My Pop Life #196 : Pullin’ Back The Reins – k.d. lang


Pullin’ Back The Reins – k.d. lang

Out of nowhere this gust of wind 
brushed my hair and kissed my skin 
i aimed to hold a bridled pace 
when with love itself i came face to face

She was our queen in the late 80s when we first met – and on one memorable night in Kentish Town she appeared to be made of golden stardust, towering over the venue, the music, the songs and our lives like a goddess.

Like the young soul I am I became curious & interested in country music around the time that the New Musical Express gave away a free C90 cassette taped to the front cover of its weekly paper perhaps the spring of 1988 – bright yellow I recall, with an exciting playlist from artists I have loved ever since : Nanci Griffith, Randy Travis, Patti Loveless, The Judds, Dwight Yoakum, Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang.   I was rehearsing a weird new drama for the BBC called The Black & Blue Lamp and I’d met Kenneth Cranham (see My Pop Life #177 and My Pop Life #46) which in retrospect was a seriously influential moment in my musical development;  indeed it was a portal.  Ken asked me what I was listening to and we shared and enthused, and two weeks later we were standing with beers in The Half-Moon off Putney Bridge, a wonderfully intimate music venue just south of the river Thames where devotees of this ‘New Country’ were gathered to see Lyle Lovett, supported tonight by k.d. lang & the Reclines.  The country music these bands & the others played was stripped down of orchestration & sweeteners and was a return to traditional  sawdust shit-kickin’ down-home country ‘n’ western music – not that I knew the difference then.  All I knew was Glen Campbell (Galveston), Johnny Cash (A Boy Named Sue, Ring of Fire) and Emmylou Harris & Gram Parsons (Love Hurts, Ooh Las Vegas).   Oh and the New Riders of The Purple Sage.  Hippie country.  Nashville is capital of country music but there were & still are many ways to write and perform a country hit, from Willie Nelson to Taylor Swift.

When k.d. lang came onstage she was a boyish scruff with a hot band, fiddle, pedal-steel and all, but when she opened her mouth to sing – my god – the hairs on the back of my neck literally prickled.  Ken turned around to look at me – yes, I nodded, she’s really good.   I particularly remember her rendition of Three Cigarettes (In An Ashtray) that night, a song from Patsy Cline‘s self-titled first LP in 1957, and a rendition that k.d. performed with compelling languid drama and total authority – we were all sat in the palm of her hand listening to this extraordinary instrument – her voice – swooping & sighing with perfection.  Lyle Lovett the headliner didn’t stand a chance after that frankly, although he was entertaining in a wry twinkly way, the night had already been stolen.

Completely converted, I bought the first LP Angel With a Lariat which was basically what I’d just seen live, discovered that the lady was from Calgary on the Canadian prairies and was about to release an LP of classic country songs produced by Nashville royalty Owen Bradley,  producer of most of Patsy Cline‘s great songs, and many others : Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent among them.  k.d. had tempted him out of retirement and it felt like stamp of approval from the conservative establishment, and a tip of the hat from k.d. herself to the classic ‘countrypolitan’ sound of the late 50s/early 60s, invented by Bradley himself where the hoedown fiddles & honky tonk of basic country were replaced by sweet string pads and choice piano licks. Country went mainstream.

k.d. lang & Owen Bradley, 1988

The resulting LP Shadowland, released later in 1988 was sleek, polished, tasteful and entirely superior music, filled with licks from the great session players of Nashville, and an amazing collaboration.  Surprisingly,  when she put together her own country compilation album Reintarnation in 2006 k.d. lang would only include one song from Shadowland – Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes.  Who can say why she had gone off this musical high point ?

The following year though was almost all self-penned songs (with her collaborator Ben Mink from the Reclines) – a collection called Absolute Torch and Twang (1989) which has been a favourite of both Jenny and I ever since.  Often camp country tunes performed with gusto and warble, lovely instrumentation, really good songs.  Luck In Your Eyes got a grammy nod I think but my favourite is this one : Pullin’ Back The Reins, a lovely ballad about reticence & control & dignity, not letting the horse of love gallop madly across the prairie with its mane on fire.  Playing the long game, which we were already doing only a year and a bit into the relationship.

She played the song at The Town & Country Club in Kentish Town in May 1990 along with the rest of the album and other favourites including a few knockouts from Shadowland.  It was a shit-kicking country gig, but with the voice of an angel.  She came out like Elvis Presley, with a raunchy lick of hair and a swagger in her hips, a curl of the lip and a smile in her eyebrows.   She was simply dynamite that night.  We moved closer.  She took the guitar off and sang torch style, the extraordinary voice filling the space.  You could hear a pin drop between notes, we were that spellbound.  The rapture in the room was almost too much to bear and Jenny near-fainted, moving back and then actually outside into the street.  I think she had been converted to the infinite delights of Sappho and she looked at me as I had a quick puff of something while she fanned herself back to earth.  We were both shining with devotion.  Wow.  One of the greatest gigs in my museum of recollections.  Outstanding.

Two years later we were married, living in Los Angeles and there was Ingenue on the new CD player regularly, lush, airbrushed harmonies, full of Constant Craving and Miss Chatelaine and a strong move away from country into exquisite pop music.  k.d. lang hasn’t dropped a beat since then to my ears – guaranteed quality with every song she sings – including the LP with Tony Bennett and the Canadian covers record ‘49th Parallel‘ which has songs by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Ron Sexsmith (but not Rufus Wainwright !?!).   Funny how you lose track of some artists – it was only today that I discovered the 1995 album called All You Can Eat so I bought it and listened.  Magnificent, of course.

The Runyon Canyon hike

So fast-forward to 2009/10 and I’m living with Eamonn up in the hills above the Hollywood Bowl, just off Mulholland Drive.  I started getting fit – the perennial obsession – and without wanting to haunt some sweaty bollocks gymnasium or sit on a static bicycle in an surging class of lycra, or join E in some boxing pain, I decided to walk Runyon Canyon every morning.  Whichever way round I went it was downhill all the way down to Fairfax and uphill all the way back to Mulholland and it is a great workout in the sun.  Wildlife too – hawks, eagles, snakes, chipmunks, all kinds of stuff.  Popular with Hollywood types, some of whom run it, while others just walk the dog or gossip with their mates.  There are various routes and one which ends up going around the back of the canyon into a sweet little path with bushes & butterflies & birds, and naturally I often gravitated to that option.

This was where k.d. lang, somewhat larger than in 1990, would sometimes be walking her dog and talking on the cellphone.  It was cool to share a deserted piece of Canyon with her and although I so so wanted to say hi to her, to talk to her about that flash of lightning in our lives, to thank her for the Half Moon Putney, and all the records,  she always turned gently away perhaps to protect herself against intrusion and so I always honoured that choice and let her be.

What a Queen !

Advertisements

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Chandra BHATIA
    Dec 01, 2017 @ 08:18:45

    London Friday. Thank you Ralph. A wonderful and evocative piece of writing and it has enthused me to hear some more of her. I’ve only got Constant Craving. Love the bit of you meeting her in the LA Canyon and never talking to her. You know I would have!! Lots of love to you and Jenn.

    Shekhar x

    s.bhatia@mailonline.com

    >

    Like

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: