Private Avery William Whitmore was sent to France with the English 2nd Battalion in June of 1916. Having enlisted at a young age, Whitmore was but an eager boy, willing to serve for his King and country. As a learned student of English, he kept a private diary of his life on the front lines; a keepsake and journal detailing the hardships of trench warfare, this chapter paints a soul lost amongst the blood and mud. These pages were his last, Private Whitmore was killed on July 23rd 1916.
June 24th, 1916
Oh how the Southampton coast seems like a world away. It has been but two weeks since our paddle-boats came to rest at Havre. On what felt like stone our cattle truck ride to these front lines were but passing comfort; if I had only known of life here in these conditions my enthusiastic demeanor would not have been so. The sounds of whiz-bangs and mortar shells have become a morning roost and the smell of mud, rain and blood but my senses’ only test. How I yearn for this to end, my body has grown frail and my mind distraught from the constant trembling of guns. Our rations are low, water scarce and moral teetering on breaking. Yet among these sorrows the regiment has seen the occasional smile, a laugh and a jolly swagger that reminded me of the tales my brother Harold spoke of from his trips to London. Amongst our torment, Captain Meloy has been but our champion; our one unifying presence. He regales us with the many stories of wonder he has seen and heard; tales of pirates and far away lands, lost castaways of the many seas. And I remember so vividly how he began, in a voice so labored yet so swaying, his first parable;
“We set sail on a packet full of spice, rum and tea-leaves. We’ve emptied out all the bars and the bowery hotels” he called. And on he went amongst our watchful eyes and yearning ears, with images of daughters dragged with blindfolds through thick air. Then on to far away lands of nubile, dark-skinned natives and the lives of sailors past … all before he culls us, a swift adieu for the evening,
“So goodnight, boys, goodnight”.
June 27th, 1916
The days are long, the nights ever more so chilling. Men have lice, the mud and dirt so thick on my socks only my knife will carve them away. A bullet with grave conviction struck Private Browning today, his face a crimson red as it spattered on mine. His blood so thick it nearly choked me.
The captain has once again been our only rest from this human decay. He has just told us, nay, sung to us an ode to someone of mysterious ways. With such delectable blister and with the convention of phonographic wonder, in perfect glee came the story of sweet Myla Goldberg. Her “crooked foot all upside down” and her “pretty hands do pretty things” were slight notions of this strange character, someone who strikes me as rattled with age but still eager to grow.
June 29th, 1916
There was brief calm today. For the first time since my entrenchment, the guns were rested. In the silence of the moon’s whisper, there were no odes of death, no clouds of terror and no sounds of the dying – Captain Meloy played his gramophone for the men and we smiled to a tenor’s sound; an Italian man by the name of Enrico Caruso if I do recall. An opus he quickly turned to his own, with another tale no less, this time of a place in America. With passion that so quirkily quivers like the cold winter breeze and an echo that gallantly summons our land’s most extravagant orchestras, he tells us of the “city by the sea”, a city he seemingly, and affectionately surrenders to;
“Its streets and boulevards, orphans and oligarchs, and here’s a plaintiff melody, a truncated symphony, and ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore; Los Angeles, I’m yours”.
As he continues with his telling, I am astounded by the delusional wonderment in which his words unfold. As if they call upon me to travel these same unique paths, to walk on ground only he has done before and to forever let my imagination stir the greatest of fantasies. Perhaps this is our gift, that in these times of squalor we have been given the most human of sounds.
July 14th, 1916
My hands are frail and I have been aching to write, but the aching is the only sensation my body endures. Bedecked by constant struggles to stay awake, my posts are nothing more than endless peering into No Man’s Land; and I often dream of spotting a sniper, just to exercise these brittle limbs. With communication so meager, I find myself restless if my incessant standing up is not sustained by Captain Meloy’s straggled yarning. He had just completed a soft-spoken sonnet to his apparent theatrical ability. One where he quips, “I was meant for the stage, I was meant for the curtain, I was meant to tread these boards, of this much I am certain” – I am amused by his stubborn buoyancy; at times it is as if he seeks certain adulation for his off-kilter mannerisms. He had me won. But it was temporary, I was sent out again to man the loneliest view I have ever known, where not even fine cigarettes will do one good.
