Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Lucinda Williams

In Does Rock 'N' Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: country-rock legend Lucinda Williams

1
Which musician superfan of yours recently covered ‘Passionate Kisses’ in quarantine?

“Oh God! I knew these were going to be hard! I don’t known – Patty Griffin?”

WRONG. It’s Waxahatchee.

“Oh yeah! She interviewed me for a magazine a few months ago. It’s always an honour when someone covers you, and I can hear my influence on her music.”

2
Which two of your songs were performed on the TV series Nashville?

“Was one ‘Crescent City’? No? Oh! I know one is ‘Bitter Memory’.”

WRONG. One is indeed ‘Bitter Memory’ – but the other is ‘When I Look at the World’.

“Y’all this is tough! (Laughs) T Bone Burnett was the music director and asked me if I had a song they could use. I was working on ‘Bitter Memory’ so I sent it to him. My original song is very country, but  their version – produced by The Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach– was so different. I couldn’t even recognise the song. It didn’t sound country anymore, which is ironic considering it was a show based in Nashville about country music! T Bone laughed out of frustration because he didn’t agree with the kind of music they wanted to put on the show.”

 

3
For what memorable reason were the police once called when you performed ‘Essence’ at a House of Blues show?

“I’ll never forget that! (Laughs) It’s crowded, everybody’s drinking, and we were playing ‘Essence’ – and this girl started masturbating. So the cops were called.”

CORRECT.

“She started kicking and pushing the cops away – she got mad because she wasn’t finished yet! That was probably my wildest show. Although another time in Ireland a guy pulled his pants down during a show – the difference is the cops weren’t called. That’s the difference right there between Ireland and the United States – it’s just a regular night in Ireland! (Laughs)”

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4
On whose album do you guest on the track ‘Gone Baby Gone’?

“Wow! Is it Michael Monroe?”

CORRECT. You appear on the former frontman of glam rockers’ Hanoi Rocks fifth solo record ‘Sensory Overdrive’ – an album where Motörhead’s Lemmy also turns up.

“I didn’t realise that included Lemmy! I knew Michael’s guitarist Steve Conte through the New York Dolls [their guitarist] – they’re fans of my music. He and producer Jack Douglas suggested me to sing harmony on that song. Fans thought it was something out of my wheelhouse – but it’s not really.”

What’s your favourite New York Dolls memory?

“We did a series of shows in New York in 2007 where I performed a different album every night, then invited guests to sing, like David Byrne and David Johansen. I get embarrassed because I have my lyric book in front of me onstage, but David was glad I had the words up there! Later, when I saw the New York Dolls in LA, there’s David with his lyric book in front of him. I like to think that’s because he saw me do it. It gave him a sweet air of vulnerability. I used to make fun of myself, but now I say: ‘If the lead singer of the New York Dolls does it, that makes it cool!”

5
Which Will Ferrell film does your version of ‘Gentle on My Mind’ appear in?

“Fuck, how do you say it? Talladega Nights?”

CORRECT.

“Yay! See, and I’m 67! I’ve always loved that song. People have asked me to act in movies, but I’m so shy in front of the camera. We’re getting ready to shoot a video and I’m like: ‘I don’t wanna be in it! Can’t we do an animated thing?’. I don’t even want to be on the cover of my albums. Even on my new one [this year’s ‘Good Souls Better Angels’], I have my eyes closed!”

 

6
Who joined you onstage to perform ‘Unsuffer Me’ at London’s Brooklyn Bowl in January 2016?

“I’m thinking Jesse Malin or Chrissie Hynde if she was in town? Elvis Costello? No? Dammit!”

WRONG. It was Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.

“Yeah! He played guitar. See, that’s what put me off – I was thinking it was someone who sang with me, which Chrissie Hynde was been known to do. She’s a tough cookie! I admire her. She influenced me – when the first Pretenders album came out, she was this big star and I was this barely known lil singer-songwriter living in Houston. It’s mind-blowing knowing those people I looked up to in my twenties – Chrissie Hynde, Elvis Costello, the New York Dolls – have welcomed me onto their peer level.”

Talking of legends who’ve welcomed you as a peer, you toured with Bob Dylan

“I was excited because I’m such a fan, and I was playing huge arenas with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. But it wasn’t what it expected. The first night, Bob Dylan said hello and made sure I was doing OK, then I never saw him again. I’d imagined we’d all hang out every night, so I was disappointed it wasn’t like that. I didn’t want to end up doing what they were doing – that was my big takeaway. It didn’t look enjoyable. Everything was big – the arenas, catering, tour buses – and you think: ‘Oh that’s what I’d love to have!’. Then when you see it, nobody seems like they’re having much fun. But needless to say, it was an honour.”

