´GUILTY NARRATORS´ PARDONED
Norman Warwick reads evidence from Geoffrey Himes.
We gave the name of writer Geoffrey Himes (and some of his work) to these pages some while ago, after he had become my new favourite writer about my kind of music. I know ´my kind of music´ is a pretty vague, catch-all kind of term, but he writes, primarily I think for the incredibLe Paste On Line magazine, with humour, sympathy, microscopic attention to details and just an occasional grumpiness whenever he feels in some way let down by an artist or an album or the music industry in general. His writing is way too good for me to try to pass off as my own (although, honestly, I never try to do that) so just so that we are clear I would advise any regular reader of Sidetracks And Detours to follow your art and also find this guy on-line and add him to your reading.
He writes, under the great pen name of The Curmudgeon, at Paste magazine which can be found at https://www.pastemagazine.com
It is a site that looks at all aspects of music and seeks to place it in a social context. I feel confident you will be as impressed as I am by Geoffrey Himes, and if you look up his biography you´ll see that we are not the only ones to be impressed. I hope, though, that you might continue reading our daily blog here at Sidetracks & Detours as it seems to me there is a slight synergy of ethic here.
Since retiring here to Lanzarote five years ago, armed with all my John Stewart, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Bill Morrissey, Chip Taylor, Nanci Griffith, Marcy Chapin Carpenter and Emmylou albums among the thousands on my computer, I have perhaps lost touch with some of the new names coming through in such literate and observant music. However, I feel re-energised by Geoffrey Himes to now seek out the successors to those mentioned at the top of the paragraph.
I have already learned much from Paste about the late Justin Townes Earle and First Aid Kit, who were names already on my radar and, more recently about a ´powerful new album´, The Beautiful Madness, by Jerry Joseph (right, a name new to me) which features the collaboration of Jason Izbell (who I knew formerly as just another Drive By Trucker) in a track Himes particularly highlights in a review that seems to be more a dissertation on the narratorial voice in literature, and our response to it.
I am well used to discussions about whether the narratorial voice is always reliable and would like to think I am sufficiently aware to identify when that narratorial voice is being deliberately unreliable.
Here, though, Himes introduces to ´the guilty narrator´ and his piece at
gave me plenty of food for thought and made me look again at some of our own reviews here on Sidetracks & Detours of books such as Prisoners Of History at
Himes alludes to several singer writers in this particular piece, most of whom I was only vaguely aware of but he also discussed a writer in a way that brought back so many fond memories of UK folk clubs in the time when I was performing with Lendanear.
A guy called Jim Schofield, a fine sole singer guitarist, member of one of the region´s best and most irreverent folk bands and an events and club organiser, used to regularly deliver the laziest, most languid, and world weary version you will ever hear of Randy Newman´s Rider In The Rain. When Himes mentioned Newman I could see Jim standing before me again, giving that first performances of the song that sent me on a quest for more knowledge about Randy Newman, and I have followed Newman´s career ever since.
Randall Stuart Newman is an American singer-songwriter, arranger and composer known for his Southern-affected singing style, early Americana-influenced songs, and various film scores.
His best-known songs as a recording artist are Short People, I Love L.A., and You’ve Got A Friend In Me, while other artists have enjoyed more success with cover versions of his Mama Told Me Not to Come, I Think It’s Going to Rain Today and You Can Leave Your Hat On.
The Curmudgeon brought Newman´s name up whilst talking of a song called Dead Confederate, delivered in the voice of a ´guilty narrator, and is reminded of Randy Newman´s song Rednecks, which took the similar stance of a guilty narrator, and often lured in first time listeners with a humorous opening verse that suddenly seemed to become somewhat more sinister as the song progessed
´I’ve been listening to live music for more than half a century and never have I witnessed a crowd go from loud laughter to shocked silence so suddenly,´ Himes says in his article. ´(That Randy Newman performance) was one of the most amazing artistic experiences I’ve ever had, and it was all due to the guilty narrator.´
Using a guilty narrator (ie speaking in the guise of a bigot, racist, or of someone even more sinister) like this accomplishes several things. Most obviously, it gives the sinner enough rope to hang himself. And it forces us to look at a situation not from our own perspective but from an entirely different one. Less obviously, if it’s done skilfully, it requires us to recognize the speaker as fully human. His conclusions may be different, but his impulses will seem uncomfortably familiar.
