Christy McWilson - The other side of midnight
In the end, for all its swagger and style and violent enthusiasms, rock 'n' roll is child's play. Big loud fun, big dumb sex, nothing wrong with that, and long may you run. Sometimes...sometimes the music even sweeps another generation toward unexpected purpose, undreamt heights. Or depths, sometimes. But there it evaporates, as does youth, and life reveals itself to be a far messier proposition. Time erodes the certain clarity of youth, erases, reshapes, until it is comforting simply to rise from bed and contemplate the morning coffee. See, there it is: Morning. Rock 'n' roll is a midnight rambler, a costume ball, the unquestioned luxury of those who have nowhere to be at 7 a.m. The lucky ones, perhaps. What, then, for the rest of our lives? Surely rock's anthems of courtship and parties and slogans do not fit the years in which black and white turns gradually to gray. And yet there is much to be found in those gray spaces: Hard, restless nights, longer days, the gathering gloom of mortality, the growing certainty of one's limitations, and of one's capacities. Nothing exciting in all that, but it is rich ground, and home in the long run. If you are lucky enough to grasp it, to shape carefully, there is also a generous harvest to be found, for real life is rarely so dull as television insists, and enduring art is hardly the province of precocious youth. Sometimes it feels like this: My life is a tightrope Maybe you're unaware Maybe I've spelled it out so much That you're tired and you just don't care. Christy McWilson sings her words with a survivor's joy. She is 45. An artist. A mother. A wife. She has counted the costs of her life, written them down, given them voice. And it's a great voice. Well schooled in Northwest irony, she called her first solo album The Lucky One, and meant it. The new one is called Bed Of Roses, and she means that, too. My wife will read this: It's not that bad, darlin'. Honest. Not bad at all. Good, really. But at some point life does not reduce to a rock 'n' roll song, and something of more subtle shading is called for. Simple as that. And Christy's music, it's easy to listen to, full of carefully rendered language. Hell, it rocks, even. Thing is, it counts for something. The words count for something, and they take courage to sing, to embrace. Easy to listen to, yes; a good bit harder once heard carefully, and not so easy to make, as it turns out. "Yeah, I'm discontented," she says, seated comfortably at home in West Seattle. "I think most people who hit my age get discontented. I think there's a lot of disappointment, that's part of middle age. It's kind of going, OK, what do I have to look forward to? Kind of worrying about it a little bit." Music, mostly of the classical variety, was around her family's Southern California household all along, but Christy went astray early. "Both my parents are musicians," she says (her father is also a psychiatrist). "I was the first born and I think they thought that...I mean, they put me up on that piano bench when I was really young. I think I couldn't even read. And I was kind of a disappointment. I had a gift for making up the ends of the songs because I couldn't read the music. I got busted because I made up a whole ending, and it was quite a scandal at the time." Surely her high school dalliance with rock bands was just another example of the family genes gone awry. "I was the only person I knew that was doing that, that was female anyway," she recalls. "I was either the girl with the tambourine or like Linda McCartney. That was a put-down." She was, of course, neither. Rather, McWilson was among the first generation of women to follow Emmylou Harris's footsteps toward the spotlight. This is important. Thirty years ago things were different and women did not rock, certainly not women from good homes. Fifty-five years ago it was, apparently, acceptable for a professor at the University of California to tell my mother that she could hope for no better than a B in his class, for surely she didn't expect to compete against men in the workplace. Not that long ago, any of it. Anyway, the music of Christy's high school band was not unlike what she makes now: "It was the era of the Burrito Brothers and Gram and Emmylou, and so that was kind of the inspiration, although there were other things, too, like the early Elton John Tumbleweed Connection." Didn't matter, just a phase. "After that, I tried to straighten up and fly right and become a serious college person," she says with a slight smile. "College people weren't in bands. It's something I tried to suppress forever, but my parents were professionals. You don't do music as a job, as a lifestyle; that's something you do as a hobby. While I was in college I never even dreamed of being in a band. So, of course, everybody I met and got to be friends with all happened to be musicians." She finished with a degree in anthropology, waited tables, played music, married a musician by the name of Scott McCaughey, kept her own last name (which is actually Wilson; she adopted McWilson as a stage name years ago). "At some point I gave up and succumbed to the fact that some things are