A popular rumor about Karen Dalton is that she died homeless on the streets of New York. (In fact, although her life and especially the latter part of it retains a lot of mystery, it seems that she spent her last couple of weeks under the care of guitarist Peter Walker in southeastern New York state.) Her biography is murky enough to allow for imagination, and archetypical enough to suggest the tragedy of the folk singer. Her voice is a storied and sad alto, the kind of voice that makes you feel you know her personally.
“She had the Beat spirit…the existential angst which felt life was dark, perpetually in pain, and that was how you became your art, if you were a real artist,” said Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group. That self-punishing approach to life and art seems a little archaic these days. But I think that even in the 60s–when Dalton played in Greenwich Village coffee houses and apartments to enough acclaim to become Bob Dylan’s favorite singer, but not to enough acclaim to make any money–Dalton must’ve seemed not of this world. For one thing, she was half Cherokee, with straight black hair and a willowy thin body, easily idealizable, dressed in long skirts and denim jackets . For another, she had terrible stage fright. She was, as a recorder, recalcitrant, and cagey with producers. As a result, many of her recorded tracks today were taped surreptitiously by her friends during informal performances. But that’s a boon to her image as the mysterious wandering songstress. Today, years after she died, new recordings keep getting released, as if she had somehow cheated death.
Go back to In My Own Time, one of the two records Karen Dalton released when she was alive, and listen to “Something On Your Mind.” It is, bar none, my favorite break up song–and I’m not even sure it is a break up song. There’s a strange gypsy theatricality, courtesy of the lap steel and the vibrato-thick violin line, that doesn’t show in the rest of the album, which features a number of really stellar covers of pop songs like “When A Man Loves A Woman” and “How Sweet It Is.” In My Own Time, one of the few recordings framed as an intentional studio album, was meant to feature Dalton’s range, from country and soul to the thorny “Katie Cruel.” Karen Dalton famously didn’t write her own songs (excepting a collection of lyrics found posthumously in her notebooks, sung by other people, and released in 2015), but she did make each song her own. And all the songs were designed to break your heart–none more so than “Something On Your Mind.”
I’m reading a great book of essays right now called “Loitering” by Charles D’Ambrosio, and there’s a line in it that wounded me: it’s in an essay called “Doo-Wop Down The Road: Richard Brautigan,” and obviously, it’s about Beat writer Richard Brautigan. The offending line is this– “People who read Brautigan typically pick him up in high school or college, at a time when the lyrics to rock songs are still compelling…but both enthusiasms are hard to sustain past the age of thirty.” I’m 26, so I guess I’ve got four years left to blithely disagree with D’Ambrosio. Both Karen Dalton and Richard Brautigan were essentially associated with the Beats. Both of them walked around with tombstones in their eyes for a while before actually dying. Both died young, and memorably, and both of them could write the hell out of a sad song. I’m speaking metaphorically–Brautigan wrote poetry and fiction, not songs, and Dalton didn’t write, not anything she performed, anyway. Her art was interpretation.
Karen Dalton had relentless delivery. She had a way of returning to the sore spot, picking it apart, and letting it bleed. Her persona was full of folk archetypes, and cliches I guess, and it’s easy to read about her drug abuse and unluckiness in love and find her typical of her genre. But it doesn’t hurt that she was beautiful; it doesn’t hurt that she could sing the blues and glamorize it in such a way that listening to it, you felt that your pain was beautiful, too.
I remember listening to “Something On Your Mind” incessantly during the summer of 2013. I was in the mood for sad songs, though I don’t remember why. I do remember walking around Manhattan’s East Village late at night, in long skirts and denim jackets, imagining myself as out of place and mythical as Karen Dalton and feeling, as I imagined she’d felt, glamorously forlorn.
That was the summer that the cicadas infested New York’s Hudson Valley, along with pretty much everywhere else outside the city. (I hear they came to Staten Island, but Manhattan didn’t have the requisite trees and thus missed the cicada apocalypse.) One evening I went upstate to spend the weekend with some friends, and the cicadas buzzed so loudly that you had to yell to have a conversation on the porch. In the middle of a heated argument about–if memory serves–Mother Teresa, I pulled one out of my hair and casually flicked it away. They looked like New York City’s flying cockroaches, and they were about the same size, but if it had been a cockroach in my hair I would have went ballistic. The cicadas were different; they didn’t seem malicious, and they only came around once every seven years, on the dot–they were so mystical and precise, and so out of this world. Later that week back home in the city, where I took long walks alone back to the subway from bars late at night and enjoyed feeling self-congratulatorily sad and leanly self-sufficient, I saw a dying cicada cowering in the cranny of a store facade on a street corner. It wasn’t a city bug. It didn’t freak me out. I knelt down and looked at it. It was really very sad–a kind of tiny, bizarrely beautiful dinosaur trying to get out of a loud horrible place. It didn’t have food. I should’ve just put it out of its misery, but it was a little too big to kill in good conscience.
I think that when D’Ambrosio says that fully grown adults can’t completely buy in to rock lyrics and Richard Brautigan, he means that it becomes harder to accept an excess of sentimentality, or schmaltz, as you grow up. Brautigan’s writing is blindly earnest. It doesn’t analyze itself or check its extremes. It can go to the far end of hokey metaphor. Relatedly, it’s terribly, terribly sad. Who can write sadness without cheese? Human emotions are essentially embarrassing and un-classy. None more so than heartbreak–and never more so than in a break-up song. Consider Gloria Gaynor, Whitney Houston, Elton John, and ABBA. Seriously, who doesn’t need schmaltz after they’ve been dumped? Karen Dalton’s is a different sort of cheesiness–the sort that lets you listen to her voice and, relating to the nuances she conveys, come up with a story for yourself about who she was–and a related story about how beautiful and rare you are.
Schmaltz would be to compare Karen Dalton’s music to the strangeness of the cicada in the street, but like I said, she didn’t die in New York City. She lived two lives, both tragic: one marred by her real, private and complicated struggles, and one as a doomed folk hero whose archetypical relevance will keep people listening to her and communing with her, hopefully, for as long as there are people in the world–maybe even people past the age of thirty.
Love Tracks Series