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As Much Reckoning as Record – Chris Butler’s “Easy Life”

Chris Butler
Easy Life
Future Fossil Music

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The first review I wrote for Stereo Embers – indeed my review debut period after years stringing words together in more ‘serious’ pursuits – began with the line “If you were ____, what would you do?”, the crux of which was ‘Here you are, a legend of sorts, charter member of the original generation, key piece of an ahead-of-their-time band, founder of a later highly-regarded outfit, all of that, so what are you going to do now?’ Though rhetorically asked back then in reference to Martin Bramah, the question, in an eerily parallel formation, could be asked as regards to Chris Butler, he of avant post-punkers Tin Huey (after a stint in 15-60-75 – The Numbers Band – Kent’s storied bar band extraordinaire that sounds like Stax filtered through Dr Feelgood and is still going) and skewed MTV pop darlings The Waitresses whose nearly tossed-off holiday romp “Christmas Wrapping” will outlive us all. If you had Chris’s résumé and here it is 30+ years down the rock’n’roll road from the commercial apex of your career and you’ve got a choice to make any album you’d like, what would you do?

After all, it would probably be fairly easy to get a quorum of the original guys back together in some combination (The Tin Waitresses? Huey, Wait?), trade some quirky key changes back and forth, attach your usual gift for words and arrangements to them – challenging in a sneaky way but more playful than pedantic, Zappa minus the off-color adolescent humor, a similar absurdity but more blue collar than brown shoes – and shazam!, a comeback album. Your fans would dig it and in fact many of the long-ago droves would no doubt come streaming back. Nostalgia makes people comfortable, so why not.

Well, whereas a Throwback Thursday party would almost certainly be fun and well worth the listen, the notion of a moment squandered just might cloud the proceedings, what-if‘s dampening the atmosphere like so many damp squibs. What if this was my last opportunity to make the record I’ve been waiting, wanting to make? What if we get semi-lucrative offers to go out and tour this record and all that older stuff and I get pulled away from that project that’s been nagging my thoughts for years (and do I really want to play “I Know What Boys Like” or “Puppet Wipes” every night for months?) And the classic: What if I get hit by a bus tomorrow? Seeing as the average male lifespan in this country is 76 and that a central – if not the central – precept in that short time is to do what’s necessary to avoid regret (a policy most often arrived at after several bouts of exactly that), Chris Butler has made the wise decision to pour himself into a solo effort that’s as much reckoning as record.

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[Chris Butler and Michael Alyward/Tin Huey at JB’s in Kent, 1978 – photo Jim Carney]

 

In essence an autobiography of a crucial time caught on a shiny little silver disc, Easy Life, understandably, is a very complex record, even as its tale is sometimes very directly told. On the cover of the album is the face of the man some forty-four years ago. Almost sepia-toned, a slight insouciant cock to the head with a youthful blast of student hair (this is, fittingly as we’ll find out, Butler’s college ID card) and an anthracite stare that combines deadly earnest with an already world-weary no bullshit defiance into a single look that suggests ‘innocence lost but hope retained,’ that one image speaks with as much concise, snapshot clarity to the guiding gist of this record as just about anything I’m about to say.

In typical unpredictable fashion Butler begins in spoken word with “Pigeons” – you’ve never heard the word said with such declarative exuberance as opens the record – the tale of a nest-leaving refusal that scans as a parable-like lead-in to the first song proper. Aside from its straight-up inference to the cosseting confusion inside the college freshman psyche – away from home but not really – it’s also told in first person, a clue to the immediacy that, quite necessarily, attends the whole of this record. It also pulls us in to a kind of impromptu intimacy that underscores throughout and helps impel the listener to follow the album in order. Indeed, put this on shuffle and your brain may not recover. This being the case, and because the tracks bleed into each other, we’ll tackle them more or less in sequence, it’s the least we can do.

“Pigeons” cedes to the title track, a (day)dream-sequence of a tune housed inside a rambunctiously mischievous structure that rather handily embodies a dual Huey-Numbers morphology. The nub of it equating – and projecting – the fresh idyllic-ness of sunny eager college energy to a perpetual existence, similarly unfettered, that stretches past the horizon, you can’t ask for a more precise thumbnail of that delirious sense of boundlessness a kid can feel when first set up in their off-campus squat. ‘Man, this is easy,’ right? By some measure the most band-enhanced track on the record (excepting “Heat Night” – we’ll get there), “Easy Life” rollocks along with a lot going on – busy crazy two-channel guitars, a rhythm section so tight it beats itself to the punch, even some whistling – pleasing both the get-it-on rocker in us as well the astute aesthete that requires, shall we say, a layer more. Butler, meanwhile, sings the hell out of it, his voice amplified by exactly the zany full-throated optimism called for. Virtually untainted by reality as it is, it’s the last we’ll hear of it.

