WEIRDLAND: Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, The Velvet Underground: Light & Tragedy

Monday, November 23, 2015

Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, The Velvet Underground: Light & Tragedy

‘The film is about the man behind the myth, the power of his music, the sheer voltage of his talent and charisma, and his formidable demons; he wrote some of the greatest songs in the history of American music.’ ―Tom Hiddlestone (I Saw the Light) on Hank Williams.

Sony Pictures Classics were hoping that I SAW THE LIGHT, the Hank Williams biopic starring Tom Hiddleston, would be generating some major Oscar buzz and had the film appropriately slotted into the Oscar bait slot of November 28, 2015. However, despite the acting of stars Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen receiving praises, the film failed to generate the Oscar buzz that the studio wanted at last month's Toronto International Film Festival. Seemingly in response to that lack of Oscar attention, Sony has pushed back I SAW THE LIGHT to March 25, 2016. Source:

The gifted British actor Tom Hiddleston plays Hank Williams and also creditably sings his songs (musician Rodney Crowell worked with Hiddleston). I Saw the Light follows Williams’ life from his marriage to Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) at a gas station in Andalusia, Alabama in 1944 to his death, from alcohol and pill-induced heart failure, en route to a concert in Canton, Ohio on New Year’s Day 1953. Marc Abraham’s effort is a fairly standard film biography. “I got caught up in Hank’s story. He died at 29, wrote all these songs, divorced the same woman twice, married a 19-year old right after recording ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’. I thought what an amazing story. He was in the public domain, and I just started writing the script,” said Abraham.

Hank Williams had his first big hit with “Move It on Over,” about a man in trouble with his wife, in 1947. In fact, it is an early rock and roll song, one that unmistakably reflects the postwar atmosphere. After a successful stint on the Louisiana Hayride, Williams first performed at the Grand Ole Opry in June 1949, where his “Lovesick Blues” was a triumph.

The glory did not last long. He was eventually fired from the Opry for alcoholism in 1952 and his famed producer, Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford in the film), stopped working with him. His life went from bad to worse… In one of the better scenes in I Saw the Light, Williams is in New York—where he feels like a fish out of water—for the Perry Como television show in November 1951. He speaks frankly to a reporter from a big city newspaper. “Everyone has a little darkness,” he says. Williams refers to the anger, misery, sorrow and shame that everyone feels. “I show it to them [the public] … They think I can help.”

In another comment, cited by Colin Escott in his biography of Williams, the real-life singer told an interviewer in 1951, “Folk songs express the dreams and prayers and hopes of the working people.” Williams was born in immense poverty in rural southern Alabama and grew up during the Depression. His father was a terrible drunk and his mother was not an easy person. He drank, and ultimately took pills, all his brief life to alleviate physical and psychological pain. But his songs reflected something more than merely his own personal distress and striving. Their rhythms and words tapped into the sentiments of large numbers of people. As historian Rachel Rubin notes: “In its most important early decades (the 1920s to 1940s), country music told the story of urbanization, and the genre’s relationship to rural living was more a musical epitaph for a way of life increasingly being left behind.” Source:

Like a sonnet, or a hymn, Hank Williams’ songs are timeless both because of and in spite of their structural limitations, using primary colors to drill down to the primary essences of the most primary human emotions. Unfortunately, Marc Abraham’s Williams biopic “I Saw the Light” fails to mirror its subject, focusing on the footnotes, the asides and the marginalia instead of the singular genius at its center. Despite a thoroughly committed, impressive performance from Tom Hiddleston as Williams, the film tackles the life of one of the 20th century’s most seminal musicians with all the passion of a stenographer. Erasing all traces of Britishness from his voice, Hiddleston makes for a very effective country singer; he doesn’t necessarily sound like Williams, but as with Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” the sheer amount of effort the actor took to nail a number of the singer’s distinctive tics, hiccups and blue notes is obvious. Source:

Country song craft was in transition. From the dawn of recorded country music in 1923, country songs had been a mixture of traditional ballads, dance tunes, Victorian parlor songs, hymns, blues, and vaudeville numbers. Deep introspection was rare. As far back as a 1947 Montgomery Advertiser feature, Hank Williams was dubbed “the hillbilly Shakespeare.” His songs were the true-to-life blues. Like most truly great songwriters, he flirted with banality, but nearly always managed to sidestep it. Hank’s ultimate triumph as a songwriter was that he learned to tell an audience of thousands what he couldn’t tell someone sitting one-on-one across the room. Hank felt the need to mask his tenderheartedness with callousness and shitkicker bravado, but in his songs he let his weakness show, increasingly so once he discovered that everyone else was weak too.

In endless gestures of appeasement toward Audrey Mae Sheppard, Hank bought jewelry and things for the home as she performed the sacred task of perpetuating his line. All the while, Audrey was more interested in perpetuating her career. She could truly see no reason why Hank’s applause should not be hers. After four years as a singer, she still had little grasp of how she really sounded. The pickers said that she sang “between the frets” (meaning she hit neither one note nor the other). Horace Logan recalled: "Audrey was a pure, unmitigated, hard-boiled, blue-eyed bitch. She wanted to be a singer and she was horrible, unbelievably horrible. She not only tried to sing, she insisted on it, and she forced herself out onstage when Hank was out there."

Wondering what Audrey was doing while he was out on the road contributed to Hank’s broodiness and general upset. He saw the band members happy to get off the road and get home to their wives and families. He would go home and perhaps not find Audrey there at all. If she was there, they’d probably have a fight. As early as 1950, coming in off the road, he had told the guys that he was going to Acuff-Rose to pick up a check for two thousand dollars, go home, give Audrey half of it, then spend the rest of the night fighting with her over the other half. It just wasn’t funny anymore. Still, Hank loved Audrey, but it’s clear that she no longer loved him.

