretful tone, evidenced in his memoir as I say in the essay, as he looks back from an older man’s perspective on his early infidelities, to leach into my perspective likewise. (I too am no longer a young man, and have trouble remembering what it’s like to be able to issue a carefree “see you later” to a woman without being aware of the loss that likely entails.) For what it’s worth, there’s so much romantic infidelity, and so many dire results of that infidelity, in even the earliest EC/DPM numbers that I don’t feel I’m wildly distorting the tune by finding a few shadows in it despite its sonic exuberance. But you’re quite right: I should take care not to forget all the bright light in there as well.
I do love being reminded that the anxieties of the song are much more the in-the-moment domestic worries of the Honky Tonk Demos – which were probably being written contemporaneous to at least the second recording of “Exiles Road” – than the looking-ahead or looking-back relationship crises of a man upending a love affair to follow his muse. In my defense, though, there’s a retrospection inherent in the song itself: the twentysomething who’s writing it is thinking of a twentysomething from two generations earlier, and whatever it was the real Pat MacManus was feeling as he parted from Molly to set sail, it was likely neither wholly insouciant nor wholly flippant, but laced with all the complexities of life that, for his grandson, can be summed up with dreams of misadventure and actualities of renting to lunatics and trepidations about having to move in with his parents or getting fired or being evicted or winding up humiliated. I suppose I see the man in the first verse as being rakish, but the speaker in the final verse as on the cusp, at least, of realizing that rakishness has consequences. If my presentation of this one-step-past-naivete moment is colored by a less youthful perspective, it’s only because I myself am two steps past naivete, with lots more to learn.
I am very grateful for such a thoughtful response! I love talking about these songs, and I hope you’ll check back and have more to say about future entries!
Thanks for the kinds words.
I stopped back to add this, which occurred to me today: The line “Though I look right at home here I still feel like an exile” in “New Amsterdam” might very likely be a callback to “Exiles Road”, whatever its various permutations, and to Pat MacManus himself and his time in New York City. I don’t think he mentions it in the memoir, but EC has said he was seriously considering moving to NYC to live as early as 1978. (For any readers who skipped the 8th grade: New Amsterdam is an historical name for NYC.)
I’ll also offer some advice, having also read your essay on “Please Mister Don’t Stop the Band”, as you “stumble through the rest of the Flip City material”: Be cautious about applying the typical chronological boilerplate of a teenager and young man’s life to this particular teenager and young man.
Remember, this is a person who said — at age 22! — that when he was 18 he felt 30. Who, at least as he recalls it in his memoir, had at age 17 the kind at “carpe diem” epiphany about the brevity of life more typical of middle age. Who started applying his now-famously ferocious work ethic to the job of being a musician before he’d even left school, and has scarcely let up since. Who, again in his present-day recollection, was barely 14 when he chose the girl he would marry and seems in fact to have been happily engaged to her (occasional rough patches in the course of true love excepted) by the time he was 18 or so. Who, as a teenager, at least slightly disapproved of his (long-haired!) father’s rather louche ways, not the other way around.
In a way, EC flipped the order of his teen and very early adult years with his later 20s: He started out as a serious and sober young man, a hard-working husband and father; then, having been poleaxed by sudden fame at age 23, spent the next few years behaving like a wild-ass teenager, one with an unlimited amount of trouble to get into and no parents to ground him for misbehaving.
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This, too, is full of superb and very welcome observations — the more so because they come as I’m working on the next post for the blog, and touch on some of the things I want to talk about in it. With your permission, actually, I might quote directly from this comment in that essay — hope you won’t mind! It’s nice to have someone reading who knows EC’s biography and has thought seriously about his early years — a period in his life I’m only really beginning to reflect on now, with the memoir fresh in my mind and these very early songs under the microscope in a way I’ve never looked at them before. I hope you’ll continue to serve as a welcome corrective as I move forward!
Very happy to have you weighing in. Wishing you all the best.
Thanks again. Feel free to quote me, so long as you correct my typos.
EC biography interests me partly for how staunchly it resists cliched notions about the romantic/Bryronic artist and especially its late-20th C apotheosis, the rock’n’rock rebel. Instead, I suspect it hews much closer to the actual lives of most artists throughout history. Quite a few of the great ones were going into the family business.
