Even bastards get to lament and when they do, this song is for them.
Those of a certain age always look down on the new generations and wonder, in a pitiful way, whether they’ll get to experience music just as they did when they were younger. The answer is usually yes of course they will. But when you get to an age where any young kid in a tracksuit becomes such a threat to your own imagined safety that you effectively spend the time it takes until you get near to them, plotting your ninja-like slaughtering of them if they try anything, any small issue you can belittle them with is important.
So there is a question whether the yoof of today will ever have those moments in the bedroom when for about four minutes the world stops. Those moments where you’re busying yourself and have on the alternative music radio programme on in the background and then occasionally a new song comes on that just makes you drop everything. I remember well when Dollar Bill did that when it got its first radio airing and it wasn’t just me, there was serious talk about that one song in school the next day.
Now of course, not only would we have heard it, we’d have downloaded it and we’d be posting messages, texting friends and have it as our ring tone sung by a toddler in the space of thirty seconds and by the end of the song we’d already be sick of it. This isn’t to say that things are worse today, just that some aspects of the romance have gone: the discovery, the long wait to discuss it with fellow discoverers, the long wait for it to be released, the trip into town to purchase it, the long bus ride home reading each and every word and credit before you get to listen to it.
Why is all that important? Because at its heart Dollar Bill is one of the most romantic and fragile songs written in the last twenty years. Romance is important and not just the rose-tinted romance of discovery it’s also one of the reasons why the Screaming Trees never quite became as successful as they deserved.
At the time when Sweet Oblivion was released, the Screaming Trees had been around for a while. Sweet Oblivion came at the time of the huge interest in all things Seattle and guitar based, but they had been around in various formats since the mid eighties. The main problem is that they were possibly too good, at least Mark Lanegan was.
At a time when the kids reclaimed music, as it were, the original rock and roll and punk spirit was very much alive. By that, it meant music that you could do yourself. That you could get together with a few friends and have just enough talent amongst you to play something that was largely in tune. There was no need for serious vocals or vocal ability. There was no need for huge guitar talent, it was nice for sure, but as long as you’d mastered power chords and could tune the guitar down half an octave you were in. The widdly widdly solos of Eighties hair rock no longer applied, it could just be noise or fuzz of screech. That was where the connection was.
Place into that not only guitarists with more than enough talent to play proper chords, but also a singer with a voice that had more soul and heartbreak in it than the combined talents of most of old Motown. While impressive, there was no way your average acne-marked teenager was ever going to replicate a Screaming Trees song. Musically and lyrically, they were superb without ever sounding over produced, but that was half the problem.
The other issue was that while they could rock, as was the law at the time, Lanegan was never better than on quieter and more soulful songs. He could belt out the rock songs, but it was when the acoustic guitars came out that you really felt the full force of his vocals. It was only natural that at the end of the Trees’ lifetime Lanegan would gravitate towards a more folky, blues and country style.
The upshot is that this song was just so out of place in the time that it became an instant classic. It would never date, it wasn’t grounded in the sound of the early Nineties and had none of the that overly fuzzed production or the Albini influenced stripped down and amateur for the sake of sounding stripped down and amateur. The song was produced exactly as it should sound.
While describing it as a bastard’s lament may be a bit harsh, there’s far more introspection to it than that, it isn’t your typical “she up and left me” number. Lou Barlow was perfecting the art of producing “why don’t girls like me” material for all college boys considered themselves as “sensitive” and “thinkers” mainly because they hadn’t figured out that obsessing over Barlow’s lyrics, lack of sunlight and poor personal hygiene were probably the main reasons why they weren’t getting girlfriends. But here was Lanegan letting us know exactly why he’s left on his own, he did the damage, he knows that and he knew it while he was doing the damage, he just can’t help himself messing everything up. The aspect of a self-destructive protagonist with nobody to blame but himself just works. It works in film, it works in literature and here it works in music. We know he’s a dickhead and he deserves what he got, but we can’t help liking him and feeling sorry for him.
If you’ve never heard any Screaming Trees or Mark Lanegan, then start here. Wait for the casual, melodic two chord intro (that owes much to Lennon’s Imagine) to wash over you as Lanegan quietly hums over the intro. It’s certainly a great hook to start a song, but for Lanegan virgins, it’s what happens after twenty four seconds when this gruff, lamentful voice comes in with “Torn like and old Dollar Bill.”
Right there in that one line you have more imagery than anything anyone else was writing at the time. It typifies the sheer superiority of Americana over anything that could be produced elsewhere. “Torn like and old pound note” just wouldn’t work, “Torn like a fiver”? Like American town and place names just work in songs, you could imagine quite clearly a battered old dollar bill, ripped and torn through years of passing through hands, wallets, pockets, bags and tills. What better way to state just how much you’ve messed up?
As Lanegan goes through the list of thinks he did, but didn’t mean to, but couldn’t help himself, so the song gradually picks up and the guitars get heavier. The bass and the drums become more pronounced to the point where the break reaches the perfect rock tone for beating the wall and reaching for the whiskey as you wallow in self-pity and self-hatred. Lanegan picks up the intensity with his vocals yelling, “I don’t wanna hurt ya, that’s all I seem to do. Don’t wanna desert ya, that’s all I seem to do.” And just as the whiskey runs out, so does the self-loathing and the song brings us back down to the gentleness of the intro and Lanegan signing off with that same line “Torn like an old Dollar Bill.”
And after just over four minutes, so are you.