Friday, August 03, 2018

Grant Lee Buffalo - Mighty Joe Moon (Slash Records, 1994)

This album meant the world to me nearly twenty-five years ago. I was at SUNY Oneonta doing my level best to have a complete breakdown, flunking out spectacularly despite really loving some of my classes and professors, and having met some good and reliable friends. My diagnosis of bipolar disorder wouldn't come until many years later after I had crashed and burned from the only job I ever loved and felt like I was making a difference in. Some albums are time locked. As much as I love Bob Dylan's masterpiece Love and Theft, I will always flash back to it's release date: September 11, 2001. I had planned to get up early and go to the Borders Books and Music (remember those?) to get the new album before going to work that afternoon. Turning on the radio and then the TV that morning and watching the world crumble, people walking in shock, fighter jets screaming across the blue New Jersey skies, twelve people from my town dead.

Mighty Joe Moon brings back different memories, wandering around Oneonta, a small college town in a daze of depression and anxiety that I didn't have a name for, missing classes for no reasons, pushing my friends and family away. Walking around town listing to that album endlessly on cassette tape (remember those?) it seemed timeless, incorporating rock, folk, even gospel in its mix of lyrically resonant music, the sound of the album was purely American. "Lone Star Song" opens the album with a feint, crushing rock 'n' roll guitars feeding back and recalling Neil Young and Crazy Horse at their most unhinged. The next two songs tug in the opposite direction, with "Mockingbirds" showing the range in Grant Lee Phillips' voice as he goes into an impossibly high and delicate falsetto, while "It Is the Life" is an acoustic lament with beautiful heartfelt lyrics that pierced my lost soul like a dagger:

If the life you have created
Has buried you with luxuries out-dated
And you ask what is the purpose
Too weak to claw your way up to the surface

With no room left in that direction, they tack into the wind with the blustery electric rock song "Sing Along" which is an arena rock lighter-waver in some alternate dimension. The music becomes hallucinatory and flies over America in a fever dream:

Man built an empire out of ocean and earth
Man built the prisons of Joliet San Quentin Leavenworth
And man built a market for Muhammad Ali (oh oh oh oh)
Evel Knievel and the legacy of John Wayne Gacy

The title track "Mighty Joe Moon" leans into the nascent sub-genre of Americana, alluding to the green in the map and fishing for trout. "Demon Called Deception" may be the song that hit me the hardest, I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn't know what. My brain was telling me to skip classes to go for long walks into the woods, that my friends and classmates were against me, and these words hit like a brick to the face:

I'm in tight with a demon called Deception
It's alright he's a-treatin' me quite well
I'm in tight with a demon called Deception
He's right beside me when I fail

"Drag" teased Van Morrison in a hazy fog:

Sing me Morrison would ya kizza-my-eyes
Sing me Morrison would ya kizza-my-eyes
Singing it low
Singing it high
Would ya kizza-my-eyes...

My roommate during my first year at Oneonta was a huge Van Morrison fan and I have him to thank for my life long love of the man's music, another thing that connected me to this album. The album ends on a bloodied by unbowed note with "Side By Side" and "Rock of Ages" melding the various strains of American music into one cohesive desperate cry into the darkness. I couldn't listen to this album for years, connecting with with failure. After a couple of successes it was another massive personal failure that brought me back to the album, buying a cheap used CD copy, startled at the power and the majesty of the music and the fact that it still resonates so deeply with me. Grant Lee Buffalo made a few more records before breaking up around the turn of the millennium, and Phillips has had a solid solo career with about a dozen solo albums including this years' Widdershins. They are all good, but none pack the visceral punch that Mighty Joe Moon had which was at the right place at the right time even if that time was dark and lonely and frightening. Mighty Joe Moon -

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