If you want to download any of these songs - and I think you should download Charles' tunes, because they're frankly amazing - in lieu of paying for them (I claim no rights), please give extra money to a street musician next time you see one you like. Or just give money or food, shelter or kindness to someone who needs it. Thanks.
FIELD NOTES AND ANALYSIS:
Saturday, 7/13/2013, 1:42pm
Charles has been out on his bench since noon. I passed him a few times on my walks around the the park, singing and sitting and occasionally yelling at women. When I come up and sit next to him, he is fixing another broken string - he strums hard - while intermittently yelling "kings pants" at girls going by. Hey recognizes me immediately. He may be a bit off, but he is sharp.
(me) Hey Charles
How you doin handsome?
(me) You break another string?
(me) You play too hard.
I play real hard
(me) Good week?
Yep. Thank god.
(me) What do you do during the week?
I'm a kindergarten teacher
He tunes his guitar and plays the opening riff Creedence Clearwater Revival’s "Down On The Corner." He asks me if I play music and I tell him that, yes, I do. He hands me the guitar and tells me to play something for him. I play my original song “Lusitania,” a doowop style song I first performed in Washington Square Park two springs before. He was completely focused on every word I sang. Rapt attention.
After the first chorus, he asks, half to himself, half to me, “That’s not Dylan is it?”
(me) I wrote this one. - I said as I kept strumming the guitar.
No. (with breathy disbelief) You wrote that?
I finish the tune and Charles, with his arms folded across his chest, looks over the thick black frames of his glasses settled half way down his nose, and nods at me. He appears tremendously impressed. For a moment, I earn not only his respect, but his reverence. He won’t open up to me fully, but I sense he deeply appreciates the art of the song and is humbled when he comes across (in his judgement) a great piece of music. He easily connects to a spiritual power that many people find in songs, but are not so open to embracing.
“You’re a great songwriter,” he says, “a great songwriter.” He leans in, “I’ll tell you what you should do. You know those 60’s guys over there? You should go over and play that song. They won’t know what to do! They’re so bad! You play that song to them and they’ll just quit playing music!”
Charles really disdained the group of park regulars who got together and played radio hits from the 60s and 70s. They were often times guilty of playing cheesy Dad rock, but it is a very communal, inclusive gathering and I had enjoyed their music on several occasions. Charles hated them. He delighted in some fantastical idea of me going over and blowing them away with my “great song” to the point where they would realize their inferiority, quit playing music and never come back to the park. Charles reminds me of Ignatius Reilly in this way.
I ask him to play me another one. He starts singing a song that I wish I had recorded. The verses, long and asymmetrical like his other tunes, focus on and sympathize with Sydney Carton of A Tale Of Two Cities. The song, like the others I was able to capture, blends history, popular culture and autobiography. The most interesting line in the song, which I made a note of, was:
"You have the same condition as a disappointed lawyer
The same condition as Doc Holliday"
The positioning of these two characters is fascinating. He ends the song by quoting Carton’s famous line:
“It's a far, far better thing I do now, than I have ever done before.”
And then somberly adds,
"Goodbye to Sydney Carton
Goodbye to Doc."
That is some powerful shit.
Before I leave the bench, I attempt to get a little biographical information. He says he lives in Bay Ridge and it takes 45 minutes to get to Washington Square on the weekends riding the subway. He says he’s a Kindergarten teacher, which I have a hard time buying considering his aggressive tic of berating the majority of women who walk by with shouts of “King pants, King shorts, King culottes” etc. It is easier for me to believe that perhaps he may have once been employed as a Kindergarten teacher and still claims that title. But maybe he is. He is certainly knowledgable enough to have worked in education, and I wouldn’t doubt it if he had a Master’s degree. This is not all too important though. He is quick to guard his full identity and won’t tell me his last name or the name of the school he works at, only that it is Catholic and “Jesus is piped into the lobby of his school.”
