Interlude – David Ackles
My original plan was for this monthly column to be about improvisation, but it seems that this impulse survives only in my inclination to write on a topic that inspires me at the moment. So allow me to get into a story that I think says something about music collecting and perceptions of music.
When I was little, I delved into my grandmother's music collection when I went to her place – it was mostly middle-of-the-road, along with my dad's Beatles records, some early 70's pop and a few oddities. One of the latter was the self-titled 1968 Elektra debut of David Ackles. Somehow I gravitated to this (perhaps it looked more promising than Andy Williams or Ray Coniff), and came to enjoy it. Through a brief entry in the original Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, I learned that this record, like his others, sold poorly but gained him a "cult" following.
A few years ago, my grandmother passed away, and my aunt invited me to take my pick of the records since no one else would be interested in them. I grabbed the Ackles, and asked my aunt how that had wound up in the collection. She had no idea – her theory was that they must have gotten it for free somehow. In relistening to Ackles this past weekend, one thought I had was how my musical path might have been different if they'd been given Songs Of Leonard Cohen, or White Light/White Heat, or something.
However, I'm glad I encountered Ackles, and one reason is the demonstration of the power of words, at least with the support of music. I've often said that, for me, reading poetry is like reading about someone else's car accident, while music can make me feel as though I was in the accident myself. The lyric inner sleeve of this Ackles record, though, put me in the accident back then, and does so now.
In listening to it now, I realized what appealed to me then: economy, leaving things out, letting just a few lines poke through. For instance, one verse of "Down River": "Hey why didn't you write Rosie?/I stayed awake most every night/Counting my time babe./Oh no I ain't mad Rosie./I know you had to mind your dad/but just a line babe." That terse final line brings that topic to an end. Or "The Road To Cairo," where the traveling character starts out "scared of what I'll find" at his abandoned home but thinks, "I got to see my little bride." Halfway through he hesitates ("There's gifts I haven't bought"), before getting overcome by more serious doubts ("They're better thinkin' I'm dead") and concluding, "I just can't walk down this road." It makes me feel like those people in horror movie audiences shouting at the screen; I want to stop Ackles's characters from settling into these negative outlooks.
In retrospect, I think I only "got" a few of these songs in full (one of them being "The Road to Cairo") in my young years, but there were a few lines that had a ring to them that I remembered. A couplet in "When Love Is Gone": "Only a fool is content with a cloud to hide him./We can't fall beside him." This is a rare case of Ackles taking a Robert Hunter-like tone of warning. Ordinarily, he worked more introspective terrain.
Great records create their own world, and the world of this album is a dark one. It starts with the artwork, with Ackles standing reflected in a cracked mirror in a darkened room (with a black-and-white photo, not unlike something from my grandmother's house, opposite him), and staring dolefully through a window on the inner sleeve. I later found an alternate version of the record, retitled The Road to Cairo and featuring a brighter photo of a longer-haired Ackles. Now and then poring through used-record racks gives one insight into the world, the world of record companies and marketing, if nothing else.
More recently I've also found Ackles's two other Elektra records, Subway to the Country and American Gothic, but haven't found the time to put in many listens. This leaves me wondering if recreating the listening conditions I had back in the old days (less information and lots of time on my hands) would lead to the same experience I had with the debut. That would be a hard project.