predestined," she says. They moved from California to Seattle long before that was trendy. In the early 1980s, McCaughey created a kind of West Coast answer to the Replacements, and the Young Fresh Fellows ended up playing Paul Westerberg's wedding. Christy sang with the Power Mowers ("Wanda Jackson meets James Brown," they hoped) and the Dynette Set. And then their daughter Nadine was born, she formed the Picketts, Scott became a touring member of R.E.M., the Picketts put out three albums (two for Rounder, the first for PopLlama), and things got complicated. More than a century of feminists have sought equality, have fought bruising battles to redefine their position in society. That has left tough, uncertain, evolving choices -- for both sexes. For a time, at least on the Left Coast, motherhood was viewed as a cop-out, an admission of career failure. Not tough enough to cut it in a man's world. In that context or something like it -- pregnancy did not at first seem a blessing to McWilson. "I was embarrassed to be having a kid, to tell you the truth," she says. "I tried to hide. I was determined to stay in the Power Mowers as long as I could. I did not want to be pregnant, I just felt like it was a gyp. I felt like, how come men don't have to go through this? "And then I had the kid. I had a really intense labor, 52 hours. And when I came through that, I went, Oh, my god, that was unbelievable. And I started looking at it differently right off the git-go. My whole vision of it started changing, from the delivery on. I felt kind of privileged, almost, to have experienced that. "I started noticing all these things, biologically. Like, if Nadine cried in the night, my eyes just flew right open, and Scott would sleep through it. "What I learned from being a mom is that the priorities are all wrong in this country, that there needs to be a really strong focus on children, by both parents, by the whole community." She also learned how difficult it was to balance the inherently selfish needs of an artist against the inherently selfless needs of parenting. "It's really hard to be creative and always be at the beck and call of the little dictator," she says, and it's probably important to note the warmth with which she says "little dictator." "This seems really symbolic to me. I was trying to get the words to [Yoko Ono's] 'Walking On Thin Ice', and I was in the kitchen, away from the kids and the TV, and I had a tape recorder. It took me over an hour to write the lyrics down, because I could not get one sentence written down without being interrupted." None of which, by the way, is meant for a critique of her husband. "I think Scott's really a great dad, really involved," she says. Her band at the time, the Picketts, became more important to her than anybody in the audience might have guessed. "I needed to have a dividing line," says McWilson. "I think the band was like me holding onto a raft. Like I'm in the water. I'm not on the raft, but I'm hanging on to it. I think the Picketts helped me; when I played a show, I would be completely out of that environment of fish crackers and Juicy-Juice. I really developed this awe for other mothers, and I started defending them." The Picketts' self-titled debut arrived in 1992, just in time to be overwhelmed by the craze for all things flannel and loud. "We were like wearing snowshoes and going through a blizzard. We had our head down and just kept going. It was really hard," she says. "The grunge year was '92, and that was the same year -- I've said this before -- both Nirvana and Garth Brooks [broke]. "Whereas in '91 people thought, 'Hey this is kinda cool, this is kinda old Burrito Brothers,' they suddenly went, 'My God, it's Garth Brooks,' and that was horrible," she observes of country music's new connotations. "But we kept playing. We stuck with it, and we were just the most unpopular band that ever lived." Not exactly. The Picketts persevered long enough to record two fine albums for Rounder, and to participate in the first (and so far only) No Depression tour, joining Hazeldine, Whiskeytown, and the Old 97's. At last, she could tell that some things were changing. "That was a great time. I still have fond memories of that. I'm definitely pro-woman, pro-female. That's why I kind of liked that tour," she says, referring to the presence of Hazeldine, which featured three women, and Whiskeytown fiddler Caitlin Cary. "It was just nice, because I spend so much time always with guys. And I like guys. My band is men, but I really like it when women are given a chance to do stuff. We played in Seattle last [time] with three bands, and the main focus in all three of them was the female singer. I was having a heyday. I loved it." "I'm still plowing through the blizzard," McWilson laughs softly, but her companions have changed along the way. Years ago, now, the Picketts finally parted company. "Two of us wanted to travel, and three of us wanted to stay in Seattle and just play locally," she says. "Blackie [Sleep] and I both wanted to continue; we were the songwriters, too. But he decided it was my thing, he didn't want to write anymore. It was really hard for me to be on my own, because I so loved having