BTW, today I thought of another addition to the list of EC’s songs about his grandfather: “Slow Drag With Josephine”. Feel free to use the following as notes for your entry on that song (which I trust we’ll be sometime before the turn of the next century 🙂 ).
“Josephine” and “Jimmie” always struct me as companions, sharing the same 4-song “side” on National Ransom. I believe EC frequently performed them back-to-back as well. Like “Jimmie”, it’s a work of fiction — I don’t think EC would ever claim to know the kind of intimate details of his grandparents’ relationship as depicted in the song, even if something like them did happen — but I think the signs are there.
Josephine is, of course, one of his grandmother Molly’s given names.* The setting and time is right. In the liner notes, EC gives it a date — 1921 — which I think is a little before EC’s grandparents met, but close enough for this fiction. The narrator begging his beloved to “declare [her] armistice”** certainly recalls Pat’s service in First World War. The scenes of dance hall mischief recall his profession. The otherwise inscrutable (to me) line “Curse the nurse that named me the first…” might even be a reference to Pat as Declan Patrick’s namesake. Interestingly, period details aside, this relatively straightforward (for EC) story of a man discovered by his true love in a dalliance with another woman, to his everlasting regret, maps much more strongly to EC’s own biography (as he tells it in his memoir) than his grandfather’s.
* Obviously, Pat also appears as a supporting character in “Veronica”.
** Probably not intended, but it also recalls EC’s Armed Forces era-conflating of love and war, which he later disavowed as too facile.
If I haven’t bored you into a stupor yet, let’s beat this poor horse just a little more by circling back to the song at hand, “Exiles Road”, which I’ve listened to quite a few times in the past few days.
I have to say, I absolutely do not hear an M sound at the beginning of the word that is supposedly “Molly”, in any instances, in either version. Do you? I think perhaps the lyric transcribes for the wiki, who after all are mere mortals like us, drew a little too much from the (correct) assumption that the man in the first verse is Pat.
What I do hear sounds variously like “Connie”, “Holly”, “Harley” and even “Paul”. I suppose EC might be naming the horse (Harley?), but that seems a tad too precious even for this early stage in his development as a songwriter. Perhaps what we’re hearing is not “[something] and me” at all, but some gerund phrase, like “calling me” or “hauling me”. Not that either of those really make sense, but it’s another line to think along. And while were at it, maybe the main verb is not “shift” (or “share”) but “ship”, respiring the oddly mixed equine/maritime imagery in the first verse.
About that — surely even at 18 or 19 EC was a sharp enough student of history to know that, even in the earliest days of the “48 stars”, folks in anyplace that “big ol’ liner” might have docked road trains and streetcars, not to mention their own shoe leather, not horses. I think he was perhaps a little too much in the thrall of the antebellum ruralism of his beloved Band (Rick Danko’s crew, not his own). I’m sure he did better when he got to that “My Friend” song Ross is talking about.
You couldn’t bore me on this subject if you tried! I could talk EC until the wee hours, no problem in the least — though it’s funny we’re finding so much to say about this song, of all songs. I suspect you and I have listened to “Exiles Road” more times in the past week than everybody who’s listened in the last ten years combined. I’m very grateful for any comments, and just apologize for not having responded yet to your last contribution — couched, delightfully, in the same footnote-filled style I stole from Chris O’Leary for the blog. Glad to see I’ve passed it along!
For starters: I agree that there’s not much of an M sound at the top of that second line of the chorus. I want to hear it there, not because it would solidify the connection to Pat but because I like thinking of a straight lyrical line between “Exiles Road” and “My Blue Heaven.” But EC could easily be saying “Paul” or “Harley” or “Honey,” and yeah, mostly because you brought it up, I’ve fancied there’s a gerund there a couple times too. Seems to me we can divide the possibilities into two:
1) He’s saying a name, be it “Molly” or “Paul” or something else. No matter what he’s saying, I concede that it’s probably a stretch to assume, as I did in my essay, that he’s naming a specific woman he’s leaving. It makes much more sense to read the name as a companion in the travels the speaker is embarking on — probably not his horse, literally speaking, though I do love that idea, but his fellow traveler, a buddy on the road or a lover he’ll be running away with. If this is so, it’s almost immaterial what the specific name is, since we can read the sentiment well enough.
