P.W. Long spent five years trying to keep the songs from coming. Which may seem odd to fans of the songwriter and former Detroiter responsible for the potent punk-country-blues-rawk of past projects like the late, lamented Mule.
And it was certainly out of left field after the prolific 1-2 punch of his 1997 and ’98 solo albums, We Didn’t See You On Sunday and Push Me Again, that further refined Mule’s wallop of postindustrial blues.
He wouldn’t return — musically speaking — to the public eye until a few months ago, when his latest, Remembered, hit town. Remembered is, as they say, a grower, not a show-er, 10 songs of heartache, redemption and resignation told in Long’s trademark throaty growl and grounded in old-school country and Delta blues (and understand that Long is not a tourist in the house of blues like many dubious blues-rockers signifying the Delta today).
For all intents and purposes, Long just disappeared over the horizon for the last half-decade. But he was far from idle.
“I was trying really hard not to write songs!” he half-chuckles over the line from his current home in Fort Worth, Texas. “A couple creeped in against my will. But I was trying to do other stuff.”
Other stuff includes writing for newspapers. In fact, he once wrote a column for a biweekly called The Buffalo Beast in which he assumed the persona of a female bisexual factory worker. And he continues to write, of all things, a column on the NBA for the New York Sports Express. Then there was the directing. As a budding Sam Peckinpah, Long even directed a 1999 music video for outlaw-country progeny Hank Williams III (with whom he shares a manager) for the song “You’re The Reason.”
“[The video] required writing a treatment and pitching it to a label and blah, blah, blah,” sighs Long. “And when it came to film it I had to go on the set and pretend like I’d been on a film set before when I hadn’t.”
Though the video found decent rotation on CMT (Country Music Television), Long doesn’t seem to put much credence in his filmography and he certainly learned he wasn’t cut from the same cloth as the slick music industry pros that oversaw the filming.
“[The airplay] was an easy mark because his name is Hank frickin’ Williams,” says Long. “They’d run a video of him playing an arcade game or trying to pick out a decent package of sour cream! But pretty soon you realize you can’t run with these people. These people could take the fun out of a fuckin’ orgy.”
Back in the day
Still, there were those few songs that kept creeping in, songs that would eventually grow in number and comprise Remembered, which was recorded in Texas with pals such as former Reverend Horton Heat skinsman Tax Bentley and 22-year-old drummer wunderkind Taylor Young, plus a gang of Denton, Texas, studio vets and circuit players. Long is the guy at the bar who starts telling stories and doesn’t let up until after closing, and, well, the old lady will just have to understand when you come rolling in round sunrise. And so Remembered is barstool blues of the highest order — a culmination of Long’s well-traveled exploration of American roots music and a rambling, DIY punk-rock ethos that took flight in the early ’90s with Mule.
The early ’90s in Detroit were, as you may have guessed, very different than the ’60s and ’70s rock-worshiping frat party the national media adores so much these days. But in a weird way Mule was driven by the same musical forces that fueled the White Stripes’ ballyhooed tank — namely Delta blues and classic country. And Long and company were contemporaries of such Motor City iconoclasts as Blanche frontman Dan Miller (at the time known as “Goober”) and Detroit Cobras co-founder and current Fondas R&B-o-phile Steve Shaw.
“What [Mule bassist] Kevin [Munro] and I wanted to do from the jump was something with country,” recalls Long. “We wanted to play old-timey hillbilly music, but hard. Only, I happened to end up with the rhythm section of the [Laughing] Hyenas and they were the greatest thing ever, but really punk. And because we ended up on Touch & Go, it kind of came off as a punk band trying to do blues.”
Which, of course, is what it was (and in many ways, still is).
Long says it was Mississippi Fred McDowell that first got under his skin.
“Fuck, you could name any hundred Delta blues dudes, but McDowell was the guy I
couldn’t get over. When I was living on Seward, I couldn’t get to sleep for listening to that motherfucker.
“Of course, I didn’t have the skill level that he did and I was white so I was hampered with those things. So we just tried to deliver that feeling however we could,” he continues.
You get the feeling talking to Long and listening to his music that he’s spent inordinate amounts of time both listening to other folks’ hard-luck tales and living his own. Even when it comes to a topic like Ypsilanti, his conversation is peppered with minute details that make his music such good company.
“I was born in Ypsi,” says Long. “I’m sort of the progeny of the Ypsitucky phenomenon, Appalachian folks, all the people that came up here to work in the factories.”
So does Long ever miss the Motor City after having left in 1994?
“Fuck, yeah, how could you not? It’s one of the two or three greatest places on Earth,” he enthuses. “I don’t wanna live there anymore, but I think about it often.”
Long didn’t elaborate on the specifics behind his decision to leave Detroit. He said it was “more of a personal situation. More of a pain that I feel there … I never really thought ‘I have to leave Detroit,’ I just kinda did, limping outta there. And nothing happened to get me back.”
Remembered, particularly songs like the personal jailhouse lament “Court House,” the opener “She’s Gone” (Some see the glass half-empty/Others half-full/I just raise it to my lips/And take another pull), and the rollicking roadworthy “Diamondbacks” pick up that hard-luck-but-still-breathing-damn-it thread and suggests the songwriter has found a direct connection to the mountain and backwoods storytelling of turn of the (20th) century folk musicians — the original punk rock, if you’ll excuse the hackneyed stretch.
For Long, Remembered is hard-won. “This new record is probably the longest period of time from which I drew songs. I hadn’t done a record in five years, so some of ’em are six or seven years old.”
Long says “motherfucker” a lot. He doesn’t say it to sound hard. Doesn’t need to. “Motherfucker” rolls off the tongue as easily as the drink pours over it. You can hear the ice cubes clinking in the glass on the other end of the line as the storyteller gives his take on the Lone Star state of mind and how it’s made his latest collection of songs, Remembered, his best yet.
After leaving Detroit, Long spent time in Buffalo. So how’d he end up in Texas?
“I was looking for a place to record a record,” he says. “I was living in Buffalo and I didn’t really know anybody. I had some friends here. It was either here or London — and London was cost-prohibitive. So I came down here and ended up staying. You know how that is. You get somewhere, have a couple beers and you’re like, ‘this is cool.’
“If you move from Detroit to Cleveland, say, you’re not gonna meet anybody different,” he continues. “But if you move to New Orleans or Texas …”
That sort of off-the-cuff, playing-because-it’s-what-you-do atmosphere is something the writerly Long has immersed himself in despite himself. The culture dynamic of living in various places is part of the reason he’s had his mail sent to so many different addresses.
“If you keep running into the same dudes that are listening to the same records, going to the same stores, hanging around the same places, your shit will just die or you’ll start repeating yourself. Down here, it’s a totally different approach than in the Midwest.
“The South is just — dudes can play. When you’re down here, they say when you graduate from junior high you get your pick of a Tele or Strat and four years later you either give it back or have a record deal.
“But that’s Texas. You can’t swing a fuckin’ cat without hitting a guitar player that can blow Eddie Van Halen or whoever out of the water. It’s an embarrassment of riches. I’d run into guys that said, ‘We went on tour last year. We went to Houston and Austin!’” laughs Long. “There are dudes and bands that make their living playing music, but never leave the state lines!”
So where does that leave a dude born and bred in the hard cities of the northern Midwest, then? In Long’s case, it leaves you at the head of the band.
“Once you tell ’em how to play a song, they know how to lay out and dive in. But they can’t write a song. I can write a song, so I don’t give a fuck that I can’t play a lick compared to these guys.”