I’d seen him despondent a few times as of late. Sometimes the answer that loves gives is the hardest one to take.
Thus begins the Bill Mallonee (Vigilantes of Love) song, “Skin“, about artist Vincent Van Gogh’s self-inflicted removal of a portion of his left ear, and eventually what the artist removed from the earth — himself.
Last fall, I played a show at a tiny downtown venue in Birmingham, AL with songwriter Bill Mallonee, one of my earliest folk-rock heroes. The venue, complete with a pair of worn-out couches, an upstairs used-bookstore, delicatessen-style tile flooring, and overhead fluorescent lighting – hardly a rockstar arena – was that of my dreadlocked friend, Beau, whom I’ve known for nearly a decade, back when I called Birmingham home. Beau recently began hosting occasional concerts and, knowing I was a fan, asked if I’d want to open for Bill. My wife said I’d be dumb not to do it, even though my temp job required a late-night drive home afterwards. Bummer, since I was hoping to grab some Surin West Pad Thai while in town.
First, a little bit of history. I started playing guitar in college around 1991/92, and wrote my first song in 1993 (A stick of gum to the person who can name the title of that one). I, an inexperienced and impressionable neo-Christian, was a fan of radio-friendly mainstream Christian acts (*Little known fact: I once came *this close* to auditioning for the rap part in a Steven Curtis Chapman song when he visited my hometown during The Great Adventure tour. Will you mock this?) I had little to no experience with introspective, heart-on-the-sleeve music, so when a college friend made me a mix tape of a variety of under the radar artists (Vigilantes of Love, The Choir, Lucinda Williams, et al.) I found myself awed by the new world opened unto me with its gut instincts, lyrical poetry and spiritual honesty. For the first time, I related not because I was spoon-fed a message, nor because I was admonished to aspire to unattainable perfection or to someone else’s sense of right and wrong, but because of the artists’ willingness to speak of their own brokenness, their own dreams, their own failures and successes, their own altars to hope. This non-mainstream art was like discovering an entirely new solar system, a parallel world to that which I’d known. It was fresh with breath and breadth, and I, at the time, could not get enough of it. From my previously well-worn seat, I suited up, opened the hatch, and dove into that cosmos.
When the opportunity arose to hear Bill again, much less open for him, I was all too eager. I played my six or so songs, took a seat on the tile floor beneath the scalding hot coffee tap, and listened as Bill and wife, Muriah, played old and mostly new material for an hour or so. I watched as he animatedly pointed a finger at his skull or heart, or waved with his pick hand at the invisible air, visually portraying a lyric. This, I have always loved about his shows, especially in those early Vigilantes of Love days when his seismic band awed audiences, and Bill cascaded, guitar in hand, from standing to a kneeling position in one swift, free-fall motion. Aside from the hooks, watching his shows was half the fun.
I’ve had the opportunity to share a few email, phone and face-to-face conversations with Bill over the years, our last one circa 2003 when Miracle of Forgetting had just come out, and he had some nice things to say, not just about my music, but to me personally in offering counsel and insight in the form of his many grueling years of experience as a touring, album-making, songwriting artist whom nobody ever really “got.” We talked about commercial success, commercial failure, perseverance, and carpal tunnel syndrome. To this day, I am grateful to him for those veritable shots in the arm. Years later, at this tiny downtown venue in Birmingham, AL, while we each set up our respective gear and merchandise, I noticed that, while we chatted and compared notes on the year 2009, I felt comfortable in my own skin, and though I was most definitely a fan of his, I felt more a peer than a college-aged scrub. Years and miles, I suppose, have a way of changing you, of placing true reality on the horizon.
You know you come with empty hands, or you don’t come at all. You deal your best hand out in the marketplace, and then wait for the axe to fall.
At the end of the day, when you “come with empty hands” – when your soul is on display for all to glare at, to laud, to criticize, to slice open – the unflenching hope of any artistic vocation is that these doings are less an act of squalid entertainment, but an act of obedience by the lifelong act of decreasing oneself. The sadness of Vincent Van Gogh is that, long after any ego trip he might have had was over, long after he stopped believing himself a decent painter, Van Gogh decided that his own life – and earlobe – were inconsequential, and he eventually removed them both. There isn’t a single soul on earth who isn’t better for having experienced the art of Van Gogh. And that is the way I feel about Bill Mallonee and his lifelong work, a solar system that I’ve had the privilege of glimpsing through hazel eyes for the better part of the last twenty years.
Be sure and check out and support Bill and his music here.https://rabbitroom.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Skin.mp3
now i’d seen him despondent a few times as of late sometimes the answer that love gives is the hardest one to take i know he was prone to paint the voice of his own fear so vincent he picked up the blade and he put it to his ear
look at yourself in the mirror you’re all rumpled red stubbled and gaunt you walk a dead end path in a dry corn field and now this morose response your princess she don’t wanna see you no your princess she don’t wanna hear so vincent he picked up the blade and he put it to his ear
now look if you’re gonna come around here and say those sort of things you gotta take a few on the chin you talking about love and all that stuff you better bring your thickest skin sometimes you can’t please everyone sometimes you can’t please anyone at all you sew your heart onto your sleeve and wait for the ax to fall
you there with the paint box you there with paper and pen me i got this blunt instrument i’m gonna play on ’til the end and you know you come with empty hands or you don’t come at all you deal your best hand out in the marketplace and let the chips fall
the package it comes wrapped up there is a lesson here vincent he picked up the blade and he put it to his ear
now look if you’re gonna come around here and say those sort of things you gotta take a few on the chin yeah you’re talking about sin and redemption well you better wear your thickest skin sometimes you can’t please everyone sometimes you can’t please anyone at all sew your heart onto your sleeve and wait for the ax to fall
Written by Bill Mallonee for Irving Music, Inc., Allegiance Music, Russachugama Music and CyBrenJoJosh (BMI) ©1995