Audrey claimed that she was divorcing Hank for the good of the children. Hank knew that he had failed and, according to those close to him, still hoped from time to time for a reconciliation. In the cross-complaint Hank spoke of his humiliation and grief when he heard what Audrey had done (an abortion). Hank’s cross-complaint document was, by turns, sad and bitter. Hank more or less agreed to Audrey’s terms, despite the fact that his lawyer considered them punitive. This, according to Price, was because Hank wanted to show his continued love for Audrey and his regret over what had happened. Audrey got the house on Franklin Road, and one-half of all Hank’s future royalties with a binding obligation upon MGM and Acuff-Rose to remit them directly to her. If Audrey ever remarried, her claim upon the royalties would end and Hank’s only obligation would be a maintenance payment of $300 a month for Hank Jr. until he was twenty-one.

Hank’s self-defeating conduct stemmed in part from his perception that he was being marketed as a commodity. He was sent to fly the flag for country music in general and the Grand Ole Opry in particular. The comfort and joy he’d once drawn from checking the charts diminished now that he came to see himself as commodified. Never especially forthcoming, he withdrew all the more now that Audrey was gone. As 1952 wore on, Hank was increasingly past caring what the Opry’s plans were, and whether or not he figured in them. Most of those who worked with him that year talk of his rapid disintegration. There’s a romantic notion that the writer or poet calms his troubled soul by reducing it to rhyme, but as Hank Williams pulled off his boots and eased himself gingerly onto his bed, the little verses he had scratched out in his untutored spidery handwriting almost certainly offered him no relief at all.

The final paradox is that Hank Williams left no journals, almost no letters, and no extended interviews, and the people who knew him best have to admit that on some level they didn’t know him at all. Yet, for all the ambiguity and unknowableness, Hank Williams appears almost desperately real to us through his music. At his best, he froze a moment or a feeling in terms simple enough to register instantly yet meaningful enough to listen to forever. ―"I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams" (2015) by Colin Escott & George Merritt

Musically, 1949 was also an important year not just for country music but for pop music in general, with the emergence of Hank Williams, already a major country star, as a mainstream ‘crossover’ artist, with the huge success of his definitive recording of ‘Lovesick Blues’. Williams’ music could be heard in Lubbock (Texas) thanks to his live broadcasts on country music stations – the Louisiana Hayride on KWKH from Shreveport, throughout 1948, and the Grand Ole Opry on WSM from Nashville, where he started in 1949.

Buddy Holly was fascinated by the Hank Williams sound, which involved a semi-yodelling style that stretched and bent individual syllables of words over several notes. But as John Goldrosen has pointed out, there was more to it than that. Williams wrote songs from the heart, drawing on his personal life and speaking directly to his audience, rather than simply performing (in effect, acting) someone else’s message. The fact that so many of his songs dealt in a plaintive or wistful fashion with lost or unrequited love simply made them even more appealing to teenagers. Like Hank Williams, Buddy Holly was deeply influenced by the spiritual sound of the old country church. ―"Not Fade Away: The Life and Music of Buddy Holly" (2012) by John R. Gribbin

"Buddy Holly was sort of a hero. Though a star, he still sounded and looked like a friend. He was one with his listeners, with one important difference: he could successfully express through his music the feelings that those listeners could not express for themselves. And since he was unusual only in his ambition, perseverance and musical talents, his concerns were shared by his audience. When he sang his song, his audience could claim that it was their song too." ―"Remembering Buddy: The Definitive Biography Of Buddy Holly" (2001) by John Goldrosen

Rave On Buddy Holly is a compilation tribute album released on June 28, 2011, through Fantasy Records/Concord Music Group and Hear Music. The track # 17 is "Peggy Sue" revisited by Lou Reed.

Sterling Morrison, Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker and Doug Yule (The Velvet Underground lineup in 1969). Those who have long been left cold by the Velvet Underground cite more than a waft of pretension, the sense that the music requires a pedigree. But that’s nonsense and The Complete Matrix Tapes collection (2015) makes you realize that. This is a band that, were time and circumstances different, could have reached a much wider audience; a band that was equal parts dangerous, demanding, assured, sarcastic, arty, unreal, sincere, tentative, patient, searching, ironic, unpretentious, formidable, and surprisingly capable of pure entertainment.

A lengthy take on “The Ocean” doesn’t just unfold with all the brawn and brain you might expect, it also sounds (despite some sonic limitations) as though it’s being revealed to the band on the spot and, consequently, revealed to us only now, in this very moment. It may be one of the finest moments of the Velvet Underground captured here or anywhere. The same might be said of the 37-minute take on “Sister Ray”. There is nasty, gnarled guitar work that comes crawling out of the speakers like snakes creeping from a swamp, like a transistor transmitting its thin, eerie tones into the night. Source:

"Beginning to See the Light" by The Velvet Underground, early version (recorded at the "Temptation Inside Your Heart" session, 1968) from the 'White Light/White Heat' album which was reissued on its 45th Anniversary in 2013.


gabyx said...

great post, I had the opportunity to watch "I Saw the Light" in the TIFF and Tom Hiddlestone hits it out of the park, amazing soundtrack and story!

Elena said...

I have yet to see this film, gabyx, because I am really fond of the musical biopics, also I am a fan of Hank Williams and the country genre. Too bad it's been delayed until Spring 2016!