Randy Newman´s Rednecks is just such a dangerous song, because its message can so easily be misunderstood and its language can so easily offend. Newman rarely performs it live anymore for those reasons. But he still plays many of his other masterpieces featuring guilty narrators: the carnival impresario in Davy The Fat Boy, the slave-ship captain in Sail Away, the apartheid supporter in Christmas in Capetown, the wealthy rock fan in My Life Is Good, the televangelist in The Great Debate, Vladimir Putin in Putin and Satan himself in Northern Boy. The list goes on and on.
Lately, however, Himes says he has been listening a lot to an unusual song in Newman’s catalogue: Jolly Coppers on Parade.
´I’ve been drawn to it because of the on-going debate over policing in America,´ he says. ´The narrator in this song is a young child, too naïve to recognize the dark side of the policemen marching past him during a Thanksgiving parade. In fact, the child gushes,
´Look how they keep the beat, why they’re as blue as the ocean, how the sun shines down, how their feet hardly touch the ground.´
This song is the mirror reverse of the typical Newman song, which gives us sweet music and sour lyrics. This time the lyrics are unreservedly sweet, but the music is sour.´
The music begins cheerfully enough, toggling between the first and fourth major chords, but just before the title-line refrain, the changes collapse into the minor second and the minor third.
This gives the song a funereal tone that suggests how a child’s idealization of the police is bound to be shattered someday. It’s a delicious device, and it sums up how many of us feel about the police today: We want them to be good, but the more we find out, the more we’re disillusioned.
Newman is the grandmaster of songs with a guilty or unreliable narrator. He has many predecessors and followers, most notably Richard Thompson, Tom Waits, Suzanne Vega, Paul Kelly, Colin Meloy, Donald Fagen, Ray Davies, (think of his Sunny Afternoon !) Leonard Cohen and Mary Gauthier, (think, I Drink).
So far, The Curmudgeon has focussed on the singer-songwriter genre, where this phenomenon has thrived, (and I have used his piece to shed some light only on Randy Newman´s catologue) but Geoffrey Himes is a journalist who is, it seems, one we are likely to encounter on any of our walks down the sidetracks and detours of the arts scene, and like us, he trusts his audience to follow him, and so he invites us to take a look at Kendrick Lamar’s album, To Pimp a Butterfly.
On the album’s linchpin song, The Blacker The Berry, the narrator introduces himself as he’s standing over the corpse of a ´homie´ he has just killed. Over a beat that sounds like subway being constructed under our feet while electronic flashes strobe overhead, he announces, “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015.´ At that point, it’s unclear what he means.
The middle of the song finds the narrator trying to justify the opening homicide by pointing out every horrible instance of racism and poverty that he’s encountered. It’s a long list and entirely credible, but at the end of it, the narrator finally explains his original introduction: “Why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street when gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?”
The genius of this song is that it’s clear that the author’s view is different from the narrator’s.
The narrator wants to believe that the catalogue of injustices excuses the killing, but the songwriter knows better. At the same time, the narrator fears that the killing invalidates the complaints about racism, but the author knows that that’s not true either. Neither the moral failure of a racist society nor the moral failure of gun-toting gang banger can be cancelled by the other. Each has to be dealt with separately.
Lamar does something similar on the album’s other tracks. Lamar’s achievement is all the more striking because he’s working in a genre that—like heavy-metal rock—defaults to self-aggrandizement in most situations. To undermine those adolescent fantasies by using the guilty narrator is as brave as it is brilliant.
Himes would remind us, though that the ´political puritans´ don’t like the guilty narrator. They don’t want us to read Lolita, watch The Sopranos or listen to To Pimp a Butterfly. These seemingly self-appointed ´Guardians Of Our Times´ fear that mere exposure to bad behaviour will somehow infect us with a virus that will make us morally sick.
But when a gifted artist allows the guilty narrator to sabotage his own message and allows us to see the dangerous tendencies in every human being, the virus becomes a vaccine that protects us all.
The prime source for this article was a piece written by Geoffrey Himes for Paste on-line magazine.
Images employed have been taken from on line sites only where categorised as images free to use.
For a more comprehensive detail of our attribution policy see our for reference only post on 7th April 2023 entitled Aspirations And Attributions.