“Millions and Millions,” after its narrative intro as prefaces every track, is another raucous rocker romping forward on an appropriately cumulative progression and flavored with an almost psych-pop edge in its chorus and Peter Stuart-arranged middle eight. Riding crest-of-the-wave-like on the contextual theme of a grassroots protest movement growing on its own, doubling exponentiality, we soon are faced with that self-same wave crashing in on itself as the churn of the original revolutionary charge slows in the face of encroaching boredom and the creeping realization that ‘Shit, this is hard work.’ The bite of sorry human reality, it turns out, is just as vicious as the bloom of optimism is bright, a truth reflected in the way the track’s pulse-pounding pace equally services both ends of the equation. It’s a nuanced piece of insight regarding the collective emotional math of a student youth revolt that just happens to be presented inside a flash-storm of a rock’n’roll tune and there are, I would suggest, few better equipped in both talent and personal experience than this former Kent State student.

One cannot use the identifier ‘former Kent State student’ without inviting the heavily loaded – if often politely unasked – question ‘Was he there?,’ there being the Kent State anti-war actions in the spring of 1970 that resulted in four students being murdered by the armed representatives of their own country on Monday, May 4th. Like Altamont five months before, that one horrific afternoon not only defined its time but as well proved to be a crucial pivot moment that shifted an entire culture, almost palpably, from one era to the next. Shootings change everything.

For Chris Butler and hundreds of others there that day, that change had far more intense personal ramifications. Though explicitly explored on Easy Life‘s penultimate track “Beggars Bullets” (and more deeply in the accompanying interview) it’s instructive – indeed required – to understand that the killings and the long swirl of chaos surrounding them both before and especially after underlie every second of this record, whether standing in dark, looming contrast to the sunny giddy innocence animating the early cuts, or providing a tacit shellshock echo chamber effect of the middle and later tracks. None of which is to say that a morose, emotionally mopey vibe hangs over the action here like some hooded, scythe-toting Shadow of Death. This ain’t a midwesterner soundtrack to a Bergman movie, far from it. Even when, as on “Hey Stranger,” the subject and scene are both metaphorical and metaphysical – a siren of sorts appearing in a seedy hangout bar downtown, her very allusive allure triggering that suddenly adult understanding that the dull knife of reality rips the veil of fantasy to shreds every time (great line: “Can’t you hear the jazz time in her talk?/Nobody ever hears the catch but everybody’s eager to get caught”) – the song itself has enough hook and bar rock swing to it to host a Friday night at JB’s, Butler peeling off a couple of nimbly picked guitar workouts to ensure his well-deserved rocker bona fides. Another fine couplet – “Why don’t you just dive back into your drinks/didn’t swimming in the dark teach you anything?” – holds in it a nugget of portent of the upcoming track but first it’s got a snaking collection of still more wry twisting lines to get through as well those aforementioned solos so we sit tight and revel before moving on. A crackling track, in rather stark contrast to what follows.

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[The Numbers Band photo shoot, 1978 – from artist’s personal archive]

 

The shadowy, loathing noir of “Red Drinks! Red Drinks!,” nightmarish and suave, is that ‘long dark night of the soul’ writ claustrophobic and, well, out in public, though the point here may be that we’re never more alone than when we’re in a bar by ourselves being silently hounded by our life’s recent, and dubious, trajectories, self-reflection becoming a merciless cross-examination. In any case, as full of self-scathing bon mots as the lyrics are – there’s a sass of unforgivingness to them, Butler’s tongue seems most acid when directed at himself – nothing quite conveys the deep well of alone like the lugubrious Jaco Mingus bass passage that intrudes midway nor the sprightly judgment of vibes that follows it nor the cracked-glass jazz guitar jags that follow that and carry us out inside a rough cloud of doubt just like life itself can sometimes get and now ain’t that just what we ask that music and art do, give it to us straight in a not-so-straight way? It’s about here you realize, this is pop music for real people.

The fact that existence has gone a ways off the skate as the title track had slyly implied a ways back is by this point as clear as a red flare overhead, but if it’s not “Box of Noise” bangs it home, frustration and annoyance building as distractions echo through the airshaft like a volley of brickbats, Butler’s vivid constructs wrapped around a steel-stringed, gypsy jazz core with rodent scurries of guitar noise scuttling in and out. Evocative, funny, and true, it conveys its point well enough I had to turn it off so I could finish this sentence. In response, the artist, resigned to the gritty exigencies, asserts himself, making grandiose, absurdist claims to verify his identity as a tradition-burning enfant terrible, boiling his TV in kerosene, painting the goldfish aquamarine (again the language rules) like some Buckeye dadaist that terrorized the status quo. The song’s called “I Did I Did” and the implicit desperation in the title is met in somewhat darker tone by the insistence that, no matter the ridiculous and flagrant behavior, nothing was the matter, there’s nothing to see here, keep moving, it was all a situationist prank. Underscored by an oddly-keyed, slightly queasy acoustic and some bright quavering pings, it’s purposed disorientation as a recipe for reinvention and in Butler’s case one gets the sense it’s mostly worked over the years.

The raw, fatalist “Horseshoes & Handgrenades,” self-produced in his apartment and an arch reflection on all the grand vicissitudes of timing as well a frank destroyer of any and every notion of a pre-destined fate, leads to the record’s most historically archival moment, a retrieved Tin Huey demo from 1979 intended for a second album that never came (the song would find a home on the first Waitresses LP). Intro’ed by a loving tribute to the Numbers Band rippin’ it up on Water St on a hot August evening, “Heat Night” romps all insatiable and stompy, displaying all the breakneck debauchery we remember the Huey for, the track bursting with the vigor of the age in both aspects of that phrase. With its firecracker energy and the sweat of intemperate youth, it’s a blast back into the clubhouse years, where whatever troubles beset the world are barred at the door, at which point one thinks ‘Change the names and places and this autobiographic swerve could be mine.’

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[Butler during his time in The Numbers Band – artist’s personal archive]

 

Leaving the club we steer into the palisades of early romance, vulnerably fraught with trouble and promise as always. After the near stand-up quality introduction to the artist’s first real crush, the track – “Convenience” – merges into a lush metallic stroll that suggests a 70’s LA studio arrangement written close and personal, as if the narrator’s on a long, nighttime ride in a big broad Buick that leads to some grand, dark overlook up against the guardrail, the valley floor spread out before him with the whole scope of reality twinkling in the haze, the guy staring past the dashboard like a man sitting solo on Lovers Lane. To call it poignant is to overstate the ovbious, the young Butler wrestling with a lesson that pins all romantics and pins us hard: some girls, indeed, just wanna have fun, and if you want to kill the magic, tell ’em you love ’em. Chastened, humbled, and hopefully wiser (and hey, at least he eventually gets a crack tune out of it, profound of both guitar and lyric, half short-story, half therapy), he’s out on the night walking a brave-faced strut, desperate as much for meaning in a good time as he is for the good time itself and again I can swear this guy Butler’s lived my life, this is the universal experience for anyone that tried to think their way through post-adolescence with a brave little smile and a grimly stubborn conviction that there’s gotta be something, that out of this puddle of existence there must be some tangible outline of a shape that we can identify and reasonably call our own.

Restless, in need of some substantive company, fearing not so much the impending loss of youth but more the void beyond it, Butler’s found prodding his friends into action, c’mon, let’s grab a cab, go downtown, see that movie, seek some fucking direction fercrissake, all thinly-masked expression of his own panicked aimlessness. It’s a helluva time, that transition from preening teen to shambling adult, and “Davey’s Sister’s Home From College” (and hell, bet she’s got some answers) grabs it by the throat, the track a free-form guitary thing – no drum, no bass, no nothin else – as much tromp as bluesy lament and jittering with a sense of angsty catch and release, the classic dilemma of being caught between. Not atypically, it’s not a woman that pulls him up and saves him, it’s not a coterie of trusted friends, but a forced change of scenery and the arrival of a place, in this case college, in this case Kent.

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[Butler in “hippie band with Chrissie Hynde” – sadly not in frame – at JBs in Kent, 1973 – artist’s personal archive]

 

Notably for someone that grew up in Cleveland the track is called “My Hometown” and it ups the trump of its previous track’s hesitant swagger by a factor of several wallops. Sporting Easy Life‘s briefest spoken intro, the thing launches in full-chorded, cymbal-crashed bravado, being, as it is, both celebratory and brash. Bringing in the entire “band” – Chris Butler on slam bang guitar, on drums, on bass, Butler on NE Ohioan synth – “My Hometown” is a biographic postcard of sorts as well a paean to Kent’s accepting vitality, to its status as an oasis of diversity (one gets a sense of the place as something of a corn-fed Berkeley), the song, via a no-uncertain-terms rock’n-fuckin-roll arrangement, speaking not only to the place’s intractable presence in his adult DNA – how it took up permanent residence in him even as he’d left it years before – but as well the fact that, though Kent always welcomes him back, it’s always on its own terms. These places that shape us, it seems, themselves continue to evolve, even as the core charms and flavors remain. Like any living relationship, it’s…complicated, but weirdly comfortable, a fact starkly underlined by the easy return to “Easy Life (reprise),” this time in simple life-affirming mono, nothin’ like a sheer wall of sound to trick us into believing in immortality, though it should be noted, perhaps, that this version ends with a shout instead of a fade-out.