July 22nd, 2003
I am surprised that a sense of claustrophobia has not gripped me; the canals of these mud graves are smothering, more so when men are blown off their feet by bursting shells. Trapped in the bloody rags and the sandbagged bodies of our fallen brothers, I have on so many occasions felt like jumping out – just for that escape; to not breathe this suffocating corrosion, but I know that if I do, the air I breathe will be my last.
I do not want to think of such things.
This evening, the men have felt a joy we haven’t felt in almost a month. Corporal Bradley arrived this past afternoon as a bearer of good news. Some of the men have been given permission to head for Blighty; first steps in returning to life as a civilian. Oh how I yearn to be rid of this hatred. A hatred for a country I have not stepped foot in, a hatred for people I’ve only killed and a hatred for myself for believing in this fictitious honor. Still, the corporal’s visit was not today’s only sun. The captain has but restored a little hope; this time with his grandest of sketches – a salute to us, the men of this regiment. This was his glorious tribute to battlefield camaraderie and homage to the one true value we have; a loyalty to each other, our unending trust of our brothers-in-arms. He deems this the feeling of being alive and I concur so.
When I again return home to live my life in humble austerity, the only thing I wish to keep in memory will be these strapping lads who shared with me the hardships; huddled in confines with bricklayers, bakers, schoolboys and one never-dispirited soul, I lived the soldiering life. And through the tales of faraway lands and beckoning sounds of admirable fascination, I am again filled with certain humanity.
(Kill Rock Stars)
Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” and the Art of Alienation
The hard-won wisdom about the human toll that capitalist alienation extracts is what makes Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” so beautifully devastating
Someday, when the world finally loses Willie Nelson, there will be an eruption of sadness. He is an icon, yet many people will still be shocked at the depth and profundity of his body of work. At this point already, the unbroken length and quality of his career is almost without precedent in American music. He has simply been here so long it seems he has always been here doing what he does. And his music has defied easy categorization, slipping seamlessly between wide varieties of country music, jazz, and American standards. He is probably the artist for whom the term “Americana” was most properly invented.
Yet his career can be divided into rather neatly-defined stages. For many people, myself included, his most interesting stage is probably his brief stint with Atlantic Records in the early 1970s. Atlantic had just begun a Country division and Nelson was brought in as a cornerstone for that new endeavor. The experiment was not long; Nelson ended up recording only two albums under the Atlantic label, Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages, but the two albums worked out to be an essential bridge in Nelson’s gradual transformation from a fixture of the Nashville establishment to an iconic Outlaw and the singular artist we know and love today. Without these works, there is no path to Red Headed Stranger or Stardust or the collaborations with Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard that would come to define Country music in the decades to come.
Here I want to discuss the simple, singular genius of one song from this period, “Sad Songs and Waltzes” from Shotgun Willie. The song perfectly embodies the artistic maturity gained by Nelson’s long breakup with the Nashville machine. And the hard lessons learned by that process show up in the song’s spare production, which works with its deceptively simple lyrics to show how market economies alienate human beings from themselves and one another.
“Sad Songs and Waltzes” and Willie Nelson’s Career
Nelson was pushing 40 when Shotgun Willie was released. He was a longtime fixture in the Nashville music business, mainly as a songwriter (he was a hit maker for many other artists, writing songs like “Crazy” for Patsy Cline). As a solo artist himself, however, Nelson was constrained by the producer-centric power structures of The Nashville Sound. His ambitions were too large to be contained for long, however.
Nelson had already experimented musically. For example, he released a beautiful yet enigmatic concept album in 1971 called Yesterday’s Wine, which began the process of pushing his way out of the mold Nashville had formed him in. Eventually, he would leave RCA and Nashville altogether, moving to Austin, Texas and, in that strange mix of bikers, cowboys, and hippies, Willie Nelson as we now know him began to invent himself.
This is the world into which Shotgun Willie, and its third song “Sad Songs and Waltzes” was born.
With only a single guitar, alternating bass notes between plucky strums to create a (you guessed it) waltz, and backed by a distant steel guitar, the song begins “I’m writing a song all about you. A true song as real as my tears. But you’ve no need to fear it, ‘cause no one will hear it. ‘Cause sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”
This utterly simply, yet devastatingly powerful opening tells the whole story. A man, an artist, is betrayed by his love and longs to express it through his art. The power of the marketplace makes this an impossibility. He is left both without a woman and without a song to mourn her absence. This is the purest tragedy.
