threats and double edged swords
After a recent concert in Connecticut, someone came up to me and asked “My God, this guy lives such a crazy life. When does he have time to write songs?” They had just listened to two hours of songs and stories about the life of the singer who, it seemed, had been a hot-wire artist, a junk yard denizen, a catfish farmer. Through it all he was a songwriter who had plied his trade from New York City to Nashville, loving a few dozen women, fathering a bunch of kids, meeting car-jacking mothers, buying sunglasses in Barcelona and dancing naked in parking lots with everyone except Muddy Waters. This listener, like so many others, had been beguiled into the fictional world of Eddy Lawrence, a world so full of truth that it’s hard to remember it’s all a story written in songs by one of the country’s great unknowns.
Interviewing Lawrence is just as dubious an enterprise, fraught with strange turns and pitfalls, with gray areas and just plain lies. “I was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Sometimes we didn’t have enough dirt to eat and we had to live on granddad’s moonshine. My father worked for a big utility company. He was a heating and air conditioning serviceman. He was in the Marine Corps for 10 years... then he started working for Alabama Gas Company, going around and fixing people’s stoves. He was a working guy.
“My mother did the housewife thing until the kids [got older]... and then she started working at the school, in the lunch room. It was cool in a way, because, like, whenever they had a good dessert she’d feed me a bunch of them, and I’d have little bribes to give to the kids in school. My whole family lives down in Alabama still, including all my sisters... everybody but me. None of them live in trailers anymore, they all have stationary housing. It’s wonderful.”
Like his interviews, his songs and the stories he weaves around them in concert are so damn true to life that there’s no alternative but to suspend your disbelief and settle in for a few minutes and listen to a story that has far more to offer than the “reality based” fiction of television and popular novels. His most recent recording is a home brewed affair called Locals and, like the four recordings that went before it, it is filled with true stories about things that may or may not have ever happened to a guy who might have looked a lot like Eddy Lawrence.
“Most everything I write has something slightly autobiographical in it or something I observed... who doesn’t write that way? But the songs aren’t autobiographical. People come up to me and ask ‘Did you really meet your wife in a parking lot wearing just your shoes?’Ê”
He didn’t, but “How I Met My Wife” leaves you believing it’s the God’s honest truth. He tells a story about that song, about how he went to Nashville to shop songs to record companies and singers’ agents. “One of those folks told me they needed to give me a test, told me to go write a song about how I met my wife, and the song just came out of it. I brought it to them and they just thought I was crazy.
“I sort of made a conscious decision that it was more interesting to sort of invent the situation in which the song was written, because people sort of kept assuming that the songs were true. So instead of saying, ‘I have this neat idea to write a song about a character like this,’ I would say ‘Well, I was in this situation and here’s the song that came out of it.’ I sort of believe in soft-peddling the whole creation aspect of things I do. There are so many songwriters around who say, ‘Well, I’m like God’s gift to letters and this great song came to me in a dream’ or something. But when you’re playing live for people, you want to keep them entertained. If you’re there trying to impress them with the fact that you can craft the perfect song, it’s boring.”
The world of the “singer songwriter” seems to rub Lawrence pretty raw. As a songwriter in New Jersey suburb of New York City during the heyday of the Fast Folk scene, he was often invited to join the various songwriters circles and song swaps. It was clearly not his thing, but he finally went to one.
“I find so many of those people boring. I was supposed to be in this song writers’ group down there... I sure pissed people off because I wouldn’t even play a song at one of these song swap things where everybody sits around and picks apart everybody’s work. I had already figured I wasn’t really interested in getting involved in that sort of thing, not because I was thinking ‘I’m a better songwriter than you, bub.’ It’s just a different thing and it’s not the way I work. Well, the discussion there got around to different songs being valuable because they were true stories. My point was specific truth in your life doesn’t make jack-shit for difference to people listening to the song... I don’t really care if this stuff happened to somebody or not, I care about truth. Truth is truth, and the things that go into my songs, those things are true, in the sense that things like that happen, that’s ‘truth.’
“[I’m] a performer. I figure I’m giving them a work of fiction. The point is to make something that has some resonance with people. I guess the old idea of fiction is you go out and experience a lot of things so you’ll have something to come back and write about... But that doesn’t mean you go pick out Henry, say, ‘He’s an interesting character, I’m going to bring him over to my house, give him a couple of beers, get his life story and kick him out the door and I’m gonna have me a song.’ (A), it’s just unfair as heck for poor Henry and (B), it’s probably not going to make the most effective song. Probably part of Henry’s life is pretty good and part of it is boring as hell. ‘Your toilet backed up, too, huh?’ That ain’t a song, is it?”
