August 18, 2005

Good Rockin' Tonight

Friend of mine tells a story about Joe Ely. She woke up one morning and found Ely in bed with her roommate. They had picked each other up after his show the previous night. As my friend would have us believe, that was the night that inspired an early Ely hit, "Musta Notta Gotta Lotta". The song gets its name from a line which goes like this: Please understand me, everything's all right, I just musta notta gotta lotta sleep last night!

I can't vouch for the truth or otherwise in this story, unfortunately. And I don't know much about how Joe Ely sleeps, whether with friends' roommates or not. But I can tell you that sleep is one thing that doesn't come easily to those in his audience after one of his shows. If you're looking for straight ahead, no nonsense, foot stomping rock-n-roll, you need look no further than Joe Ely. There are no clouds of smoke, no lip-syncing, no bizarre bras, no pretentious lyrics in his concerts. Just music you can't help shaking to, a high energy performance that leaves both him and you exhausted.

Naturally, you're wanting to know who Joe Ely (pronounced "EE-lee") is and why you haven't heard of him. The truth is, despite a string of critically acclaimed albums and songs, he never really became popular outside Texas.

But in Texas, Ely is a hero. He is hailed as the heir to the legacy of Buddy Holly, that rock-n-roll son of Texas. Holly was killed in a plane crash in 1959, tragically cutting short a young career that had already seen a succession of huge hits. Acknowledging his roots in Holly's music, Ely sometimes sings some of his songs. But it's Ely's own songs that have brought him fame and fans -- including my friend's roommate -- in Texas.

And in Texas, Austin is where Ely really found himself a large, loyal following -- an interesting story in itself. Austin has scores of little bars where you can hear terrific music every night of the week. Unknown singers hoping to be tomorrow's megastars play their hearts out for appreciative beer drinkers and cigarette smokers. And frequently, they do go on to fame (the singers, not the drinkers and smokers). Janis Joplin, for example, is from Austin. She is still remembered at Threadgill's, the bar she used to sing at before she became one of the flower power generation's leading musical lights. In the mid-80s, long time Austin favourites the Fabulous Thunderbirds rocketed to fame with "Tuff Enuff". A fine album, but as true aficionados of Texas music will tell you with a sniff, not their first and certainly not their best.

And in this breeding ground of musical talent, in a city crowded with hard working bands of hopeful musicians and blazing blues guitar heroes, Joe Ely was adopted as one of Austin's own. Through the '80s, as Ely brought out album after album, he played in Austin regularly, grateful for the affection the city always gave him.

He had some interesting releases in the late '70s, but seemed unsure if he wanted to be a country star or a rock-n-roll one. In 1981, one album -- "Musta Notta Gotta Lotta" -- changed all that. The critics raved. Rolling Stone named it the rock album of the year. Fans in Texas snapped up the album. Joe Ely had finally arrived.

"MNGL" is a collection of gems ranging from lyrical love songs ("Wishing For You") to knock-em-down rockers like "Good Rockin' Tonight", "Rock Me, My Baby" and of course, the alleged tribute to my friend's roommate, the song that gave its title to the album. "Rock Me, My Baby", by the way, is an old Buddy Holly tune: Ely's acknowledgement, as it were, of Holly's impact on rock-n-roll, on Texas music, and on him.

If Ely started with relatively simple, straightforward songs, things soon changed. With each new album, his music became more complex, his arrangements more sophisticated, his songs deeper and sometimes darker.

In "Fingernails", one of his earliest hits, Ely sang "I keep my fingernails long so they click when I play the piano". The throwaway simplicity, humour and sheer high spirit in that song was evident in "MNGL" as well.

But his 1992 album "Love and Danger" found an older and possibly wiser Ely.

Love gives and love takes away/True love will meet you halfway/ ... As far as I can discern/Love asks for love in return, he sings in "Love Is The Beating Of Hearts". Later in the same album, the faint cynicism continues: Faces don't mean much/When she turns out the lights/Just tell her that you love her/Even though she knows you're lying is from "Every Night About This Time". Joe Ely had changed all right -- jaded with love, a little less wide eyed about life.

But one thing didn't change. His concerts remained vibrant, pulsating showstoppers, rock as it was meant to be. That, almost more than his songs, is the reason fans flock to see him.

Ely will never be a Michael Jackson or a Britney Spears (well, that last would be difficult). He knows that. And his fans -- like me -- will tell you they are grateful for that. Here's one reason why.

Years ago, a friend and I went to a tiny bar in Austin to hear Butch Hancock, another talented Texas singer. We were late for the show and Hancock had begun. Three of us were waiting outside to enter -- my friend and I and a man in a leather jacket. The man looked a lot like Joe Ely. Well, he was Joe Ely.

He had come, he told us with a smile, to hear his old buddy Butch. "I never miss his shows", he said. And once we were in, Joe Ely sat alone and quietly through the concert, nursing a bottle of Lonestar, unrecognized in the dark.


km said...


I am in a bit of awe knew someone who knew Joe Ely?

Texas has produced several musicians who are simply terrific but unfortunately, each of these musicians is a bit of a, pardon the pun, lone star, and hence, utterly unmarketable (so much for rock and roll being a vehicle for rebellion, eh?) Billy Joe Shaver also comes to mind - a great guitarist-songwriter.

But thanks for a good rockin' story.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading the post. I wish more people would write with such feeling about rock.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Krishna, it gets better: as I said in the post, I actually met Ely myself! Hey, wanna shake my hand? I'll give you a discount.

You're right about Texas musicians, pun included. Lots of them. And in fact Ely himself is not a particularly good songwriter in comparison -- he's the performer, really.

Ani, thx! What about that music blog?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Neela, "Gin" is another favourite song. But if that's on the same album as "MNGL", it's not the original "MNGL" album -- must be some kind of compilation, right? Do try and lay your hands on the MNGL album.

Other recommendations: Ely's most recent (I think) album "Letter from Laredo" is good, though I don't know it well enough. He has experimented with Latino music influences.

You should get "I Believe I'm in Love" by the Fabulous Thunderbirds, their less-known but better (my opinion) album than their 1986 hit "Tuff Enuff" (which is pretty good anyway).

More later, gotta go!

Anonymous said...

God, get Live at Antone's, hell of a band and a great selection of his hits.....then get the Flatlander's albums, then the rest of the discography.

PS: Joe's a sweet guy, so is Butch.