2) He’s naming something, an activity expressed in a gerund phrase, that “don’t shift/shape/share no load.” It’s work, most likely. “Hauling meat,” perhaps — for the purposes of discussion, and though that phrase is meaningless, let’s read it that way. Whatever “hauling meat” may be, it sounds taxing. Maybe it’s the unfulfilling work that presents itself in this “dead-horse town.” The speaker stands in the unemployment line, and the best he can hope for is that he’ll find a gig somewhere “hauling meat,” whatever that is — which will be all the harder with a dead rather than a live horse to pull the wagon. It’ll suck, to put it plainly, which is how I read whatever the collection of syllables that follows is — “don’t (insert verb here) no load” means “don’t offer me any hope,” or “don’t suggest any chance at fulfillment or happiness.” Whichever of these readings we choose, the general meaning seems clear: “Alone or with a friend, I’ve gotta get out of here.” I’ve got to head out onto Exiles Road, destination unknown.
The thing I keep coming back to, though, and thank you for suggesting an analogy to “New Amsterdam,” is the use of the word “Exile.” I don’t know why I didn’t consider it sooner, but it’s odd that the young EC is thinking of the traveling musician as treading the road of an exile. “His best friend” in this song isn’t being sent away or cast out — he’s leaving by choice, as is the speaker when he “sells the saddle,” the condition of his horse notwithstanding. Was Pat an exile? Hardly: he went back and forth to New York, smuggling back furs and hats and illicit photos, always coming home after his voyages. He wasn’t really an exile until he returned to Birkenhead for good and found there was no more work, and he could no longer do what he loved, and he didn’t know how he fit into the world anymore. (“Though [he] looked right at home, [he] still [felt] like an exile…”) Why is the path out of town, here in this song, an “exiles road”? Does it lead to a state of being exiled? Is it one trodden in the past by exiles, that now we can travel by choice? Is it just the name of a byway leading out of town, one that EC is toying with a little ironically here? I’m really not sure. It’s odd.
I have to say, I’ll miss this kind of textual analysis when I leave the juvenilia behind and enter into an era where the lyrics are less contestably established. Thanks for making these initial forays into EC’s work all the more enjoyable with your insights!
It is funny to give so much attention to songs that are something like the songwriterly equivalent of EC’s high school term papers. (Well, I guess were up first semester of college now.) But this very early stuff does, in a real way, amount to the workbook for his self-directed course of study on how to be a songwriter. Taken in that light, it’s pretty interesting.
(Tell me, for example, that the next song on the demo reel, “Baseball Heroes”, doesn’t have a particularly workbooky feel, once you think about it. “Write a story song containing each of the following elements…”)
BTW, we aren’t the only ones who have been listening recently. A new YouTube comment for the demos you linked to informs us: “First cut is a rip off of Grateful Dead’s ‘He’s Gone’.” And sure enough:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BgzrfUA8lo So now you know where that obnoxiously ingratiating guitar riff came from.
But back to EC’s freshman year at songwriter’s college…
I looked up what G. Thomson said about when “Exiles Road” was written. He says the other members of Flip City remember it being one of the first songs EC taught the band. That seems fairly legit. I think we can rule out in being from the Rusty era. No doubt Allan Mayes would have remembered a song this good. Indeed, no doubt he would have written all the lyrics down in his nice, precise handwriting and kept the notebook, so we wouldn’t have to guess at them now!
So, most likely it dates from between mid-1973 and early 1974. That means when EC wrote this song he wasn’t yet under the kind of unavoidable money pressure that he would be even just a few months later, but I think my original assertion — that the song is imbued with a concerned for money, the lack of it, and most specifically how to earn it — still holds. I think EC had his mind on his money even then. His Flip City (non-)buddies got it right when they said he was in it for the money, even though they were being hippy-dippy dicks about it. Of course he was, always. Heck, he still is. Because that’s what it means to make a living as a musician. Like Ross. And Pat. Just like you quote him saying in the last quote up there.
I had more to say about money, exile, and why Declan MacManus could never believe in the promised land the way Chuck Berry, never mind Bruce Springsteen, did. But the hour is late. Now that I know you don’t consider it gauche to make consecutive comments, I’ll save it for later.
So where were we?
I’ll get back around to money, exile, and why several masters theses could and no doubt have been written comparing and contrasting the lyrical sensibilities of EC and Springsteen — and if I really have time, although it’s slightly outside of this little songs, another great subject of EC’s songs: morality — but for now I want to go back over the lyrics to this song.
