I Was the Big Train (2014) & Spanish for Hospital (Bonus Tracks Version) 2013
Whether or not it’s the most iconic of all Bob Hate songs, K.O.N. certainly has bonafides aplenty. It touches on all the central themes, a father who abandoned and haunted his son, a vain and foolish childhood, an escape from nowheresville, a rock star dream that dissolves, and a love affair that he himself ruins. “You couldn’t count the sins I brought to our door.” And then, “There’s a road out in that desert that has no name / you can drive it half the day and never see another face / when the sun goes down, you’re in the same goddamned place, but you’re out of fuel.” And though it’s too late, and she’s long gone, he still longs to tell Marie the truth. But the phone call, like so many others, goes unanswered. Whatever he has to say, finally, is said to himself, lost in a desertland of his own design.
Bolstered by tasteful playing from Buck Rudo and Pete Young, the music is impeccably sad. Bob’s tired voice surrenders the lyric posthoc, resigned, just telling the tale to have it done with. There is grim acceptance in the rising outro as he repeats the title, “I’m the king of nothing.”
He believes it of course, not just the singer, but the artist himself. He’s on record several times discussing the failed ambitions of a mediocre career and life, and even for those who know him to be a loving husband and friend, there is sadness that permeates his struggles, his health, and whatever survives of his moves toward happiness.
It is difficult to reflect on and reconcile all of this pain with the tremendous joy the music has brought to his small cadre of fans and pals. The king of nothing surely wouldn’t mean so much. He gave his heart to it all, even though that heart had been broken all along.
Bad in my Car (1996) & I Was the Big Train (2014)
Obviously Bob is the king of the downbeats, but even among the most iconic songs are moments of hope, like this classic tune. The last verse goes: "just keep on driving, four wheels on the asphalt
four wheels on the road, baby, four wheels on the black / we're going to take a trip all around this beautiful country / tell your friends, goodbye, baby, because we ain't ever coming back." In the ongoing tale he has chronicled over the decades, he and the girl rarely get away clean. After a swift chronicling of the disappointed dad trope, he surprises with a touch of the spiritual. When his back seat passenger, God, reveals they share a name, it's like the chains are thrown off, opening the door to their escape.
Bob has this to say about the early version of the song: "I had a key to the studio we used during the first Eddy Band album. One morning I couldn't sleep so I went in early and just messed around. There was a lovely Gibson acoustic sitting there and the song itself I had some MIDI files for. It all came together quickly. I remember hitting the record button and then ran to the booth to do the vocal in one take. Don't make a big thing of it; I'm a professional. I always felt bad the fellas missed a chance to be on it, but we played it live quite a bit in the 90s, plus everyone knows I hate to share."
The first version below includes the original piano section that is often cut. The second version comes from Bob's unplugged album. It doesn't add much, but is assured and confident in a way that lets us know the decision at the heart of the song was the right one. The last video comes from a show at Poor David's Pub in Dallas in 1996, featuring the second Eddy lineup, notably Jim Koch on steel.
LONG 1996 VERSION
LIVE 1996 VERSION
Unreleased (1991) & Something Bad Has Happened Here (2016)
The most problematic of all of these entries, Desertland goes back more than 25 years and through several iterations. Bob wrote me this:
"This song has vexed me for decades now. The earliest recorded version was from 1991, and in some ways it came closest to what I heard in my head. I recorded it with Chet and Johnny Lawamba in Dallas. We didn't have the dough to finish it well, so it's messy and incomplete, certainly too loose at times. So I revisited it time and time again, never getting it right, probably 20 versions over the years, most nobody ever heard. When I was putting together the Hate Town CD in 2016 I took a brand new stab at it, changing the key so much that it created some new melodies, especially in the verses. It's a colossal failure, I can tell you that much. I don't know much, but I know that. It's a song I never got right. It's the one that got away."
But the song itself is iconic for its imagery and progression. It certainly is one of the first songs (of many) that references a girl with auburn hair. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the catalog will instantly recognize the language and the themes. "A phone call, somewhere Nevada," starts the second verse, and it's a line that could appear in almost any of his songs. There's always a desert landscape, a phone call made or not made, an answer he's waiting for. When he sings "you never finished anything you started," it echoes across a number of other songs where the singer could have the same thing said about him.
In the 1991 version, Lawamba's drumming, especially after the buildup, pushes the song further and further. It's thrilling, and it's clearly the better version. The newer version (which I must say has been updated again via a frantic email message this week) certainly is more aching, and features some terrific acoustic work by Bob and Phil Ockelford. It might be simplest to say the early version is sung by a man still in his 20s, while the latter one comes from that same man hurtling through his 50s. But regardless of the version, these lines remain with the listener a long time after the fade out.
