The English essayist William Hazlitt, writing about a play called Hamlet, wrote that Ophelia is a character nearly unique in literature. The only other women characters that are remotely like her, Hazlitt says, are figures from "some of the old romantic ballads."
The old romantic ballads are the old Scots, Irish, and English ballads of love and murder, of course, the old songs that gave rise to American country music in its early phase of longing and melancholia, not the more up-to-date confectionary nonsense. The songs from which Nick Cave takes his primary inspiration on albums like Let Love In and Murder Ballads. The kind of music that you can detect in the Outback gothic of the Howling Bells. I say "gothic" in the sense of Southern Gothic; I'm not implying anything that has to do with black lipstick.
The old romantic ballads that Hazlitt mentions are musical tales of madness, crime, sex, and death (as anyone who listens to Nick Cave, the true descendant of these ballads, will know), and in the New World these tales were simply transplanted to settings like the Appalachian foothills or the endless deserts of the West. The Scots-Irish immigrants who populated the South brought their murder ballads with them; many of them migrated west and spread the ballads as far as California; and the ballads seeped into Californian consciousness in strange and unexpected ways.
All the American forms of music--blues, jazz, country, rock, hip hop--grew out of two earlier forms: folk ballads and church hymns. The tradition of folk balladry is strongly apparent in the distinctly American music of X.
X, as most of you know, were an Los Angeles punk band. Their sound certainly bears the hallmarks of loud and brash late 70s/early 80s three-chord punk rock, but beneath the loud rockabilly there's something of the old romantic ballads in X. Or so I hear, anyway.
Their classic first album, Los Angeles, is rich in atmosphere and melodies. The first thing you notice, I suppose, is how catchy the songs are. But the chief delights of X are in the frenetic vocal interplay between bassist John Doe and lead singer Exene Cervenka and the moody lyrics of murder, madness, sex, and death in L.A.
You all know "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene." A great song, no doubt, but my favorites are the magnificent title track (one of the band's finest moments), the caustic ode to Beverly Hills "Sex and Dying in High Society," and rapturous concluding waltz "The World's a Mess, It's in My Kiss." If you don't already own Los Angeles, do yourself a favor and buy it now. You hardly have a right to call yourself a fan of American music, or music at all, if you're not familiar with it. It's worth it for the moment Exene cries "Get OUUUUUUUUUUUT!!!!!" just before the chorus on the song "Los Angeles."
Even better, I think, is X's second album Wild Gift. The album continues what Los Angeles started, but this time around the songs are even darker and sharper. Barnstorming opener "The Once Over Twice," the spiralling and frenzied punk classic "We're Desperate," the lovely and somber "Adult Books," and the black-as-night "White Girl" are my favorite songs, but the entire album is a marvelous suite of modern-day L.A. street ballads. Listen to this and tell me I'm mistaken:
Circling back to the theme of murder ballads and such: A common thread in folk ballads--from the border ballads of Britain and Ireland to the balladic quality that Hazlitt saw in Ophelia, to Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and on to Nick Cave and X (contemporaries at one time, strangely enough)--is tragic and doomed female figures. X's lyrics are full of these sorts of women, enigmatic and alluring but somehow condemned to either madness or the most hideous misfortunes. Exene herself is a healthy and sane woman singing about mad or broken women on songs like "Los Angeles" and "White Girl," which just adds another layer of mystery and intrigue. Anyway, I'll conclude this rambling post with a command to purchase both of X's first two albums. DO IT NOW.