Monday, July 2, 2012

Uncle Two-Below (Cold)

Brynn Alexander is a regular contributor to and today's guest contributor to the Narrative Music series. Who'd have guessed that the first performers to receive a second nod in this series would be The Mamas & the Papas? Remember Peter Dragovich's piece? Well, don't get too comfortable, Brynn's contribution only starts with John Phillips. I'll say no more. Take it away Ms. Alexander:

Me & My Uncle

A lot of great things can happen when your drinking sessions involve people like Neil Young and Stephen Stills. For John Phillips, of The Mamas & the Papas fame, one such session in 1963 yielded an epic narrative song that Phillips claims not to remember writing. "Me and My Uncle" initially became a hit for Judy Collins, who was also there on that fateful evening and managed to snag a cassette tape that had been running during the infamous "tequila night." She recorded the song without John's knowledge, and turned it into a minor hit. Joni Mitchell, John Denver, and Dino Valenti also tried their hand at interpreting the song, but it wasn't until The Grateful Dead started performing it at their live shows that the song really found its wings. Phillips initial lyrics were somewhat less racy than the ones the Dead favored. The light rewrite of the words, and especially the last line, turns the end-of-song zinger into a bomb rather than a mere delivery.

Me and my uncle went riding down
South Colorado, west Texas bound
We stopped over in Santa Fe
That being the point just about halfway
And you know it was the hottest part of the day
I took the horses up to the stall
Went to the barroom, ordered drinks for all
Three days in the saddle, you know my body hurt
It being summer, I took off my shirt
And I tried to wash off some of that dusty dirt

So far, so good. A typical day in the life of a couple of traveling cattle drivers.

West Texas cowboys, they's all around
With liquor and money, the loaded down
So soon after payday, know it seemed a shame
You know my uncle, he starts a friendly game
High-low jack and the winner take the hand

Uh-oh. Trouble's a-brewing, you can just feel it.

My uncle starts winning; cowboys got sore
One of the m called him, and then two more
Accused him of cheating - oh no, it couldn't be
I know my uncle, he's as honest as me
And I'm as honest as a Denver man can be.

It has been suggested to me that, given where this story is heading, the "honest as a Denver man can be" line may have been a deliberate dig at the integrity of the fine residents of the capital of Colorado. Seeing as I have no experience dealing with late 19th-centuray Denverites, I'll leave it to the reader to speculate.

One of the cowboys, he starts to draw
And I shot him down, lord, he never saw
Shot me another, oh damn he won't grow old
In the confusion, my uncle grabbed the god
And we high-tailed it down to Mexico.

Well, that escalated quickly. In the space of two stanzas we went from friendly card game to double homicide and grand larceyny. But hey, an impromptu vacation in Mexico has got to beat cattle-rustling any day of the week, right?

Well, unless you happen to be the uncle in this song:

I love those cowboys, I live their gold
I loved my uncle, God rest his soul
Taught me good, lord, taught me all I know
Taught me so well, I grabbed that gold...

Oh no, he didn't - did he?

And I left his dead ass there by the side of the road.

Sweet. This may be the best single-line twist ending ever written.

I was never what you call a Deadhead, but this song was the one that convinced me to give the band a chance. I love the Phillips narrative, but even more than that, I adore the Grateful Dead's interpretation. It has a fire to it that Joni Mitchell's version (for example) lacks, and I even prefer it to Judy Collins' original recording. Some may disagree, but you decide for yourself - there are several versions on YouTube to chose from including the version in question from The Grateful Dead.

Brynn enjoys all this music and entertainment. Find her writing for or singing along loudly to her favorite bands. 


Unknown said...

That story about "Me and My Uncle" can't possibly be true. My own take is that Phillips is mixing up two nights of drinking. Neil Young and Stephen Stills never even met until 1965, in Thunder Bay (Fort Wiliiam, at the time) in Ontario Canada. In some John Phillips interviews he says it happened in Phoenix Arizona, and that Roger McGuinn was there. What COULD have happened was a party in New York in late summer of 1965 around the time of Neil's demo session for Elektra records, where Judy Collins was also recording. But the song "Me and My Uncle" came out a year earlier, on Collins' "Judy Collins Concert" album. Obviously, something is wrong with this story and I would blame John Phillips' addled memory mixing up two boozy nights. The other crazy thing that's repeated constantly with regards to this story is that the song was recorded on a "cassette". It would have been a reel-to-reel, because cassette machines weren't available until the early seventies.

jedidiah ayres said...

I envy a man with interesting drinking stories... mine only lead to poor decisions on Netflix