Greg Copeland Returns

revengewillcomeThe Desert Island Disc – every music fan, especially those who are critics, has one.  Usually revered for both sonic beauty and a sense of neglected genius (See: Lester Bangs on the Shaggs’ “History of the World”).

For me, that record is Greg Copeland’s “Revenge Will Come,” which arrived in 1982 like a Molotov cocktail lobbed at the coked-out complacency of Southern California soft rock and nascent Reaganism.

Jackson Browne, Copeland’s friend and sometime collaborator since high school, produced it.

But even though they shared a history (and A-List studio musicians like Danny Kortchmar and Bob Glaub), this was no “Pretender” – not by a country mile.

If anything, Browne became the borrower: “Lives in the Balance” couldn’t exist if Copeland hadn’t written “El Salvador,” an anti-war song that rivals Bob Dylan’s best:

Think of the four sisters shot in the back
For holding a land-reform school
Think of the ones taking heart in the hills
They can be beaten but they can never be ruled
Los Companeros – born in the war
Viva El Salvador

“El Salvador” was among many perfect moments of unalloyed rage on “Revenge Will Come.” Copeland railed at whoremongers (on the title song), spit on shiny limousines (“Used”) and sneered, in “Full Cleveland”:

There’s blood all over the bottom line
Money, child, that’s where it’s at
You go tell Karen Silkwood that

Which so offended Cleveland’s biggest rock music station, they refused to play the album.  It’s a crime that Black Flag never covered the song.

But the real power of “Revenge Will Come” came during its uncommonly tender moments.  Prisoners, trailer park denizens and the criminal-minded all shared a piece of Greg Copeland’s warm heart.

Take “Starting Place,” where a rounder counts off his sins and asks for redemption:

Once I was a fool at heart
I was a man at everything
I killed an angel for her precious wings
And every time I could get some love
I put it right back in my arm
I guess it’s true, baby,
There’s no refuge in the storm
That’s for another time
And another space
Oh baby will you be my starting place

Or the misguided rube of “Wrong Highway,”

Born on TV, raised at the Alamo
You don’t want to go to jail,
But every payday comes so slow

On “Richard Hill,” Copeland weds a “Kumbaya” progression to a murder ballad as he tells the story of a son’s retribution:

My father was a kind man
From the western states
He could buy and sell
And he made his way
Gunned down
‘Cause he would carry cash
I left my mother and my sister
And I went after that killer’s ass

Though it entered my bloodstream like adrenaline, the rest of the world mostly ignored “Revenge Will Come.” The record never appeared on CD, and Copeland didn’t perform it live – ever.  On the album’s cover, the songwriter stands half in the shadows, emanating wariness of the spotlight.

Among the few interviews he did, one might have made him a star. Paul Nelson, who’d written about Dylan when he first hit Greenwich Village, signed the New York Dolls, and ran the record review desk at Rolling Stone when such a thing actually mattered, talked to Copeland in late 1982.

But he resigned from the magazine before writing a story.  Nelson’s biographer found a cassette of their conversation shortly after the critic died in 2006.

Copeland ‘s fate reminded me of a line from “El Salvador” – “praise for the ones who are buried and gone/and the strong hearts who just disappear.”

He’d made a record with one of music’s biggest stars, released it on the powerful Geffen label (which included Elton John and Donna Summer), and then vanished.

I asked about Copeland during a conversation with Jackson Browne in 1986, and even he didn’t seem to know where to find him.

Over the years, I’d check record store bins for signs of his work; when the Internet emerged, I Googled “Greg Copeland” more times than I can remember.  I wore out two copies of “Revenge Will Come,” and every time a new technology came along – MiniDisc, CD-R, MP3 – his was the first music I’d convert.

Then a few months ago, word arrived of a new Greg Copeland record, the first in over 26 years.  The album, entitled “Diana and James,” was released on Jackson Browne’s own Inside Records label in mid-October.

It’s easy to mistake “Diana and James,” for the work of a different artist.  The smooth fury of 1982 is scuffed and weary in 2008.  Copeland’s voice, once a close cousin to Walter Egan or perhaps Lindsey Buckingham, is now a ragged-but-right combination of John Hiatt and Bob Dylan.

But sentiments at the heart of both records – love is neither given nor guaranteed, sorrow can be overcome but never banished, and doubt can cling like morning fog to every single day – stitch the years together.

In a perfect echo of “Starting Place” Copeland sings, on the new record:

If we want love
We better make our own
Instead of putting up walls
Stone by perfect stone

That’s the lesson of distance.  What once could be conjured, or willed through passion, now takes patience and work.  “You don’t just kiss and make up/we’ve got this to go through,” he wryly observes in “A Woman and A Man.”

But bruised optimism is still a kind of hope, he explains on the wondrously brief “Typical.”  With the precision of Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing,” Copeland whittles the enormity of simple survival down to eight perfect lines:

Typical three-day day
And a three-chord song
If it wasn’t for this
I’d be screaming in tongues
And the love light shines
Sparkling on razor wire
Typical bud-wiser words
Typical steel guitar

“Diana and James” are recurring characters in a story that begins with murder and works backwards. On the lead track, “Muddy Water,” a woman’s body is pulled from a river, the reasons for her death unclear:

It took time to find out
What she could bear
It took sticks and sandbars
To braid her hair
Hey what did it take, boys
To carry her there
More than the muddy water
More than the muddy water

Though culpability for the killing is revealed on “I Am The One,” the guilty party is not.  Doing the deed matters less than failing to stop it, and carrying on with the weight of regret is worse than death.  Laments Copeland on the title song:

There’s nobody else I want to be
Nobody else I can turn into
Honey baby, where have you been
What I have to do
Isn’t what I’ve learned to live with
Another reason not to give in

With a literary voice somewhere between David Lynch and Cormac McCarthy (with a coy, Henry James-ish “dear reader” tossed in) Copeland reveals a character “Between Two Worlds.” In the first, he’s wandering wounded through escape and self-destruction – “just me, in my own little Amsterdam.” He yearns for a holier place – “us in our own little Palestine” – and implores “King Confusion, send me a sign/send a little postcard so I can tell where I am.”

