Friday, June 03, 2022

Cardboard Box of Batteries

The death of Kelly Joe Phelps on May 31st got me thinking about my favorite Kelly Joe song, so I've dug out and updated some notes I made back in 2005. First, here are the lyrics, based on the liner notes for Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind, with a few minor changes to punctuation.
make a dent in the shovel
run the mud through a sieve

paste your hopes on a windmill blade
and plant 'em up on the hill.

a pencil sharpened with a putty knife
a pretty girl as a pretty nun
maybe you wake and think this is great
i just want somewhere to run.

oh, the walls blend into ceilings, and the faces they disappear.
never enough time to think it out only time to forget i'm here.
oh, and the bill is on the table but i've got no coins for pay
a beer half circle around her name, and what the hell did she say?

ah, the wise are playing tetherball and the ball's eyes they look like mine
rollin' around all on the end of the cord i can't make up for down
oh, i'm a streamlined engine with a cog chipped out of the wheel
i remember a dirty joke or two but i can't remember the feel.
i remember a dirty joke or two but i can't remember the feel.

too much time alone i spend, a miser with a nickel worn
starving like a mother, well, but i can't let go.
i'll spit the hours across the room and I'll kick 'em out that door
hell, you can have them. another thing i've got no use for.

well and it's funny that this comes out dark, it is not that bad
Oh, there's still a sparkle of silver in my cavity that plays music in the winter
i've a cardboard box of batteries hidden in a tire swing
a miner's hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings.
a miner's hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings.
a miner's hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings.
It doesn't quite "tell a story," but as a mood piece or character sketch it's about as precise as you can get. Memories, regrets, hopes — they're "all in the bag with the coins" (to quote another KJP song). I've highlighted everything that refers to prospecting, money, metal; it's a vein (so to speak) that runs through the whole thing. Some of the imagery is homely and eccentric — has anyone else used the word “tetherball” in a pop song? — other bits (“a pretty girl as a pretty nun”) just raise questions.

It's a melancholy picture, but there's that little "sparkle" at the end. The looseness in the fit between the lyrics and the tune adds something when Kelly Joe sings it, making it seem more spontaneous and conversational. And then there's the acoustic guitar, which after the intro mostly stays in the background but then bursts into extravagant arabesques at the end of some of the lines.

Kelly Joe was clearly a complicated guy, both personally and musically. He had a jazz background that shows in his playing, but his well-received first record, Lead Me On, was a collection of acoustic blues covers featuring slide guitar. He could probably have stuck to that indefinitely and made a career out of it and session work, but instead he repeatedly reinvented himself, abandoning the slide for fingerpicking (and occasionally, banjo) and becoming a gifted if sometimes frustratingly cryptic songwriter. In what turned out to be his final record, Brother Sinner & the Whale, he created a kind of unassuming Old Testament gospel music (if that's not a theological contradiction).

About ten years ago Kelly Joe said he needed a break and stopped touring and recording. At the time there was some mention of ulnar neuropathy, but as the years went on it was clear that something else was going on. His fans waited to see what new iteration of Kelly Joe Phelps might eventually emerge from the ferment, but for whatever reason it never happened. Maybe we'll know more in time, but maybe Kelly Joe just preferred his privacy.


Michael Leddy said...

Yet another instance for me of finding out about a body of work only after the maker is gone. (Jackson C. Frank is another.) No time to listen right now, but I will, soon.

Chris said...

Lead Me On is a good place to start, or Brother Sinner. Some of the later records can be hit-or-miss, although Tunesmith Retrofit is good.

I know Jackson C. Frank mostly from his relationship with Sandy Denny, who wrote several songs addressed to him. AS you may know, he was a survivor of a horrific school fire in Buffalo.