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Danny O'Keefe: The Road, a good song that takes you far

Updated: May 5, 2020

Neil Morton

I’ve just finished re-reading David Hepworth’s evocative 1971: Never A Dull Moment, an homage to the year classic album followed classic album in a cascade of creativity popular music had rarely if ever witnessed.

If Hepworth’s love letter had been extended to 1972, it would surely have included more than a PS to the songwriting of a man whose talents have been somewhat undervalued, Danny O’Keefe. His career, from Washington to Seattle via the coffeehouses of Minnesota, spans five decades of largely neglected masterpieces.

The American’s second album, titled simply O’Keefe, is regularly eased out of its tight fit on my vinyl shelves, the singer a Davy Crockett lookalike smiling on the cover against a wild frontier backdrop. The casual listener will probably know of the opening track, Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues, which is O’Keefe’s sole significant hit, having been covered by a host of major artists from Elvis Presley and Charlie Rich to Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam.

The song is indeed mentioned by Hepworth because it first appeared on O’Keefe’s fully eponymous debut album in 1971 which the author had rescued from a record shop bargain bin. It was actually written by O’Keefe in 1967 but not released until ’71. It was then re-recorded for his far more accomplished sequel the following year.

No, sorry Charlie, but the song that still grips me is The Road, a dreamscape full of sinister figures and cryptic allusions. We think we know what the lyric is about: the travails of a travelling troubadour and the elusive pursuit of fame. The gamblers in the neon are the musicians who 'forget about the losses and exaggerate the wins'. But the track is so multi-layered…

Highways and dance halls A good song takes you far Your write about the moon You dream about the stars Blues in old motel rooms Girls in daddies’ car You sing about the nights You laugh about the scars

The Road echoes the bleakness of the theme of Good Time Charlie even if the latter’s lighter feel suggests otherwise. Your feet are tapping while O’Keefe explores the human condition: ‘You know my heart keeps tellin’ me/ You’re not a kid at thirty-three/ You play around, you lose your wife/ You play too long, you lose your life.’ Charlie's desolation is laid bare.

There is no false turn in The Road. The journey is forbidding and eerie. As one reviewer suggested, the protracted atmospheric intro puts the listener in the back seat. There is a sense of the singer running away from something, and it is catching him in the rear view mirror. The refrain, with its dramatic pauses for breath, brings only resignation…

And when you stop to let ’em know You got it down… It’s just another town along the road

One can detect parallels with Jimmy Webb and Jim Croce in O’Keefe’s lived-in writing, his chronicles of corners of American life, and there is more than a nod to the jazz music he grew up loving, although his prime hero Miles Davis might appear a tenuous influence if you discount the often complicated melodic journeys from major to minor and modal.

Young Danny loved the old blues guys as well as the folk of Burl Ives, the strident 12-string blues guitar of Dave Ray and the lyrical power of Bob Dylan with whom he once wrote an environmental incantation called Well, Well, Well, covered by Maria Muldaur, Bonnie Raitt and Ben Harper with The Blind Boys Of Alabama. His favourite concerts as a wannabe musician starred Little Richard and Jeff Beck’s Yardbirds rather than The Beatles, Rolling Stones or The Beach Boys.

The great John Martyn must have been a fan of O’Keefe’s haunting delivery, a reedy yet strangely warm tenor which absorbs the genres, rendering its owner impossible to pigeonhole. The quality of that vulnerable now venerable voice, which made its mark in the Seventies, has not diminished well into its own 70s.

O'Keefe told No Depression in an interview to mark his 2015 album Light Leaves The West: ‘I think my musical aims are always the same: try to find the heart of the song and develop it into something meaningful to me and, hopefully, an audience.’ Blue Desire and More Than You Can Bear are testimony to his ability to ‘find the heart’ and paint painfully honest portraits.

O’Keefe was prolific in the 70s but there were long breaks between recording in the decades that followed, partly because of his political and environmental activism from No Nukes to his own Songbird Foundation. But, as he explained to NDR, he probably should never have left Atlantic: ‘I have made many poor career choices… I've made my own mistakes by not playing the performing circuits more. I probably could have made more commercial recordings. The songs were and are a way of understanding all the shadows and subtexts lurking under the surface. When I write a new song that moves me, it provides an enormous relief.’

Returning to the shadowy subtext of The Road: at some point, for live shows in later years, O’Keefe changed the odd word or phrase and, crucially, three lines of one verse. The original read:

Coffee in the morning Cocaine afternoons You talk about the weather And you grin about the rooms

Perhaps the repetition of ‘rooms’ from the previous verse offended the writer who amended the image for Home, his 2017 album of re-recordings, to:

Coffee in the morning Cocaine all night long On the graveyard shift Buried in a song

Jackson Browne was quick to acknowledge that the best songs are beautifully sad. He slowed down The Road slightly for his 1977 Grammy award-winning album Running On Empty and turned to David Lindley’s fiddle for added subtlety. The song slides seamlessly from a hotel room recording into a live performance; indeed Running On Empty is essentially a concept album, recorded on the road and about the road. The rumble of the tour bus on Nothing But Time is delicious and The Load-Out could be an anthem for roadies everywhere and this peripatetic life.

A folk-blues-roots trio named About Time based in the north-west of England in the 70s and early 80s, before the term Americana was born, produced a home-made version with yours truly and John Pearson (our Reggie Young) trading vocals and acoustic guitars and John’s brother George on bass. Loaded on Spotify, it is closer in tempo and spirit to the O’Keefe original. The flawed sound quality is a shame; it was copied from a deteriorating cassette after the original reel-to-reel recording was destroyed in a fire. But I still love it.

O’Keefe has never been short of admirers among his writing peers. The multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien says his rich voice and edgy guitar ‘lead you deep into the land of poetry’. Michael McDonald, who co-wrote (We’re All) Strangers Here on O’Keefe’s 2008 work In Time, regards him as ‘truly one of the greats', producing music that is ‘never completely identified with, or tied to, any one genre’.

The final two verses of The Road reinforce O’Brien’s praise of those poetic story-telling powers…

The ladies come to see you If your name still rings a bell They give you damn near nothin’ And they say they knew you well

So you tell ’em you'll remember But they know it’s just a game And along the road their faces All begin to look the same

It isn't for the money And it’s only for a while You stalk about the rooms You roll away the miles

Gamblers in the neon

Clinging to guitars You're right about the moon You're wrong about the stars

Breezy Stories, O’Keefe’s 1973 often opaque vision of the world, is another treasured possession of mine. It includes the flighty Angel Spread Your Wings, the disturbing She Said Drive On, Driver and the gorgeous Magdalena (‘Your love is like a razor/ My heart is just a scar’). The latter was covered too playfully by the album’s keyboard player, a certain Donny Hathaway, and by Leo Sayer who sang the chorus too rigidly. The other outstanding O’Keefe song of that decade was Quits from his So Long Harry Truman album, which survived renditions by crooners Gary Stewart and Andy Williams. Like Dylan, O’Keefe has a way of phrasing his own words which makes emulation difficult.

Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues is the classic that is mentioned most and O’Keefe is no doubt grateful for the royalty cheques. But The Road is still his most perceptive, compelling creation. As he says himself, a good song takes you far. It should have taken him further.


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