him up there, because I'm shy, you know. And it was great, he deflected...it was kind of like Donny & Marie up there. But he didn't think that he should be up there; otherwise it was sort of like the Picketts again, and I think ultimately he was right." Blackie continues as the drummer in McWilson's road band. Some of Blackie's role, at least in the studio, is played by another old friend, Dave Alvin, and they can't even remember how they met. "When you're talking about things that long ago, it's almost like talking about a dream," Alvin says. "I remember the first time she had a band, and they opened up for the Blasters at some club up there in Seattle. But then it turns out that there was all this connecting tissue. "A few years later I went up to Seattle with Greg Leisz, and Scott and Christy had us over for this pre-gig party. It turns out that Christy was best friends with Greg Leisz's younger sister when she grew up down here in Southern California, and one of her best friends from childhood ended up dating my brother. So it was just like, well, I guess we know each other pretty damn well." McWilson had sought to interest Alvin in producing the Picketts, but he demurred. However, toward the end of their run, the Picketts opened for Alvin and he approached her backstage: "'Darlin', when are we going to do a record?'" Christy remembers, deepening her voice. "I was shocked and really terrified, really shy. I wasn't expecting that. That was a big honor. It still is." McCaughey and his R.E.M. cohort, Peter Buck, had mostly made a record with Christy that never came out. "That's pretty interesting for what it turned out to be," she says. "It had a drummer that was a lot different from the country drummer [on The Lucky One, Don Heffington]." Those sessions ended up as functioning as song demos for Alvin, inaugurating a collaborative process that has served both well for her two solo records. "Each song is its own thing that I work on," McWilson says. "I write 'em down and save 'em, and figure out the chords, and then I play 'em for Dave. And he decides what is happening and what isn't." And, often, he rearranges her songs. "The title track of The Lucky One, she brought in as a Ray Price kind of country shuffle," Alvin offers by way of example. "One listen to it, I realized it's not a Ray Price country shuffle, it's something else. "Christy's real prolific. She'll come in with 30 songs. It's like listening to a record: Some songs hit you right off the bat, and other songs take a few listenings. So you gravitate toward the ones that get you right off the bat, then a theme develops. I wouldn't say I'm the sole guy that goes No, Yeah, No, but what I'll do is I'll say, OK, that's real good, let's start with this one. I'm listening for a lot of things. Besides hooks and all that, I'm listening for what would be fun to play, what would be fun to produce, what would hold up in the long run." Alvin has surrounded her in the studio with an A-team of his own invention, including her husband, Buck, and Leisz. He has also brought her vocals to the foreground for the first time. "There's a quality in her voice that I think was being obscured in the Picketts," Alvin says. "In the Picketts it's like she's a rock 'n' roll babe, and she's sort of shouting above the band, which she is more than capable of doing. I thought we could use some of that, but also, there's this whole sort of...tender, vulnerable quality in her voice that, once you crank up the amps, gets lost. That's what I meant about having her show that side of herself. That side of her voice was a little scary at first for her, I think." Only an unstrung violin ornamenting a built-in bookcase suggests anything out of the ordinary at the McWilson-McCaughey house. Behind her chair the family's 17-year-old cat, Helen, snores so loudly it threatens to be a death rattle. The family turtle struggles to heave itself into a pan of water, finally lands with a satisfying smack and is quiet again. The tables are covered in cookbooks, which she has decided to bring up from the basement, perhaps in the theory that if they're closer to the kitchen she'll call upon their wisdom more often. The furniture is neither old enough to have acquired kitsch cred, nor new; it's simply home, and comfortable. Outside it is, quite improbably, a beautiful January day. Wide, clean living room windows offer a splendid panorama of evergreens and Puget Sound, everything blue and green to the horizon (and only by that view -- a significant measure of status in the Northwest -- might you guess at an unusual level of musical success in the house). Yes, Seattle will tease you like that, even in winter. Especially in winter. Alvin is fond of comparing McWilson's language to that of poet Sylvia Plath. It is dangerously accurate, and doubtless Alvin knows it. Plath, a formidable poet in her own right, was married to the British poet laureate, Ted Hughes. Their marriage ended, she spiraled into mental illness, and took her own life, at 31, in 1963. McWilson is married to Scott McCaughey, quite possibly the most prolific musician this side of Billy Childish, and suffers from bipolar disorder. It doesn't show, of course. "Hey, Scott?" she