Essentially the song, like many country songs, tells a story about a man who has lost a relationship with a woman. This is a rather normal part of human life, but human relations are flexible and people typically have the ability to craft new relationships in the wake of these breakups. The speaker in this song is deprived of that opportunity. The purpose of his art, the song he sings about writing, is to forge a relationship between him and his audience. His artistic expression is an extension of his humanity, his self. Sadly, this self does not exist outside the controls of the marketplace. His song will remain unsung because “sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”
The chorus puts it in even more starkly economic terms. “It’s a good thing that I’m not a star. You don’t know how lucky you are. Though my record may say it, no one will play it. ‘Cause sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.” Perhaps if our singer were more famous he could escape the cage built for him by the music industry, but he is not. Therefore, any effort to make art from his pain — art that might forge a relationship between him and an audience — is in vain. No one would play it in the first place as it is not marketable.
One particularly interesting feature of this song is its meta approach to songwriting. It is, in simple terms, a song about a song. This is not a particularly novel concept in itself, with the supreme example probably being the first verse of Leonard Cohen’s ubiquitous “Hallelujah.” “Sad Songs and Waltzes” provides a fascinating twist on the genre, however. This is a song about another song that no one has heard, nor will they, for economic reasons that we will get into in a bit.
This is not merely clever, it is a formal feature that contributes to the song’s meaning. “Sad Songs and Waltzes” is a song is about alienation. And the singer of this song is so alienated from his personal art that he can only sing about it at a distance. It represents an ultimate form of alienation.
Alienation and Markets
Alienation is a devastating consequence of life lived under the control of markets. This is a central point in the writings of Marx and other critics of capitalism. The moving around of money in the quest to extract profit makes us all, in one way or another, cogs in a capital-producing machine, and Nashville certainly was and remains one of those.
Like many talented artists working in Nashville, Nelson had been alienated from the fruit of his labor. He was put to work writing songs for other people to sing to create income for his record company. And when we was permitted to record his music himself, it simply wasn’t Willie Nelson as we know him. Seriously, look at his early album covers and try not to laugh at how uncomfortably not Willie Nelson he looks.
And just as Nelson had been forcibly removed from his authentic self, alienation extends beyond our relationships with the products of our labor. It also emerges as a barrier between individuals, interfering with proper relationships among human beings. Forced to sell our labor for wages, other people lose their individual identities and become mere competitors, making human cooperation difficult to achieve. We become, above all, alienated from ourselves and other people on a natural, human level when subjected to the demands of money-making. We lose our status as fully embodied people, having been reduced to a figure in some equation to determine the bottom line.
Its hard-won wisdom about the human toll that capitalist alienation extracts is what makes “Sad Songs and Waltzes” so beautifully devastating. The betrayed singer is alone and must remain alone because he cannot spin his pain into enough profit for the bean-counters.
When Shotgun Willie was produced, Nelson had only recently emerged from the Nashville money machine. He had spent years conforming himself to the demands of that industry, stifling his creative self in service of its products. This professional history provides insight into the source of a career frustration that finally exploded into songs like “Sad Songs and Waltzes.”
The move to Austin, a place that was weird and incomprehensible to the logic of the Nashville scene helped break him from his binds. Hanging out with the hippies and hillbillies of that unique and idiosyncratic music scene allowed him to develop something closes to an authentic artistic self and it set the stage for his many career reinventions. He became, in many ways, country music’s best answer to Bob Dylan in this way.
When he eventually returns to Nashville it is as a bonafide “outlaw” with the rest of that movement largely founded on its rebellion against the Nashville Machine. Waylon Jennings’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” is a good example of how the Outlaw movement wore an open animosity against how Nashville’s system stifled individual creativity and forced it back down the throat of that very system. Capitalism being what it is of course, Nashville eventually found a way to coerce profit out of the artistic forms that rose up against it, bringing the enemy into the fold as it were. Outlaw Country became the defining sound of 1970s Nashville.
Still, Willie Nelson’s Atlantic Records period serves as an inspiration. It is a moment when an artist well into his career finds the strength to reinvent himself and claim significant ownership over his own art, taking a career full of alienation and molding it into a new form of art that would indeed forge powerful human relationships with a new audience for decades to come. It might even be said that he took a share of the means of production, with the product being Willie Nelson.