So far as Easy Life the album being a song cycle, this would be the appropriate place to end, tie it all up in a tidy structural knot, all warm with a multi-stranded bow on top. Problem is, it wouldn’t serve. As has been clear throughout his career, Butler’s not an artist that either sits easy on his laurels nor creatively abides the conceptually facile solution. Hence “Beggar’s Bullets” (Irish slang for rocks hurled against the real thing), a 5-part, 12 ½-minute suite that in its own way bites and rages and moans and cries and somehow heals wounds by ripping them open. This being who it is, though, the catharsis is, naturally, elliptical. In order for it to have its full impact, you have to live it with him, moment by moment. And, this being who it is, it’s also personal as hell.

Aside from the added-in introduction, the record’s longest and most momentous, the track actually dates from 1989, recorded in a live solitary setting also known as Butler’s then-house in Centerpoint, NY. Itself built upon a spoken-word set-up – an imagined stage, blackened but for the back-screened images of Water St in downtown Kent OH before a pin spot finds the solo performer, armed with nothing more than an acoustic – “Beggar’s Bullets” as it opens seethes in street poetic stanzas strewn across the gassed, barricaded and broken-glassed diorama, the trajectory of the narrative matched by that of the protagonist’s aim, every yet-shattered window presenting as opportunity, for expression, for salvation, that glass and the arc of the poorman’s missile the connecting thread between empowerment and impotence, between hope and its opposite, the resulting sound and action – the crash and the cascade – the only available language. All this atop a rolling emphatic pick’n’strum somewhere amidst a very pissed off Dylan and a locked-in Billy Bragg, which is all the firepower needed and in fact preferred in a performance such as this, its impact doubly distilled via the sparse and the direct.

From here, nearly halfway through, the suite gives way to story telling, a long anecdotal stretch full of sneaky commentary regarding the falseness of idols and the true character of the man behind the curtain, details of which I’ll leave for your delighted discovery except to say the story involves the Grateful Dead, disillusion, and a deep note of poignancy as Chris’s close friend Jeff Miller appears a few weeks before being slaughtered by the National Guard. Butler sings us out for the final minute, the still-angered sad of his voice before the stage goes silent an echo of a forever altered history. Price of admission right there alone.

In need of stirring afterword, the valedictorian impulse plumps for John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son,” irony dancing cheek to tongue-in-cheek with utter seriousness and there could be no more fitting final tap dance off the stage of this unflinching one-man show.

Unlike the vast majority of us, Chris Butler was there, in the heavy smoke and gasping-wound center of the American century’s critical few seconds (which isn’t even to mention being in the eye of the historic Kent/Akron musical storm a few years later). Consciousness hinged on that fusillade moment in 1970. The change engendered would at first seem triumphant, possibly even worth the tragedy and sacrifice, but history in its immediate aftermath made it all too clear that the state had found its mojo and that it had had enough of all this rabble-rousing nonsense. In victory defeat, then, and all we were left to combat it with was wit and style, was unstinting self-expression and a smiling middle finger to those that would dispatch a well-armed militia to fatally dispel a restless mob of dissatisfied teenagers, a beat that, unfortunately if unsurprisingly, goes on, from Ferguson to Florida to Anywhere, USA, including Wall Street.

In the end all was not lost and all was not found, but in that uncertain fulcrum a voice was possible. Easy Life is what that voice sounds like, defiant, hopeful, fatalistic, purposefully disengaged. It’s an important record – whichever way that word gets defined – and not simply in terms of its creator’s legacy but in the broader context of the canon as well and by that measure should be heard far and wide. As the state of collective awareness in this county has become less keen and more palliated, Chris Butler is there to keep score with his usual blend of knowing intransigence and vaguely perplexed vulnerability. Easy life? Hardly. But then again, not so bad if you can sidestep the absurdity and just…keep…going.

Long live Chris Butler.

[Easy Life available for purchase here]