 You also toured with Tom Petty

He was fun. It was around the time ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ came out [1998] and I wasn’t as well-known as I am now. One of the nights, his audience wasn’t being very receptive to me. So he walked onstage and said: ‘OK, you need to listen to this artist because she’s important’. His fans sat there with their mouths open! They couldn’t believe Tom Petty had walked out to tell them to listen to the opening act. That’s the kind of person he was.”

And you’ve worked with Willie Nelson

“Willie recording my song ‘Overtime’ was the greatest honour – especially when he asked me to sing on it. We did a live version – I listened to it yesterday and it moved me to tears. When I’d sang it on the album, it was in a key that was too high for me, so when it came to performing it live, I asked him if we could lower the key. He said: ‘We can put in whatever key you want’, and retuned his guitar. He’s so mellow – it’s probably all the pot he smokes!”

“Everybody has their Willie Nelson bus story! You couldn’t walk in without it being filled with smoke – he’d be smoking through this special device that had a built-in humidifier because his doctor told him smoking it would ruin his lungs. He was the biggest pot smoker I met! He would win that honour! (Laughs)”

7
You produced Jesse Malin’s 2019 album ‘Sunset Kids’. Which Californian punk guests on it?

“Whatshisname from Green Day? Billie Joe Armstrong.”

CORRECT.

“‘Cos he and Jesse are friends. I loved doing that. Working on somebody else’s stuff is more relaxing than working on my own. I didn’t realise I was going to get so involved in working on the songs. He’s so prolific, he’d end up with 20 verses and I’d help him edit it and ask: what are you trying to say exactly? On one song, I pretty much wrote most of the verses. When Jesse gets going, he doesn’t want to stop recording – and people say I’m a perfectionist in the studio! We share the same birthday – January 26.”

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8
Complete the following lyrics: ‘Even if you fake it to get attention/Whatever it’ll take to get them to listen’

“Oh that’s from ‘Little Rock Star’! (Starts singing it) Um – ‘Piss on your leather boots and leather jackets?’

CORRECT. Close enough – it’s: ‘Piss on your designer boots and designer leathers.’

“When I was working on that song, Pete Doherty was on the cover of Rolling Stone, but also Amy Winehouse crept in there because she was in the news. On a personal level, it was about musicians I knew who were self-destructive – being really talented and throwing it away. Little did it know what would come to pass with Amy Winehouse.”

 

9
An easy one: for what reason were you kicked out of your New Orleans High School?

“For not saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.”

CORRECT. To protest the Vietnam War.

“It was a silent protest – like football players taking the knee. I didn’t get caught, until I was sent to the office for handing out anti-racism leaflets on campus. While we were there, we didn’t say it and got suspended. But then my dad [poet Miller Williams] said ‘We’ll get you an ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] lawyer’, and I got back in on the grounds it was unconstitutional. Little rebel! (Laughs)”

You’ve been supporting the Black Lives Matter protests on social media…

“I think it’s really important. This needed to happen. T Bone Burnett has asked me to record an updated version of the Janelle Monáe protest song ‘Hell You Talmbout’ [which lists the names of African-Americans who died as a result of encounters with law enforcement] – which I’m going to do. It surprises me that people are surprised this is happening. It’s been going on for a long time – I saw all this happening in the ‘60s. I’d like to see more understanding of the protests – it annoys me that people seem more concerned about the looting, which is just a side-effect of any kind of mass upheaval. It’s been like a pot boiling over – it’s like a crescendo effect of people being out of jobs over here, we have a President who has no clue what he’s doing and the all the oppression people have felt. But I’m trying to do my part through music and songs.”

Your latest album, ‘Good Souls Better Angels’, is politically righteous…

“Some of these songs I’ve been working on for a while – ‘Bone of Contention’ was written around the same time as ‘Little Rock Star’, so it’s been on my mind for a while, but it’s reached a horrific crescendo now in this country.

“Trump is a narcissist. I think he’s mentally disturbed. I didn’t write my song ‘Man Without A Soul’ to necessarily be about Trump – it’s just about a person in his position who’s completely out of touch with the people, so it’s being interpreted that way. It’s generated some negative feedback from some fans, which surprises me because I always assumed all of my fans were of like mind. Now I’ve found out I’ve got these fucking Trump supporters as fans! One said: ‘I thought Lucinda was a compassionate person because she wrote the song ‘Compassion’, but this isn’t compassionate – and I’m not going to buy her albums anymore.’ But I’m glad I’m pushing people’s buttons. Wake ‘em up! They’re all asleep.”

10
Who hosted the episode of Saturday Night Live you performed on in 1999?

“I know who it is! He’s one of my favourite comedy actors – Bill Murray!”

CORRECT.

“Yay! He was cool to work with. He’s exactly the same funny guy in real life as  you see in the movies and on TV.”

The verdict: 7/10

“I did pretty well! I was nervous about that!”

Lucinda Williams latest album, ‘Good Souls Better Angels’, is out now. She tours in 2021.

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