Or is it? Lawrence uses a lot of what he calls “creative eavesdropping” in his writing. He tells of how one afternoon, a young boy, one of his guitar students, told him, “Me and my dad and my brother’s dad and my mother’s husband were going up to the lake last week,” and Lawrence thought, “Wow, I don’t know what to do with the lake but I gotta write this down.”
“Obviously, something like that is gonna grab anyone’s attention, but there’s a lot of smaller things... You never know, sitting at the Brushton Grill or something, eating eggs and having a beer, when the guy on the stool next to you is going to say something to somebody that’s gonna be the germ. Generally, I’ll keep a notebook going, little scraps of paper and stuff... keep listening, something’s gonna be here.”
Lawrence has the uncanny ability to carve out many emotions in a song. In “Shitheads” he sings about characters who do all they can to be horrible while doing their level best to be good. The song is heartrending in its sadness, and yet, as the words flow by, you find yourself laughing, sometimes broadly, sometimes in horror, as he describes a woman who “held me tighter than a death row cell,” had a kid with him that sent him packing, discovering that in spite of everything, “I was a shithead, that’s all there was to it. You could tell me I was, but I already knew it.” That night in Connecticut, as that song came to the first chorus, there was a palpable nervousness in the room, a feeling that while the song might be funny, the story was so sad we had no right to react this way.
“One thing I am interested in is writing stuff that is confusing, where someone will say ‘Is that funny, or is that, like, really depressing?’ Is that serious or is that humorous? I think movies and books do that more often than songwriting.
“Unfortunately, there’s all these weenie coffee houses where you can’t even play something called ‘Shitheads.’ I don’t go out of my way to do what some people call offensive material, I’m not some kind of shock folkie or something... But it’s one of those songs... what other words could I use there? ‘Gee, I’m not a very nice guy?’ ‘I was a very bad person, what a terrible thing to do?’”
Lawrence is an anomaly in and out of the music world. A devout do-it-yourself kind of person who has a farm in upstate New York, he makes maple syrup, built his own house with solar electricity because the power lines end just the other side of his property line. He recorded his latest album on a battery powered four-track tape machine in his living room, packaged it in a brown wrapper himself and sells it cheap so anyone could listen to his songs.
“The first ‘how and why’ of doing it ourselves was economics. There’s sort of a double edged thing here. There was the fact that I was into recording at home because it would save a lot of money. I really wanted to put out a record that I could sell for $5; that was the goal before I even started.
“I’m one of those people who used to be a vinyl junkie. I would spend half my paycheck on records every week and if I didn’t have a thick stack of records I felt like I had a bad week. [When] the shift to CDs came, and the price doubled, I had to be very conservative with my record buying... And I have to know I’m going to like it a little bit before I spend that kind of money. I figure a lot of people are the same way. I wanted to give the consumer a break, but I also wanted to get my records in people’s CD players; I want them to be listening to them. So that was part of it.
“The other thing was, living where I live now, on this farm and I deal with homemade things a lot. I grow some of my own food, and built my own house, and just generally live this DIY lifestyle. I thought about making a record that was more of a homestead product, a craftsman sort of record, all the way down the line.”
Life for Eddy Lawrence is a series of mixed metaphors and double edged-swords. In his business, in his art, he’s pushing a line to see what happens.
Do you always get mixed reactions?
“Constantly. It seems it’s a love me or hate me thing...the worst thing anybody ever said about me, about the last record, was when I got this card back from a radio station and they wrote ‘It was a really nice record’ on it. Nice? I can’t figure that one out. Some people go, ‘We won’t play this’ and I say, ‘Fine, that’s OK,’ or they like it a lot, and usually it’s one or the other, but ‘Nice?’
“With a live performance, it seems half the audience wants to kill me and the other half wants to buy a CD. So much music now is aimed at reaching everybody, like the Nashville school of songwriting, where you get six guys around a table and you try to figure out how to appeal to every different demographic group, so what happens is nobody really likes it that much. Unless you come down one way or the other, one side or the other...You always take the chance of pissing somebody off to make somebody else really like what you do.
“I sort of enjoy getting hate mail more than fan mail. I have a file at home for every record, with correspondence in it, and it says ‘Correspondence,’ ‘Love Letters’ and ‘Death Threats.’”
Did you ever actually get a death threat?
“No, but one of these days I will and then I can just stop. It might happen, it just might happen.”