"I can see you with that auburn hair / you say my name like it's some other man's / I breathe in life and love and dreams and hopes all shattered / but I'm with you still honey out in the desertland."
Genie in a Bottle
In the Days Before Gluten (2013)
This is an awfully heavy list, of course, so it's nice to celebrate a portion of Bob's career that, while lighter, was still not without gravitas. His longtime work in cover bands could fill a similarly iconic list of songs (State Trooper, Tupelo Honey, Beast of Burden, etc.), but Bob always was a lover of pop, and some of his best covers were of girlpop like Katy Perry, Britney, Madonna, and this triumphant track. Bob's estate reports to me - after much hemming and hawing - that this Xtina track is his most streamed tune on Spotify. It collects spins every week from places like the UK and Sweden even 4 years after its release. It exists in 2 versions; this one is the so-called "big beat" version, although it's not necessarily much more bottom heavy than the other, which is only a bit more lyrical and gentle in its percussive underpinnings. The performance is terrific, especially the vocal, which Bob sings with the requisite yearning. What on earth he's actually thinking we'll never know, but he gives himself over to the slim lyric with real solemnity and sadness. And the guitar fills are gorgeous. Elsewhere in this list I've opined on his much underrated skills, and on this track you can hear some lovely and clever flourishes that embellish this piece so beautifully.
Bad in my Car (1996) & Bitter Solo Album (2009)
This is another song that exists in several versions. It was written in the mid 90s and recorded for the first Eddy Band album. But a decade later Bob wrote a bridge for it, and the country weeper was finally done. In 2008 Bob and the fellas recorded it in Nashville and later tracked former Sugarland bassist Annie Clements on the duet vox. It features a favorite chord progression of Bob's, that probably exists in a dozen of his most well known songs, but it has a lovely sadness that separates it from other ballads of its type. Bob sells the "I said 'I'm all used up Marie'" as if it's never been thought or uttered before, and the only real lift in the song is the bridge when Annie sings "Sometimes I wish I could go back, and tell you everything I did was wrong," to which Bob replies, "Each time I try to find it, I realize everything we had is gone." And all the while the Eddy fellas support them in the background, Dave Lemonds especially tasty with the drum part. We'll never know who wrote that "song about the moon," but one can probably guess it won't ever get sung again.
Bad in My Car (1996)
If there was a single song that defined Bob's Eddy Band during the Dallas era, it was this one. There are two well known studio recordings, the first with the band and the second 14 years later that Bob did in Albuquerque. Let me let Bob say this:
"Chet and I were always on the prowl in Dallas, wiling away hours at Pancho's Mexican Buffet, driving around, or just sitting and watching MTV. One afternoon we had occasion to go to the post office for something; I believe we were mailing a post-dated check for some parking tickets. In the post office we found an "end times" newspaper, one of those thin rags squealing about the second coming and how soon it was, and, boy, weren't we sorry we hadn't straightened up sooner. Two stories stood out. The first one was called The Big Vanish, which I almost used as a band name, and Sin Crowd. I believe I wrote it that night, and it didn't take long. Whether it will save me come reckoning, I don't know. But it really moves, even all these years later."
The original recording kicks off with the spooky steel of longtime Eddy member Jim Koch. And everyone from the band is terrific. Dave Lemonds propels it. Chet Hix is relentless. Stephen Thomas's guitar work is dirty and nasty and wonderful, and Koch's solo is sublime. People in bars always thought the song was called the "Last Temptation of Bobby Hate," and who's to say it is not a better title? It's about a man who's gone past the turn. Whatever rules society has pinned to him no longer matter. "Not me. I'm in the sin crowd." And the closing is terrific...the long pause before one last thrash through the chords and the super-freaky tape meltdown ending.
For my money the live versions surpass either of the other official versions. The clip I include below comes from a show the fellas did at Club Dada in Dallas. In it, all the guys are just superbly themselves, bringing blood to the surface of the tune and pushing Bob further than he would normally go in a studio environment. One wishes they could have all stayed together, against time and ambition and plans. Bob always needed them. As his writing and recording became more isolated from live performance, he traveled alone, and the work lost power and swing. Regardless of Bob's facility in the studio, he was always better with Eddy.
