JANUARY 8, 2010 10:58AM (This originally appeared at Open Salon)
You had to know it would happen. It always happens. Big pop star dies after 20 years in obscurity, and infamy, and two or three religious conversions and a confession of (wait for it), drug use and his/her previously disparaged and ignored recordings start flying off the shelf and out of Itunes at the speed of light.
The real surprise to me was that after Michael Jackson died it wasn't really his family who started lining up to cash in, especially considering the potential for elevated familial self-worth and entitlement available from the public outpouring of grief (seriously, grief?
With all due respect to the self-ordained king of pop, being a pioneer in the field of music video and dancing really, really well isn't usually enough to require that an entire city be shut down to mourn your passing, but that they passed the "we're doing this to honor his memory" flaming torch of bullshit to the same corporate cynics who ran screaming from any mention of his name while he was alive and allowed those same rich white men a chance to fill their mid-life Crisismobiles with folding money. So much folding money that it almost made being a corporate robber baron look like hard work by comparison. Okay, not that much money, but a whole lot of money.
But the Jacksons, for the most part, whose father doomed them to the insanity that comes with growing up in public, tried to be respectful to their lost kin. Who would have seen that coming?
It is old news that everybody loves you more after you are gone.
But all of the weeping and wailing got me thinking about all the working musicians I know who are just living the long hours and unpredictable incomes of being one of those lucky few who are successful enough at delivering a song to be allowed a chance to perform for others.
My friend Craig is one of the "lucky" ones.
And I'm lucky to be able to call him my friend.
Craig wrote a song that was recorded by the late Johnny Cash called "When He Comes Back Again." It sounds like it might be about Jesus. But it's not really about Jesus. And it's not really about Johnny, although it could have been.
And although it's impossible to really know where somebody else's song comes from, or what it's really about, I think it's about how the music business, and it really doesn't matter what genre (Yes, Folk Nazis, I mean you, too!), can never reconcile the art with the commerce and the commerce with the human being. And how when commerce is more important than human beings the only way to win is to not play. And how not playing is the ultimate victory. And how dying makes us all saints.
And since my friend put the lyrics to a catchy melody it sounds a whole lot like an upbeat song, a summer hit, a sing along, when really it is a 12 inch blade into the rib cage of Garth Brooks era Nashville and the years that followed. My friend is sneaky like that.
So I wrote a song about my friend. He's one of my heroes.
He is one of the most successful songwriters in contemporary country music. He's had songs recorded by many of my musical heroes including Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, the always underrated Don Williams and a host of others too numerous to mention.
He was one of the writers of the song "This Old House" which will make you cry no matter how much of a hard-ass you think you are.
He is also one of the best singers I've ever heard.
And he's a hell of a guy.
If you've never been a musician or a writer or anybody else who has to deal with publishers, A and R men, marketing people, agents, managers or any other part of the 15-20% share world, that loves you when you're hot and hates you when you're not, you might not understand, but one of the reasons he is my hero is that he never looked over my shoulder to see if somebody more important was coming in the door.
In the music business that would be reason enough. But there's a lot more.
Because he says kind things first and hard truths second. And because he always owns the hard truths. And because when he says something he doesn't care if anybody agrees with him. And because he's the H.L Menken of contemporary songwriting.
And because when I called him after disappearing for 12 years, he acted like I'd never been gone. He'd been one of my staunchest advocates and had put himself on the line for me. I left him holding the ball and he's never said a word about those days or asked me why.
Like I said, I'm lucky to have his friendship.
And because when he realized that he had to pick up and move his entire family back across the country he just did. No complaints, no "what ifs?"
And then, because the music biz was on life support, he just started playing gigs. He just started working harder. And because he didn't like what he was hearing on the radio he started recording what he wanted to hear. And he made the best recordings of his life.
He drives around the country with his profane, brilliant, and infinitely kind manager, Larry. And it looks like two old bastards on a budget holiday without a pot to piss in, because in some ways that is actually what it is. But it's hard work.
And because he's smarter than an entire shipping container full of Proust scholars he started helping other people write songs. And that was hard work, too.
And because after 40 years singing and playing he still comes alive with a guitar in his hand in a room with an audience as if he was at his first open mike and he can't believe that he gets to do this. And that's hard work, too.
But where he comes from, where they used to make American Steel, that is what the living do. They work hard.
He's a credit to the family, the forge, the song.
And that's why he's my hero.
And why you should go to his website at www.craigbickhardt.com and listen.
He's pretty damn good for a live guy.
CASH IN '85 (For C.B)
It starts with a man in the middle of nowhere
Just him and his guitar and it gets worse from there
The stage is ringed in faded yellow plastic lights
He might make 50 bucks give or take this night
The room is loud and smells of whiskey
He’s an echo in the smoke and a man of mystery
He knows exactly where and who he is
And he wonders how it’s come to this
He's like cash
He needs every dollar of that 50 bucks
To keep his life on wheels and gas in his truck
So he can drive 13 hours to play somewhere else
He knows those damn songs won’t sing themselves
Once upon a time those tunes were money
People swarmed around him like ants to honey
But now he’s fighting just to find two or three
Who don’t like him better as a used-to-be
The man’s like Cash in 85
Nobody knows he’s out there
But he’s still alive
Fuck ‘em all boys
He’s like Cash in 85
Some say it isn’t fair it isn’t right
Some don’t have the stomach for the fight
You will get knocked down you will get cut
All that matters is that you get back up
Words and Music by Nathan Bell copyright 2008