calls into the other room. "My mind is falling apart. Who did David Jackson play with?" Roger Miller. Dillard & Clark. Everybody. He even plays upright bass on Christy's new record. She calls back the next day, leaves a message explaining that the new medication isn't quite in balance yet, and that she was unusually subdued. Only in retrospect does it shows up in her language: "I've got sand in my brain," she had said, frustrated. Suddenly her song choices make sense. She has long turned up with a sparkling reimagination of somebody else's song (the Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go", the Who's "Baba O'Riley", Brian Wilson's "'Til I Die"). This time it's a pair of slightly psychedelic songs, Moby Grape's "8:05" (offered as a duet with Alvin) and, more telling, Jesse Colin Young's "Darkness, Darkness". "I like that song for a number of reasons," she says. "Not the least is that I don't sleep. I'm not a sleeper. I mean, I have trouble sleeping, so, lyrically that's really a true song. For someone who can't sleep, that's a great song. It's a great song anyway." Darkness, darkness Take away the pain of knowing The emptiness of right now And that's where the songs come from. "A lot of my songs come through just lying in bed with nothing to do," she says. "So you work on songs to keep your mind amused while you wait for the time to get up. I write the music first. I do it backwards, it's really hard. Melody comes in my head, and then I try to fit the words in, so I'm doing crossword puzzles. "I can't sit down with a guitar and figure out the chords until the song is really cemented in my head, or I'll screw it up. But sometimes it's really hard. I have a lot of really weird chords in my songs, and I think that's what other musicians like about them, sort of -- sometimes they hate having to learn 'em -- but it's because I don't have a structure in mind, I just let the song sing to me, and when it's all done, then I try to find out the chords." She laughs a little. "It's been a disaster, quite a few times. Like 'Bed Of Roses', for instance, I unintentionally changed keys, and I had to try to get back to the original key. That one was a drag, I was calling everyone up, Help me! Help me! That was a long time before I could get that one straightened out." And her songs are, much like Billy Joe Shaver's (and few others), almost strictly true. "Give or take a grain of salt," she says. "A lot of people think that I'm writing about Scott sometimes, and it's unfair. Like 'Little Red Hen' was more about being in the Picketts than about Scott. I was kind of shocked when a lot of people referred to Scott about that, and that wasn't fair. "I'm a storyteller about myself. I think a lot of men...I listen to Scott's songs, he makes up stories. They're like creative writing classes. I'm more, This is who I am. I just am, I hate to say this, a sincere kind of a gal." Brutally honest, too. There's still plenty of stigma attached to mental instability, but McWilson won't back away from the truth. Offers it freely. "I kind of decided it wasn't a secret anymore," she says. "That's part of who I am. Some people I've noticed have been afraid of me, like I'm going to wield an axe or something. And I'm not. I'm not violent, but I do get really irritable if I don't take medicine, and it's really awful. "It's a chemical imbalance. They actually think it's related to epilepsy, and they think it's a mood seizure. I think that's right. Because when I get manic episodes, it's really horrible; I can feel 'em coming on and I get agitated and everything bothers me. "And then I can't sleep. I won't sleep for DAYS at a time, and that's when you really start getting weird thoughts. But that's where I get a lot of my songwriting done, because I'm up all night. And it's pretty awful." Nothing like being reminded how precariously the creative process rocks atop a chasm few of us would care to visit. "My psychiatrist said that bipolar people are over-represented in the arts," says McWilson. "I think there is this weird sensitivity that you have, but it is a mixed blessing. That is who I am. I think it gives me insights and I think I feel a lot, but the flipside of that coin is that I run around sometimes -- I can tell when I'm bad -- like if there's somebody in a wheelchair in front of me in the grocery store, I have to fight back an urge to kick that person out of the way. And that's not who I am, that's the disease talking." She calls back a few days later and leaves one last message. "This probably isn't that important, although it seemed like it was at 2:30 in the morning when I woke up and I was thinking. We talked about the agitation and the manic thing, but the flipside of that is the depression, the kind where you can't even get up off the bed. A lot of songs come at that period. An example of that would be 'Sheep In The Pasture,' which was a little visual interpretation of how I felt, and 'The Lucky One'. It's probably not that important, but I just started thinking about that at 2:30 in the morning, my mental pacing time." ND co-editor Grant Alden lives in Nashville, TN, with his wife, two cats, and a wide variety of coffee-making appliances.