Friday, March 6, 2009

"Kill Switch"

T-Bone Burnett--"Kill Switch" (mp3)

I have written previously about songs that mean more to me than perhaps they should, songs that are more than the sum of their parts. Here is another one:

"Kill Switch" comes off of T-Bone Burnett's Cd from 17 years ago, The Criminal Under My Own Hat.

I last touched base with T-Bone during the Robert Plant and Allison Kraus tour last year. Not only did T-Bone produce the Cd, but he also seemed to be the band director, or at least a player in the band, for the tour. He even played one of his own songs during the tour, but I can't remember what it was. I recognized it, but I don't think it's from this Cd.

T-Bone is a quirky songwriter. Some of his stuff is kind of hard to listen to. His wife is Sam Phillips. They caused something of a scandal when they hooked up while she was a Christian singer. I don't know if he turned her to the dark side of the Force or what, but I do know that he is a pretty complex songwriter.

Surprisingly, then, "Kill Switch" works because of its very simple lyrics:

We killed them at the palace, Babe
And we murdered them in Rome
We knocked them all dead, Babe
Then we brought it all back home

The big heat is coming down
Like hail from the sky
Don't look for me in the morning, Babe
Only kiss me goodbye

There are those who play for money, Babe
There are those who play for fame
There are still those who only play
For the love of the game

It also works because of a dobro signature that introduces the song and fills between verses, played by the legendary Jerry Douglas.

Now, I have a friend, a guy who is on an eternal search to find the next Stevie Ray Vaughn, who says he saw a dobro player who is better than Jerry Douglas. Jerry is considered in most circles to be the greatest dobro player in the world. When my friend says that he has heard someone better, I don't believe him.

I will concede faster, smoother, more relevant, whatever you like. But better, no way.

Here, as in other places, and often on Allison Kraus songs, Jerry's work makes the song better.

As for the lyrics, all of the lines in the first verse have double meanings, meanings that ultimately center on musical performers as the ones who "murdered them in Rome" or only play for "the love of the game." The second verse would seem to suggest a kind of "kill switch" for the human race

I don't know what the title "Kill Switch" means literally, but it also seems fitting for the last song on an album, kind of a way of shutting the whole thing down definitively, the way the song does that with its terse commentary. Its simplicity reminds me of Neil Young's "Hey, Hey, My, My" song about Johnny Rotten, Elvis, and other who either "burned out" or "faded away." "Kill Switch" reminds us that art can stand for something besides money--it can stand for a connection with audience, a joy in and of itself, or even, as Robert Frost once said, "a momentary stay against the confusion." And if the "big heat" is coming, we're going to need that musical relief.

"There are still those who only play/For the love of the game." Others have said it before T-Bone, but his voice, his melody, his music, his musicians all combine to drive the point home perhaps more poignantly.

"Kill Switch" is available at Itunes on Twenty Twenty: The Essential T-Bone Burnett. By the way, I always heard the second stanza as "The Big Heat is coming down/ Like Hell from the sky." The Internet transcriber I found does not agree with me.


HBF said...

"His wife is Sam Phillips. "

His wifw WAS Sam Phillips - they are now divorced .....

Bob said...

Oh, I didn't know that. I have some of her stuff, but the last time I saw her was in the 3rd Die Hard movie where she plays a mute terrorist companion to Jeremy Irons.