1995 LIVE VERSION
Better Man than I've Been (1998)
This tune, probably written in the mid 80s, was a staple in Bob's live performance days, and was demoed a few times along the way. Unlike many songs that exist in different versions, this one retains the original arrangement entirely. Many things stand out musically, the insistent pulsing bass line and the harmonica which appears several times, including the gorgeous buildup before the last chorus. Also includes the "how long must a good man run" bridge used in at least 2 other tunes - no telling where it belongs best. It's a tale of two lovers getting out of a "ghost town." The best thing about the place is the highway that leads out, "the concrete and the asphalt / best thing about it is the rushing of the wheels." Springsteen's influence is probably most strong on this song, and Bob has long acknowledged the debt. From hopeless to hopeful it careens, and at last the singer gets away with the girl.
LIVE 1991 VERSION
Something Bad Has Happened Here (2016)
The newest song on this list is a narrative about Big Tiny and that damn Melinda, who's been a thorn in Bob's lyrical output going all the way back to a song in her name back in the early 80s. This tautly told tale really is, as the last verse says, "a cautionary tribute to every movie of the week." What separates this song, and elevates it is that Tiny doesn't just mutely suffer his injustices as a victim. Once the truth is found out - on his birthday! - Tiny (with that unexplained one good eye), buys himself a new Telecaster and convertible, and is already on the road before Melinda gets back from whatever sordid secret is in Atlanta. There are small lyrical gems throughout; you can't beat a line like "world's most beautiful Holiday Inn." He may have given up 30 years of his life (and his band!), but the whispered "It's all right" that ends most verses sells the listener that whatever awaits 58 year old Tiny on the other end, he's going to make it. The amount of detail packed into the 4 minutes is frankly a little astonishing, a short story at least. And it must be said that the recording itself is first rate, and features some terrific guitar work from Phil Ockelford, and a steady and sometimes thrilling drum track that propels Tiny on his beautiful escape.
Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone
Gasoline Nation (2004) & Every Day’s Been Darkness (2010)
For a songwriter with an achingly deep catalog, it might seem odd that two cover tunes appear in this ten part series, but Bob’s time in bad bar bands is very instructive when it comes to reviewing his recorded history. This song, recorded at home in Texas in 1998 or so, was a staple of his live performances for years. In fact, Bob has referred to an October 1997 version of this at an outdoor venue in Fort Worth as the “highlight” of his cover band career.
“Buck and I had just recently rehearsed up 2 snotty University of North Texas jazzers to play with us, and they were young and dismissive and acted far above the job we had given them. We got to the gig, and because the club was so full, they made use of their outdoor stage for us. A cold wind swirled drink napkins, and I was coming off one of a series of bouts of bronchitis. It was going to be 4 hours in the wind and the deepening dampness. And these 2 new guys were testing my patience with clever quips like, ‘I didn’t know this song went THAT way,’ and ‘We’ll have to tell Bones and Chino back at the dorm that we played POP music.’ I was more suicidal and homicidal than normal, and that’s a pretty high bar. We’d only played this tune with these cats in rehearsal, sitting down, swirling honeyed tea and mumbling through the verses, so when Buck and I and Travis (our drummer at the time) rammed into the opening riff, it seemed to startle them. And with a full crowd in front of us, I attacked the microphone all phlegmy and magnificent and we just extended that damn thing to close to ten minutes. (When you play for 4 hours a night, long songs are a must.) I was sweating and tearing through the last verse when I finally turned to the back of the stage. The new guys had open jaws and were finally starting to understand what it meant to play for paying customers and not just their professor and other effete horn players and Django wanna-bes.”
There exists no live versions of the tune, and for folks who were there in the old days, the recorded version is a little tame but tasty. It doesn’t quite swing, but that’s never been Bob’s lane. Lyrically, of course, the tune fits in his wheelhouse, and there’s a tight urgency in the guitar work and singing on the track.
Like a King (2003)
If anyone is in love with cars, death, and a disappointed dad, it’s Bob Hate, and this song stands among the very best he’s ever recorded. There’s a sonic richness to it, starting with the electric rhythm part, which most folks would handle acoustically. The drum kit from these sessions featured a booming floor tom and is used nicely. But little magical items abound everywhere. My favorite is the harmony line over “one more last ride.” The pause before the closing solo surprises, and then Bob’s closing solo is lovely, a simple floating around the G major scale. In fact there are lovely 2 string flourishes throughout this that belie the notion that Bob was ever just a meat and potatoes player. An old bandmate once stingingly said that Bob played guitar like a real songwriter, but that’s the case, each note chosen to fit the song and not merely please the ear or the player. The “gas giant” nomenclature - co-opted for abandoned and “burned out shells of miles gone by” left alongside the road - is inspired. The lyric ends with: “Bury me in a gas giant, with my hands upon the wheel,” and it goes right to the heart of so much of Hate’s 40 year output of music. “Four wheels, two lives,” him and his dad, separated by miles but both doomed to end up stranded alongside a highway.