Solar System: Bill Mallonee in Concert

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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.

Skin

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

Eric Peters, affectionately called “Pappy” by those who love him, is the grand old curmudgeon of the Rabbit Room. But his small stature and often quiet presence belie a giant talent. He’s a songwriter of the first order, and a catalogue of great records bears witness to it. His last album, Birds of Relocation, blew minds and found its way onto “year’s best” lists all over the country. When he’s not painting, trolling bookstores, or dabbling in photography, he’s touring the country in support of his latest record, Far Side of the Sea.


6 Comments

  1. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Bill and crew were a lifeline for me in the 90’s and a soundtrack to the burgeoning new face of my Christianity – my journey of musical and spiritual discovery is much like yours. Buechner, Mark Heard, and Bill Mallonee were voices that God spoke to me through when I realized that the emperor wasn’t really wearing any clothes and I needed some truth telling, and a faith that was more a wound than it was a bandage.

    Thanks for sharing Bill with us again. This was always one of my favorite songs.

  2. Barry

    The family and I pulled out VOL’s Fade to Black dvd Friday night and were once again captivated by the energy and lyrics. The dvd captures one sweaty night in an English club with Bill, Kenny, Kevin and Jake giving it all their heart (right before or after Audible Sigh was released). If you never had a chance to see the Vigilantes of Love, search for the dvd!

  3. Mark Cook

    I heard Bill play a house-show a few years back while i was in school and remember just enjoying the heck out of his music. he’s easy to listen to, but when you start thinking about the lyrics they really start to get at you. a deadly mix. one of my favorites he played that night was this song.

  4. Alan

    First of all, Birmingham is an awesome city, and hearing you talk about Surin makes me miss home. Also, War Eagle.
    Secondly, if you remember, what all was on that mix tape? I’d love to check out the artists that inspired the artists that helped me along on my own “neo-Christian” journey.

  5. Chad Ethridge

    I remember first hearing this song on “the other” college radio station. You see, I attended school in Ruston, Louisiana, but the Monroe school, located a little further down the street, had its finer moments in college radio. They also had a better antenna and larger budget for programs such as The World Cafe with David Dye. Anyway, upon hearing this song, I took note of the band and the next purchase I made from the CD store was the VOL Greatest Hits. Needless to say it was pure musical/lyrical bliss. A few years later a friend asked me to help him with a weekly show on the Louisiana Tech radio station and after accepting the job; I would always make sure to play a few VOL tracks whenever possible. This was, in my opinion, an attempt to level the competition with that other school down the street.

  6. John Barber

    I had a similar “mixtape” experience. Of course, it was the fact that I was a VOL fan that go me there in the first place. I was digging through the stacks at Long’s Christian Music store in Orlando 10 or 12 years ago and I was shocked to see that VOL had a track on a tribute album for a guy I’d never heard of – Mark Heard. I bought it (of course) and my musical horizons exploded. I fell in love with Mark Heard immediately. But beyond that, I discovered Buddy and Julie Miller, Pierce Pettis, Bruce Cockburn, Victoria Williams, Tonio K, and a bunch of others. From there, it wasn’t a far leap to get to Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, Steve Earle, and a ton of others. That was a life-changing record for me. It’s called Strong Hand of Love, and it’s a must have.

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