Friday, January 07, 2011

Sitting there playing solitaire with your pearl-handled deck?

This one's for all you Zevonphiles out there, or anyone who loves a good cover.

Canadian singer/songwriter Murray McLauchlan, probably best known for "The Farmer's Song," actually recorded the classic junkie lament "Carmelita" in 1972. Four years before Zevon before it finally landed on a Zevon album. So I knew the song years before I'd ever heard of Zevon. Or even, for that matter, Linda Ronstadt.

In fact, when I was growing up, McLauchlan was pretty hot stuff, and he's still one of my favorite songwriters. Scottish-born, he grew up in Toronto, and racked up a slew of AM hits and FM radio picks in the seventies, marked by a dour skepticism and street level pessimism leavened by a scruffy sense of wit and observation that marked him as an original, even as he was borrowing liberally from country, folk and rock influences.

He may have never been really cool (his first big hit was a tribute to farmers, fer cryin' out loud), but he was all over the radio:

"Maybe, Tonight" A lonely traveling salesman looking for some...

"Down by the Henry Moore" Captureing the whirl of early seventies Toronto better than just about anything).

"Honky Red" The classic wino lament with the immortal lines: "I fought in your wars/Now I sleep in your doors/And I left my leg in France."

"On the Boulevard" Working man blues. Lou Reed without the contempt.

"You Need a New Lover Now" Which at least one Canadian mystery writer swore to me is all about her.

"Hard Rock Town" An ode to the mining town of Sudbury, Ontario, and still as good a study of kids growing up in a dead-end town as there's been. "The kids grow up too fast inside/Now they're spitting in the high school halls..."

"Child's Song" Also recorded by folkie Tom Bush, mapped out the whole angsty father/son battlefield Springsteen would later ride to glory.

The obligatory double live album, Only the Silence Remains, featuring McLauchlan on guitar, harmonica and defiance, backed only by a bass player and a rowdy crowd, remains one of my all-time favourite albums (and is, of course, now sadly out of print).

The American market, however, eluded him. He went rock, he went country, he went folk, he toured but just couldn't crack the market. Eventually his brand of homespun singer/songwriter rock, full of wry observation and slice of life grit fell out of fashion, even back home.

What was he supposed to do? Go glam? Shove a safety pin through his nose? Release a disco album?

So he became a bush pilot. He staged occasional comeback attempts. He wrote his autobiography. He hosted a popular CBC radio show or two. And even now, he releases an album every now and then. They don't chart anymore, but I buy 'em. When I can find him.

But I digress...

Back in the early seventies, Zevon was earning his daily bread as musical director for The Everly Brothers who were going through their third or fourth comeback attempt. Phil and Don were doing a tour of British Columbia "mining towns," and the opening act was McLauchlan, who was just starting to make a name for himself. The two young singer/songwriters hit it off, and agreed to record one of each other's songs.

McLauchlan kept his promise, and "Carmelita" appeared on his 1972 self-titled album, Murray McLauchlan (his second). The McLauchlan version even has an extra verse, a little bit of nonsense about an angry Samoan.

But during a Montreal concert during the Excitable Boy tour, before playing "Carmelita," a very, uh, over-served Zevon blurted out the whole story, and offered up a sort of rambling apology to McLauchlan for not keeping up his end of the deal. I was there. I heard it.

No, McLauchlan's version isn't better than Zevon's. Zevon's doom-and-gloom bellow is missing, but McLauchlan has a rather unique voice himself, a sort of Canadianized, rough-and-tumble yelp mixed with a Toronto-ized Scottish burr, that brought it down a notch, made it less epic mythology and a bit more street-level, if you will.

So, it's not better, it's not worse; it's just different.

But I sorta like it.


Anonymous Keith Logan said...

Thanks! I had no idea about this tale - and nothing more about Murray than his name. I'll be checking some of his stuff out, for sure.

1:40 PM, January 10, 2011  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Like I said, he was never quite cool, maybe, and he never quite broke out of Canada the way Lightfoot or Cockburn or Young or any of them did, but he wrote a lot of songs that nobody else was writing at the time. The fact he was raggedly and defiantly Canadian (songs about Sudbury? Toronto? Fur trappers?) at a time when everyone else was going for slick and U.S.-friendly inspired a lot of people. In 1993, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.

7:50 AM, January 14, 2011  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Holy Moley! He has a MySpace page! . Nothing there, though, with his short-lived band The Silver Tractors, though. They backed him during his "rock" phase, and brought a Crazy Horse-type buzzing, thudding clatter to his live shows.

7:57 AM, January 14, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saw Murray last night, in all places, Highgate, Ontario (population 600 souls and 60 cats)and he put on an exceptional show. Two full hours in front of 250 souls. He gets better with age.

7:02 AM, January 22, 2012  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

It's great he's still out there, pounding the stage. Just knowing that makes my day.

9:37 PM, January 23, 2012  

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