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Johnny Dowd: Philosopher or Junkyard Dog?

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For many years now, a strange pitman named Johnny Dowd has been eking out a large wormhole in the underbelly of American folk music, folk-rock, alt-country, “freak folk” or whatever the Pitchforkers fatally call it these days. This ruptured tradition claims artistic lineage to Hank Williams and Bill Monroe, but it actually owes more to a kind of twang urban preciousness common to the dour cheesecloth ‘70s product. Although there are several noble exceptions, Nouveau Hick is usually slick craft-irony in overalls. It abuses tropes already an ancient joke by the time ‘Blue Yodel No. 1’ was cut and lacks the cannibal inventiveness of true hillbilly verve.

Johnny Dowd’s threatening yet wise bust-out release, The Wrong Side of Memphis, came out in 1995 at the height of the counterfeit rube craze. It was impossible to tell whether he was its major unschooled apostle by accident, whether he was attacking the form while using its outward trappings, or whether he had some devious plan to ride a possible new wave of pop music to international superstardom. I suspect it was of the above, given the inscrutability of his art. On the way to these sinister ends, he has managed to produce exactly the kind of music our bohunk poets of yesteryor probably would have made had they dodged their young drunken deaths, picturesque OD’s or long years of savage exposure to the Nashville octopus. The bewildering energy of his music on record is only surpassed by his live performances, which reveal the living instincts of an authentic old school vaudevillian trying out the escape stunts of an outpatient on furlough.

Dowd’s singular voice loiters seriously with intent and hangs like White Owl smoke over music the sonic equivalent of ECT. Plumbed with an occasional countryish guitar moan or a keyboard riff that sounds like Wednesday eve at the hunting lodge of the Apocalypse, his music is permeated with the innocent suckerdom of a paranoid conspiracy being played out in infinite ill-lit lobbies at 3 AM. He is consistently tempted by the bright lights of places which cannot possibly let him in and has created an utterly unique persona of lonely abjectivity in music whose closest outside equivalent might be Warren Oates. As of this writing, he has dawdled and bellyached, stalked, simmered and tramped his way over the hallowed Smithsonian ground of American popular cant and canon for several decades.

But the important thing to remember here is in the difference between the pastiche operation of the songster clinician, a product which stinks of college and geek one-upmanship, and the real buzzard lope of the honest jaded practitioner born too late. Pastiche is a sickly amalgam of forms studied so long that the operator blindly rolls along over endless tracks of self-conscious aping and homage, never making a false move and ensuring that each Okie reference hits with a truckload of well-groomed renegade craft. Influences are forced dowdexecutetogether in a please-all timelessness which does not so much return something from the past as duplicate it glibly in the present, as if the matter was simply a piece of real estate. Academic, you could say; or annexed; or careful. The Junkman on the other hand picks up disparate elements and crushes them against each other for space. The natural element of the junk barge is water, rather than the seamless glue of pastiche. Its found objects begin to form hard constellations and take on their own shadowy existences made from hard-luck symmetries. The kick is to watch the intrepid junker attempt to control this dire state of affairs and then shape its mass into some kind of unstable whole. The result is a product of chewed-out tensions, revolutionary amusement, and the valorization of debris which works against itself out of lack of trust but with itself out of homelessness. Some stellar examples: Stanley Spencer, Sun Ra, Claude Cahun, Butoh, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Johnny Dowd.

Dowd’s latest salvo, Execute American Folklore, might be his most beguiling yet. He revisits many of his classic cuts in a much altered state, going after them like he wants to flatten them outright (A highlight is his masterpiece ‘Divorce American Style’, now dubbed ‘Sexual Revolution’ and given a kind of Marvin Gaye ‘Trouble Man’ treatment on permanent warp). The songs vibrate in the key of gas station hip-hop: a tin-pot drum machine, Dowd’s trembling skills on the mic, warbling Svengali keys, and female backing vocals that scream Restraining Order. The itinerant listener is assaulted by straight up-front disco and the occasional bleat of very dirty Germs-like guitar, backed by synthetic horns and the cooing menace of those oddly sensual feline voices. Dowd is at the top of his form in the lyric department and at the bottom of the world in the vocal, rasping his way through a landscape of track housing, depressing bars, and debilitating diseases. Somehow, these rejected transplants take and the whole impossible thing runs smoothly – or rather, relentlessly. Throughout, the great Dowd catalog of forgotten disasters and futile alibis is spiked with sincerely hieroglyphic, occasionally outright hilarious, lines which betray a secret in the Formica: Johnny Dowd is at the forefront of true American poets.

Maligned sub-genres of music reappear as guests of honor. Execute American Folklore makes the outrageous case for a profound respect somehow due to exotica tat and the ‘party record’, parolees from the orphanage of entertainments past. Dowd plays all the instruments here (his usual co-connivers might be in the joint or doing hard time on the late-night info circuit), which shows his great skill as solitary arranger. A partial inventory of effects: “Last Laugh” seems to draw on Murnau, the Bible, Rick James (very, very heavily), and the confessions of a radiator from the Abandoned Vehicles Bureau. “Funkalicious” sounds like a bag of drowned wombats being forced through the pipes of Ballard’s High Rise: heinous echoes and demonic voices create dance music for a world of wolven motels and shoe stores. The opener, ‘Unease With Deviance’, might be the best summary in title and the best statement of purpose the man has made so far. It’s the finest record our Republic has produced since That’s My Wife on the Back of Your Horse, Johnny Dowd’s last recording.

The record ends with what appears to be a kidnapping, ‘A World Without Me’. Someone has forced Dowd to do a breezy California pop song à la Go-Gos at gunpoint, or perhaps he’s just become convinced that it might be the way to go musically. This convertible out of Gun Crazy rides the thing out and leaves you wondering what the next move of such a dangerous man might be. After four consecutive listens of Execute American Folklore, I wait with great anticipation. So should you.

“My past is everything I failed to be.”
― Fernando PessoaThe Book of Disquiet

The morose clubfoot known as ‘Americana’ is doubtless long overdue for the firing squad. Still, who can execute a ghost? It seems that the condemned is both dead and alive. I am certain that the following exchange will be common at the kind of parties we will throw tomorrow by the light of the last electric bulb:

So, what kind of music do you play?

A little jazz, some blues, but mostly dowd.

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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