I think we’ve gotten everything we’re ever going to get, phonetically, out of the second line of the chorus, so let’s return to the first: “You [can | can’t] cheat on Exiles Road…” Since we will never locate the micron on phonetic difference between “can cheat” and “can’t cheat”, I’m going with “can’t” based on emphasis in natural speech in most contexts. If it now seems pretty unlikely that this refers to romantic infidelity, what is this about? I’d tend to here it as, “You can’t cut corners or try to hedge your bets on Exiles Road, you have to go all-in or not go at all.” But — speaking of bets — was there perhaps another verse, ultimately scuttled, about gambling? Maybe that verse, if EC ever got it right, would have bridged the curious gap between this horse business (stranger rides into a Western town, circa 1885, finds the one saloon and take up in a card game) that ocean liner (stranger steps onto the dock in a bustling modern city, circa 1925, finds one of thousands of speakeasies and takes up at the craps table). Maybe.
Let’s revisit the second verse, because there are a couple of interesting things in it. The first is the single, bouncily sung line — “Lost my heart to a city daughter, lost all of my money and [left her stranded | it left me stranded]” (he sings it two different ways in the two version) — where I think we see the first glimpse (or one of the first, I haven’t examined the Rusty material carefully) of the bumbling doofus in the romance department that would be part of EC’s songwriting persona for years to come. You could even say the switch from her being stranded (I’d argue for this is on account of his being, not a cad, but — more befitting where the songwriter was in life when he wrote this song — just a clueless dumb-ass) to him being stranded as a incremental step toward the “total loser” persona he would later say he wrote so many of the MAIT songs from.
Second, I think, in line “I held my breath til they had landed”, we have an autobiographical reference to EC’s well-known fear of flying. (EC makes a number of references to it in his memoir and, while I don’t follow Bruce Thomas’s extramusical efforts closely, I understand he never misses a change to tweak his erstwhile boss for being a white-knuckle flyer even years into his professional career.) In his memoir, EC’s tells us that, at perhaps 13 or 14, he would lie in bed listening to planes coming in and out of Heathrow airport and dream of being able to get on any one he chose. But then, he tells us, a couple of years later, he finally gets on one of those planes, enroute to a small German town for a famous performances of the Passion Play, and is so terrified by the turbulent, lightning-filled return flight that he never flew again until forced to in his first months as a professional musician, and apparently never quite got over it. So perhaps this is the young DPM/EC, as a songwriter, saying, “Yeah, I’m going be a musician like grandpa Pat, and I really do want to see the world… but, oh shit, I don’t know how this whole airplane thing is going to work.”
BTW, he also says in the memoir that he spent most of that German holiday, not contemplating the passion of Christ, but flirting (apparently with some success, in a 15-year-old Catholic-schoolboy kind of way, although a gentleman never tells) with a guitar-playing, blonde, American, teenage Joni Mitchell wannabe. Can you imagine a human being better-engineered to send the teenage EC’s heart aflutter? So maybe there’s our heart-stealing city daughter.
So, yeah, it’s all a lot more juvenile than the cast you originally wanted to put on it, but so was the songwriter at the time. You were trying to jump him ahead — and, frankly, he delineates this process all pretty clearly in his memoir — several years of life experience, some hard knocks, and a lot of hard work as a songwriter.
Still, this seems way ahead of the Rusty stuff from maybe a year earlier. He’s learning to turn his personal experience into (better) songs and laying out some theme’s, in nascent and naive form, that he’ll work for years, even the rest of his career.
Good effort, Declan. Room for improvement, but I give it a solid B+. Keep up the good work. We know you will.
Not sure sure I still have your attention, but it looks like I was right about “New Amsterdam” being partly about Pat. From the liner notes of “Bespoke Songs, Lost Dogs…”, EC writes:
‘Patrick MacManus was a ship’s musician on the ocean liners. His work took him to New York and back in the 1920s. It must have been a tough and uncommon experience for a young trumpet player. Many people of my grandfather’s background only made that journey in one direction.
Over the years my thoughts about adventure and travel have got mixed up with family history in songs such as “New Amsterdam,” “Kid About It,” “American Without Tears,” “Last Boat Leaving,” and “Veronica.”‘
I guess we can add “Deportee’s Club”/”Poor Deportee” to that list, since that’s the song he’s writing about in the notes here.
Kudos again on location Song Zero of this (surprisingly? maybe not) long series.