Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Mike Gentry
It's not just the poets who fall red in the white snow over the length of Chicago's Cameron McGill & the What Army's very confessional song "Poets Fall Like Pillars." It's a song that McGill crafted from a bigger idea that seems to get at his head fairly often on his album, "Warm Songs For Cold Shoulders." It's the thought that all great men are just regular men with the same troubles as any other, capable of toppling from on high.
Even poets, with a handle on the language that can get you everywhere with everyone - women, voters, police officers trying to nail you with a speeding ticket, or simpletons - have the misfortune of easily feeling those words and those well-constructed phrases and couplets dwindle into mush that will be thrown out with the week's other rubbish. The theory of the easy disintegration of those people who could have been thought to be untouchable - so refined and cultured that they'd make it through anything that the whirlwinds could put them through, solely on guts and willpower - works itself into different bodies as well.
There's the song "Americans Lose," a take on a protest song that is another example of the greats toppling down to the levels of mere mortals, no better than any, even if the tone and the language never change to reflect that, even if there's a refusal to acknowledge that any of it has happened, that there should be any alteration in attitude. It's a song that's supposed to prompt an awakening as he sings, "The disco ball was on, the light was off, darkness twirled…/America, how does it feel to rust/You swing on the hinge and break at the seams and do what you must…/You're gonna waste most everything that gets in your way. Hey America, how does it feel to lose Americans that way."
There is a wonderful practicality to the take on our living and our breathing that McGill takes on "Warm Songs For Cold Shoulders," as we're all bound to face the truth sooner or later, that ego and delusions can only last for so long before those additives are boiled away and left to drip down the drain. He begins "Poets Fall Like Pillars," with an admission of something that's no infidelity, but more of a soggy sadness, a dumped off truth, singing, "I was sleeping with a girl I didn't love." He goes on to admit that he knows it's silly to do something like that and then he makes what comes off sort of pitifully, as if it were a stab at reconciliation or a reconnection with a woman he does love, trying to repent - as if the "bravery" that it took to admit what he had just done would be his savior. He says, "You know it hurts my heart a little bit to tell the truth," but this feels lukewarm, just a ploy, because if his real love doesn't want him, he'll be right back in bed, sleeping with the girl who he's not in love with that night. It will be semi-tragic, but that's just the way the regular men do things. It's an old-fashioned way to get through the cold nights and it won't stop here. What will stop is the need for poetry to explain it. The cause will have died. It's the same for the "great" country that he talks about later, where wars and broken promises has stymied the folk singers who used to feel such indignation toward such actions of blood, religion and money, but now just frown from afar and look the other way as the big, lumbering and wounded giant just seems like a foolish alcoholic clown. He sings, "I sing songs in the people's key/Oh, but the key, it just won't turn," suggesting that most people have more heart than they let on, but many have less than they'd ever want, too. It's those people that confuse it all for McGill and maybe are the actual heart of it all.
*Essay originally published January, 2010