Copeland and producer/guitar wizard Greg Leisz lured some amazing players into the studio for this project, which took over five years to complete.   Standout performances include violinist Carla Kihlstedt (Tin Hat Trio), who shares an eerie lead vocal on “Palace of Love,” Heather Waters’ tasteful harmonies on “A Woman and a Man” and the title track, and Gabe Witcher’s (Punch Brothers, Loggins & Messina) mournful fiddle playing.

Keyboard player Phil Parlapiano evinces an incredible soft touch, just enough on “Who You Gonna Love” and “The Only Wicked Thing,” the latter a playful speculation on the night Hank Williams died.

Leisz, who plays on every song, is wonderfully ubiquitous on lap steel, acoustic, electric and baritone guitar.  His restraint and elemental musical sense behind the boards elevate “Diana and James” into brilliance.

It’s another touchstone record, but for different reasons.  Copeland’s youthful militancy has given way to a murkier acceptance of “the trouble in the truth.” Now he graveyard whistles (on “All Those Things,” the album’s final song) and muses: “I guess I’ve seen enough of this long, gaudy fall out of love.”

Yet he doesn’t gives up the ghost.  “I don’t know how, but I can see you now,” sings Copeland, “by a light I can barely find.”

Dreams of burning the world down once fueled his fury, but those emotions belong to another life, another time – another man.  Older, wearier and somehow serene, he now follows the promise of a dim, durable flame.

Greg Copeland – In His Own Words

dianajamesIf the measure of a great record is how it reveals itself over time, then Greg Copeland’s “Diana and James” is a masterpiece.  It’s a blend of “Cold Mountain” musical textures and Cormac McCarthy literary elements like murder, regret and brooding historical reverie.

But its arrival, 26 years past Copeland’s incendiary debut album, still doesn’t unravel the mystery of the years connecting both works.

Where did he go, and who returned?  These and other questions were recently put to Greg Copeland.

What have you done with the fury that shaped so much of “Revenge Will Come”?

The fury you’re talking about is part of my emotional DNA and can’t be extracted; it’s a kind of fuel in my engine, but now I’m driving the same car to a different place.

For me, “Revenge Will Come” is largely an outward-looking record … mostly informed by my own version of the punk ethos.   The Clash was literally “the only band that mattered” for me when I wrote it, and music was one big wasteland between “London Calling” and Joe Henry’s “Scar”.  I can’t think of a single record that really knocked me out between those two.

But [much of the genre is] about blame — i.e., how stupid and shallow OTHER people are (corporate figures, girlfriends, mindless workers, etc.) and how THEY have messed ME up.  The big “f*ck all” that’s crouched in the heart of the best punk music can (and, for me, did) deteriorate into a refusal to recognize that I was to blame as much as anyone else for my own condition.

The two records sound like they might have come from different artists.

I know and people have been telling me that and I kind of like that actually.  There’s something about that that appeals to me, because I don’t feel like the person that made “Revenge Will Come.”  I mean, in a sense I do, but as a songwriter I don’t.  As a songwriter I feel very different.  So it would make sense that they would seem different.

“Diana and James” is an inward-looking record, because that’s where love is — and love (with all its sharp-toothed details) is the central theme of the record.

How did your return to songwriting happen?

I didn’t make a conscious decision to begin writing songs again; the songs themselves simply insisted that they be written … I was the only “volunteer” in the room at the time.  Every one of those songs is a direct reflection of something specific that was happening in my own … life.

I would wager that all of the songs on “Diana and James” have two or more contradictory emotions at work at the same time, like the counter-springs in a clock, because that’s what I was going through.  “King Confusion” indeed.

Where did you go after “Revenge Will Come”?

I decided, I gotta make a living.  A friend of mine who worked at a really big law firm … had this huge case, and they were hiring paralegals.  Not off the street, but they might as well have been.  If you could read English they could use you.  I just showed up thinking I could get about six weeks worth of work.  I decided that I wanted to be a paralegal, and I was for a couple of years, then I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, and I fell in with a law firm that I just love, it was real ethical and everything you’d want, and I just kind of did what they did.

Then you re-discovered your muse?

That lasted for 15 years and I just got sick of it.  I got to this point where I just had to write.  I had done it before and I had that gene that knew what to do, but I didn’t have anything.  Then a friend asked me, are you still writing songs.  He knew what I’d done before and was curious why I wasn’t doing it any more.  Then he asked me why, and I hadn’t really considered it.  So I had to figure out why, and just get past it.  Having gone through that process, it took me a couple of years to feel it was real, rather than just a whim.

So now you’re a lawyer who writes?

It was something where there was a particular moment, a three-month period where I changed from being a lawyer who wrote songs to being a songwriter with a day job.  And that’s where I am now.  I love my job, there’s a lot of flexibility, I don’t have to do any bullshit, I do a good job, work about half of what real lawyer works, dollar in dollar out, and the rest of the time write.

Do you have any plans to perform live?

I’m a writer.  You can phrase it anyway you want.  I love writing, I love recording, but when the record’s done, my job is done.  I don’t hold myself out as an entertainer; I’m a songwriter.  I’m not the guy up on stage.  It’s not my thing – at least not now.