Tag Archives: first things

“Alas It Is So, But Thus It Must Be” (Charlie Louvin, 1927-2011)

by Chris Randle

Cancer took Charlie Louvin on Wednesday morning, and this is going to be an awkward eulogy, because my first exposure to his music came later that day. I’d only known the Louvin Brothers as an internet meme: the 1959 LP above is a staple of weirdest/silliest/kitschiest album-cover lists online. Growing up with middle-class comforts and no vestige of religion in downtown Toronto, one of those kids who says they like every genre “except rap and country,” the very notion of Satan’s realness was more absurd than his plywood caricature.

Here’s something the listmakers usually don’t tell you: Ira Louvin designed that cover himself. He and Charlie burnt kerosene-soaked tires in an old rock quarry to set the scene, nearly incinerating themselves in the process. Between the high forehead, cavernous brows and sinister grins, it’s hard not to read perverse excitement in his expression. Ira (on the left, born Loudermilk) was the older brother, the most gifted, the primary songwriter. He had been drawn to the Pentecostal ministry once, and every seedy bar where he and his sibling played country songs must have felt like spiritual torture.

Ira became a violent alcoholic. He smashed numerous mandolins (!) during shows, cheated on all four of his wives and received several bullets in his back from the third after trying to strangle her with a telephone cord. (“If the son of a bitch don’t die, I’ll shoot him again.”) As the brothers’ hot young opener for one ’50s tour sang hymns in admiration backstage, his soused hero called him a “white nigger” playing suspiciously danceable “trash.” Then Ira tried to strangle Elvis Presley. I remember my friend Maggie, a big fan, telling me about the Louvin Brothers in a bar once; describing the eldest’s death via drunk driver while evading his own DUI warrant, she sounded both awed and appalled.

That was in 1965. Charlie Louvin, the relatively mild-mannered half of the group, had already gotten fed up and ended their partnership two years earlier. He led a respectable solo career for a while, but the tunes became less memorable without his demon brother. I don’t mean that in the fatuous sense of romanticized torment – they needed each other for technical reasons. Chained together through so many of their wounded yet pious gospel songs, the Louvins’ trademark tenor harmonies keen past Biblical doctrine to the pain and sorrow it tries to explain. When they sang “that word ‘broadminded’ is spelled S-I-N,” holding the last letter just until it hurts, they were referring to illicit dancing. You would think it was the fall from Eden.

You might also think it’s a little strange for a lifelong nonbeliever to suddenly find this music so affecting (and I’m far from the only one). If an atheist or agnostic listens to two righteous hellions outlining what a miserable sinner he is and hits “repeat,” is it theological masochism? Well, I don’t fuck with Christian fundamentalism,  but it does seem to give certain acolytes a deep understanding of tragedy. Browsing through Louvin joints over the past couple of days, I became particularly obsessed with one of their secular compositions. “When I Stop Dreaming” ends on these lines: “You can teach the flowers to bloom in the snow / You may take a pebble and teach it to grow / You can teach all the raindrops to return to the clouds / But you can’t teach my heart to forget.”

The heartbreak is magnified until it scrapes the edge of irony, like some Appalachian inversion of Stephin Merrit. I wouldn’t be surprised if the siblings intended that effect. Charlie Louvin apparently had a healthy sense of humour himself, leaning towards the macabre, as country often does. In later years he presided over a ramshackle Louvin Brothers Museum, right next to gory photos from Ira’s death scene. He didn’t release any music for 25 years at one point, but the 2003 tribute album Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’ renewed interest in the duo and presaged a series of new recording sessions. I ran out to buy 2008’s Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs LP yesterday. It features his rendition of “Wreck on the Highway,” and the cover is his smiling, avuncular face.

Curious juxtapositions aside, I don’t think Charlie was making light of Ira Louvin’s death. There are recent interviews where a gentle question about his brother reduces him to sobs. His New York Times obituary closes with this quote: “When it comes time for the harmonies to come in, I will move to my left because my brother and I always used to use one microphone. Even today, I will move over to the left to give the harmony room, knowing in my mind that there’s no harmony standing on my right.” Of all my privileges, the most precious one is that I’ve never had to watch a dear soul destroy themselves, before yearning: Get beside me, Satan.

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Primordial Ink

by Chris Randle

(from the anti-papal broadsheet Which of These Fower That Here You See, 1623)

The Comics Reporter‘s Tom Spurgeon recently linked to a blog post which claimed to identify an early comic strip dating all the way back to 1493, its story arguably told in sequential images and primitive dialogue balloons. I was struck less by the existence of this find than I was by what Tom noted with polite disinterest: A lot of people have a recurring fixation on potential proto-comics. I’m not sure why this is so. The mediums of the industrial age are young enough for their origins to be relatively well-documented; depending on how far your definition of “motion picture” stretches, it’s pretty clear that the first film was either Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory or Roundhay Garden Scene. But no one seems to especially care about what the earliest novel might be, even though that question is almost as open and nettlesome as the words-and-pictures one.

The perennial quest for The First Comic may be motivated by an interest in artistic ancestry. Its complement is the same desire for legitimacy that moved so many cartoonists and readers to tortured angst over the past century. (Now we argue about whether everything was better in the bad old days, before tawdry, disreputable gutter culture could get gallery retrospectives.) The most popular text for “comics studies” courses, by far, is Scott McCloud’s 1993 book Understanding Comics – to the chagrin of scholars who resent the outsized influence of its formalist approach. After allowing that “Sure, I realized comic books were usually crude, poorly-drawn, semiliterate, cheap, disposable kiddie fare,” McCloud tries to expand the typical boundaries of the medium’s history with an increasingly equivocal series of pre-modern strips: Aztec picture manuscripts, the Bayeux tapestry, wordless paintings from ancient Egypt. Others have suggested more convincing candidates, like Picasso’s juvenilia or the sardonic drawings of James Ensor.

What if those searching for ur-comics are driven by something more reflexive than resented cultural illegitimacy? In How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elijah Wald suggests that the introduction of long-player records in 1948 accorded a new seriousness and intellectual cachet to select non-classical styles. Consciously or not, the 1960s’ first rock critics only reinforced that association between albums and Art; the archetypal example is their reaction to Sgt. Pepper, which Kenneth Tynan called “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization.”

Even now, when the technological or commercial reasons for releasing music in 12-song chunks every other year have disappeared, most listeners and genres still tend to hear LPs as an artist’s major statements. Perhaps there’s a similar structural explanation for the critical fascination with proto-comics. The first comics history was written in fanzines, around the same time that rock criticism emerged, and it had a fannish tint: Authors relied on oral testimony and hearsay rather than documents, displayed their affection for obscure esoterica, and obsessed over canons both literary and fictional. The fanzines’ very existence was a hurt, defensive reaction to the paternalistic disdain of Fredric Wertham. Writing-about-comics is less pitiable these days (even Wertham has his defenders), but I suspect that certain good/bad habits remain widespread. Hunt for ever-older strips from the past, and you can place them somewhere in that grand canon.

The irony of all this searching is that I don’t think comics can be said to have a single clear ancestry, theory-wise. As Charles Hatfield argues, they’re inherently interdisciplinary, a bastard medium. Comics is like the orphan bounced from foster home to foster home without ever quite finding a permanent one. But that shouldn’t be a mark of shame anymore.

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