Dan Baird, Buffalo Nickel, 1996
One of the great tropes (sorry-- I went to grad school) of the rock 'n' roll canon is the grizzled performer with one last great song in him about the past (until Bettye LaVette's remarkable comeback, I would have said it's always a him). There are tons of songs about the fading, forgotten singer who turns out to have a rich history and one last shot to tell it. It's the "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" retold as a rock song. In fact, it's the entire plot of the latest Jeff Bridges movie (which was called Crazy Heart, but that I always think is called Baby Heart. I think I want it to be a comedy in which old Jeff Bridges gets a baby heart in a transplant, and starts... ACTING LIKE A BABY!! "Hey Bob, want to go to the movies?" "No! I wanna POOP myself! Waaaaaaa!!!!!!" Actually, I can't believe that movie hasn't been made yet. Somebody call Rob Schneider immediately.)
In any case, some of those songs are pretty moving ("Fountain Of Sorrow"), and some of them are pretty cheesy ("The Gambler"). What's great about this Dan Baird song is that it takes that theme and flips it on its ear. It gives the gravitas-filled "history" song the big raspberry.
Dan Baird was the lead singer and songwriter in The Georgia Satellites, famous for "Keep Your Hands To Yourself," a yodeling hit from the 80s. The Satellites showed promise, but in the end they were always a little too twangy for me. They imploded after a few albums, and Baird started off his solo career with a pedestrian solo album featuring another jokey single called "I Love You Period" (response line: "Do you love me question mark?"). Get it? It's funny once, and then it's really annoying. I think I'd prefer it to be a song by an extremely sensitive singer-songwriter called "I Love Your Period," a menstruation-solidarity song. "When you scream at me about the dishes, I truly feel your pain/ I'll try not to breathe so loudly, and earn back your love again," etc.
Just when I'd written him off altogether, Baird released this second solo album, which I think is totally worth a listen, if only for this first song. I love the sound of it-- gone is the cheesy twang of his earlier work. Instead, he sounds like the Faces crossed with the Clash, all big guitars and big-pocket drums. I fell in love with the sound first (and the Dylan-mocking album cover art):
but once I tuned into the lyrics, I was hooked. The song is about that old, venerable performer (it's impossible not to think of Baird himself, at that point a fifteen-year veteran of the business) but this time, instead of offering wisdom, he's just annoying everyone:
Another five and dime, local would-be legend
Well you're nearly done so you'd better just let it ride
Kinda sad now you're outdated
Nothin' special, in fact you're faded
For the younger face to take your place
Please step aside
He's steppin' on your pride
For every old guy with a great story to tell, there are five who just want to tell you about the time their band opened for The Guess Who in 1970. Frankly, I feel like I have to be careful of coming off this way when I write this blog sometimes (I played with Phil Lesh! A guy I know plays stadiums! I met Elvis Costello!). When I first heard this song at age 25, it made me laugh. Now, I laugh, but much more knowingly. I've been in this conversation more than a few times now, on both the giving and receiving end, and Baird's warning is well-taken:
And if you're gonna bore us to death with those worn-out war stories,
At least have the decency to buy us all another round
Kinda strange now, you don't matter
In fact you'd better be quick to flatter
The younger face come to take your place,
Don't it bring you down
And this used to be 'your' town
The other thing the song captures perfectly is the sycophantic nature of some music friendships. Everyone wants to be friends with whomever is the next big thing, and sometimes that can lead to some pretty catty behavior. I can't imagine what people have said about me once I've said goodnight. If you allow yourself to think about it too much, you'll never pick up an instrument again. It's a sad fact about the music community that sometimes the worst musician in the world is the one that just went to get a beer.
He sticks out his hand, smiles and says 'hey thanks for your memories.'
As he turns around walks away, he's takin' everything you used to be
All the young lions laugh and point in your direction
Was it really that long ago that you stood inside their shoes?
Your final scene comes down so tragic,
Here it comes as if by magic,
The younger face come to take your place,
Man, you're yesterday's news
Got nothin' left to lose.
That last line is the song's most interesting, though. Here's the thing-- if Baird is bring autobiographical here, and believes that his time has come and gone, then why make an album at all? Moreover, why make one so good? There's something liberating in being "yesterday's news" (especially if you've banked the royalties from a top 10 hit like Baird did). I think the strength in the album and the song rests in that last line. Baird is past his prime, and so now he can just make music. Buffalo Nickel is his best work because it's his most natural and least calculated (what a lead vocal, too! I love his voice on this track). Unsurprisingly, once he stops trying to write hits, he writes one. When there's "nothin' left to lose," who cares what people say about you? I'm a much better player now at 40 then I was at 20, and I play at my best when I can get myself to care less about what people think of it. As long as you're good, a younger man's mockery is just that kid's own lack of confidence. Since we're all apparently going to live to 100, it's a good lesson for all of us not to start feeling worthless and beyond our prime too early.
This song is funny, insightful and a great lesson in humility and the fickle nature of other people's opinion all in four minutes. An aging thumbs-up all the way.