A Night with Northlane
Josh Hockey went to go see Northlane in Melbourne and took photographer Albert LaMontagne with him to capture the night.
Settling in to 170 Russell would have been nice, but as we stepped in at the allocated 6:30 door time we were greeted with the start of Void Of Vision’s set. Sprinting down the stairs and into the room, it was clear that moving the door time forward half an hour had definitely affected the crowd.
A decent audience had streamed in, but nowhere big enough considering the year Void Of Vision has had. Releasing their magnum opus album, Hyperdaze, they have been on an absolute tear, and it was clear during this set that they were going to keep going hard.
Opening up by bringing the heavy early, Void had the room shaking from the world go. An impressive light show and an almighty wall of sound filled the room with layers upon layers of adrenaline. Vocalist Jack Bergin led this assault, bringing as much energy as he possibly could, whilst utilising his seemingly endless amounts of stage presence.
New songs like “Babylon” and “Hole In Me” showcased their new sound, while “Kill All Your Friends” got the pit going like it always does. They finished strong with “Ghost In The Machine” and left their stamp on 170 Russell.
International act Silent Planet were up next. A pretty much completely new band to me, I was immediately impressed by the connection they appeared to have with their audience. From the word go, the pit was open, and everyone in the front few row was singing along with all the passion in the world.
Spoken word vocals mixed with harsh screams ensured that vocalist Garrett kept the audience on their toes. The instrumentals kept up this pace as well, with their hard hitting dark tones unrelentingly assaulting the ears of all listeners (in a good way).
Silent Planet sounded incredibly large all the way through, and definitely would have made themselves some new fans on the night. Their music appeared to be full of themes of mental illness, and political issues, which is absolutely super important in today’s societal climate.
Counterparts were up next. Definitely a well known band, the heavy Canadians immediately made clear the tone of the set announcing themselves with a call of, “Counterparts Schoolies Week Motherfucker.” They launched into their first song and it was immediately clear why they are as acclaimed as they are. Ridiculously tight and sounding stupidly massive, they had fans moving from the second they started playing.
The shit talking between sets would have been the highlight, but the songs themselves made it hard to top. Playing the old classics as well as the new heavy-hitters, there was as much two stepping as there was singing along. Also this was perhaps the first time in history I heard a pitcall of “schoolies 2019 motherfucker open it up,” which was an experience that I’m glad I had.
Dedicating a song to Australia’s very own Trophy Eyes, their massive sound continued unrelentingly. Coming towards the end, the set closed with a wave of crowdsurfers all diving and climbing towards the microphone, trying to get ahold of vocalist Brendan so they could scream his words right back at him. This set was great, and I’m quite sad I personally am not a Counterparts super fan so I couldn’t join in the fun. Next time boys. Next time.
Finally it was time for the big dogs, Northlane. The lights went down and hands went up, ready to go and awaiting the bands arrival impatiently, the audiences cravings would soon be met. Northlane charged onto stage and belted into “Talking Heads.” The movement was huge from the start, and the audience was off their feet and jumping non-stop all the way through.
“Details Matter” was a definite highlight of the set, with the ridiculously massive sound of one of the better songs of 2019 running rampant through 170 Russell. Headbangers were aplenty and moshers were in surplus. This continued even into one of their softer songs, “Rot.” The first song released by the band with vocalist Marcus Bridge, “Rot” went down an absolute treat as always.
Northlane are a ludicrously tight live band, and this became ever more clear as they smashed through “Citizen, “Obelisk”, and “4D.” New party song “Eclipse” had the room shaking as everyone refused to stop bouncing. The set began to come to a close as massive Alien single “Bloodline” was the definite highlight of the show. It has been one of my favourite songs of the year, and this rendition locked that in even more. Cannons and lights were ablaze and firing everywhere, and made this even more of a spectacle.
Leaving stage momentarily, Northlane returned as Marcus came back wearing a big sparkly coat. “Sleepless”, the closing track of the album was incredibly effective and touching live. And was a nice sombre end to the show, right before they launched into the timeless heavy classic, “Quantum Flux.” And goddamn was it massive.
Northlane are one of the best bands out there, and this show only locked that in.
Check out the images from the Northlane show:
All photos by Albert LaMontagne. Copyright 2019 Albert LaMontagne / Sound the Sirens Magazine. Please do not use or distribute these images without the permission of Albert LaMontagne. If you use these images without permission, you are a terrible person.