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Michael de Jong | Park Bench Serenade (Munich Records)
Last issue, I reviewed the latest album by Mary Gauthier; a woman whose aching songs qualify her as contender for the title of the Queen of Country-Noir, currently held, I'd say, by Gillian Welch. Of close friend and label mate Michael de Jong, Gauthier says "Michael's musical landscape is vast and haunted, filled with living, breathing demons." She is not wrong. 'Park Bench Serenade' de Jong's sixth album in as many years, is heavy duty, as were the previous five. The reason for this is very clear, considering the remarkable life this man has experienced in his 56 years. Each and every song is autobiographical â?? unabashed exorcism via tales from the darkest of alleyways and the most putrid of gutters. Following the pronouncement of his Catholic schoolteacher that the eight year-old Franco-Dutch boy and his family would "burn in hell," young de Jong burned down his school. The apparent reason for the tutor's fury was that the de Jong family, having recently immigrated to the land of opportunity, could only afford to donate 25 cents per week to the church. Even at such an age, de Jong's recognition of such prejudice and injustice was acute, and he illustrated this to the world with his own personal bonfire. Needless to say, this man is still extremely angry; not only at the church, but at just about everything that any right-thinking individual should concern themselves with. In lyrical form, these targets are hit hard and direct. Delivered in an emotional, husky rasp, yearning croon or head-on roar, I guarantee any reader partial to such as Michael de Jong's narrative genius a deeply rewarding, but oft unsettling listen. Following hot on last years magnificent 'Immaculate Deception,' this new collection further enhances his cult rep as one of the most important songwriters working today. Against an ascending acoustic guitar figure, sensitive percussion and bass, PBS opens with the beautiful title track, a bitter tale of the general malaise when it comes to those 'without portfolio,' particularly within universal corridors of power. It's a classic, bringing to mind the outlaw outsider balladry of Kris Kristofferson, Blaze Foley, Townes Van Zandt et al. Waiting For The Rainbow is in the Mariana Trench of the deepest of soul, and another key track. Supported by frequent collaborator Leeann Atherton's swooping backing vocal, de Jong joins James Carr as the greatest soul singer of all time for at least five of this epic's 8 Â½ minutes. Control is all but surrendered as this plea for redemption winds to a close, de Jong's histrionics genuinely upsetting. Powerful just isn't the word. Having worked with or supported Professor Longhair, Paul Butterfield, John Lee Hooker, and Albert King amongst many, this is a man who understands the soul of the blues. Presented largely in acoustic form, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and the criminally neglected Rod McKuen are closer to the sonic truth in this instance, excepting the Springsteen-esque hammer down of Juliet On The Boulevard, a grinding ensemble performance ignited by guitarist Jon Dee Graham. Dear Theo is another killer, covering prison, alcoholism, heroin addiction and insanity; all factors that have shaped de Jong's life. Like I said - heavy duty. Beyond the need of his work as primal scream therapy, the songs are also intended as lessons; the line be careful / you don't wind up like me, wrapping things up here. Simple advice, but from a man who has spent time surviving by raiding scraps from rubbish bins, as sound as any. Closing with the sprawling 13 minute vent-fest that is Flavour Of The Month, any doubts aroused via the prior lyrical simplicity of this material, that de Jong is a better performer than writer, are dispelled on this extraordinary song. Like the rest of the album, it is recorded live, but boasting a naked arrangement of only de Jong's acoustic guitar and vocal, and Glenn Fukunaga's bass, the narrative grips and holds. He tears into everything â?? the music industry (a frequent source of disdain for this man), 'snake-pit' politicians, fundamentalists and religious fanatics, the media and judiciary designers â?? leaving at least this listener exhausted, restless and exhilarated at once. This great man's work deserves your attention, particularly as he is creating a canon partially intended as an educational legacy. Devastatingly, Michael de Jong faces a race by the clock to complete that that he must, his life's journey underlined by the struggle against the HIV virus that he now faces. "As I turn the pages / of my last days / I can't sit here and just be still / while people are hating just to hate / and killing just to kill / With this gift of words / that I give to you / can you find the courage to fight / against the shadows and the darkness / closing in on this circle of light." Listen, and learn.
CWAS #9 - Winter 2002