I ask him what the whole “King Shorts, King Pants” deal is all about. He explains that King means big and manly, like a King, so, if a woman is wearing King pants, they are wearing big pants and thus do not have nice, feminine legs. He said he is “trying to take them down to the men’s level.” He was adamant that I should invent a machine that could be placed in front of a woman and be able to detect the last time she had sex. He reasoned that this would remove men’s apprehension about approaching women because we could see that they hadn’t been laid recently either. To Charles, men were intimidated to talk to women because they think that women “get it every night.” This speaks volumes about his own social anxieties.
I said goodbye to Charles. He warmly shook my hand and bid me farewell.
Charles’ songs are fascinating and merit analysis. The harmony is simple. All four of the songs I listened to were in the key of C major and stuck solely to chord progressions using the I, IV and V major chords (C major, F major and G major). He accompanies himself with an eighth note, staccato strumming pattern that gives a sense of musical momentum and progress, especially as he has a tendency to hang on the dominant V chord for an extended amount of bars compared with the typical pop or folk cadence and then fall back into the one chord. This meter extension is driven by the lyrics. The lyrics are the engine of his songs. His melodies are half-spoken, but not any less musical than Leonard Cohen, but he sings in tune and delivers his lines with vocal purpose. Depending on what words needs to be sung, Charles will add beats to, or shorten measures to finish particular lines. This use of odd meter scattered in to the overwhelmingly 4/4 time signature, never feels jarring or abrupt. This is because the song is so heavily focused on the lyrics and the story they convey, as well as the fact that the harmony is simple and the guitar part and vocal melody are rhythmically unornamemnted.
Of the three pieces I recorded, one was completely improvised, one was written only in the hour before I heard it, and one he had written a while back. That these songs all sound musically similar and are of the same lyrical integrity, shows us that Charles has developed a songwriting technique that is consistent in allowing his own form of lyrical ingenuity to shine through. His loose regard for meter and his simple melodies and chord progressions allow him to craft a dense thicket of lyrics that freely employ historical and pop culture allusions in a provocative and meaningful way, interjected with autobiographical passages. His verses always resolve back to the I chord and when it seems as if his lines are running away from him, he deftly uses rhyme to tie the wobbly composition back together before it teeters off a cliff (“She don’t look at eagles up trees /
All she has to do is look for the cat in the neighborhood / And she’s off like, as fast as the breeze”).
By no means do I intend to exhibit Charles as a songwriting oddity, or position him as a mad man in the park. He has some issues as is evident by his almost Tourrette-like outbursts of “king pants” at women walking by, but who knows if this is psychological or a conscious performance. He is abrasive and without sitting down and properly listening, his songs seem the same way. His behavior and alternating jittery and thoughtful disposition may place him on the margins of society, but he is, at least in my brief interactions with him and extended analysis of his work, a freak or lunatic. I want to make one thing perfectly clear: Charles is not only a fascinating songwriter, but he is also a good songwriter. His technique is unorthodox and his lyrics are unusual, but the former works for him and well, and the latter regularly offers brilliance. Lines like “a great coffee from a hard-find café” and “You’re looking up people today in history / To see who had a better life than yours,” showcase real craftsmanship. He is a highly intelligent man and his brain is so filled with pop culture and historical knowledge that he employs them with the regularity that a hip-hop freestyler pastiches together lines of sexual braggadocio and violent posturing for the purposes of his or her own art. In the song based on Tale Of Two Cities, Charles’ combination of the characters Sydney Carton and Doc Holliday is a powerful juxtaposition which works on enough levels to write an entire book on. It is, in my critical opinion, nothing less than genius.
I don’t want to oversell Charles’ abilities as a composer either. While the Carton/Holliday pairing is utterly brilliant, and his quotation of Gone With The Wind and allusion to Cornflakes being made in Battle Creek, MI are equally thought provoking, he also makes fart sounds with his mouth and obsesses a bit too much over taking women down a peg (ex. “the rub” of his song about the southern woman actually being a dog). He is not Leonard Cohen. His wonderful hodge-podge of allusions don’t allow for the development of characters or narrative in such a deep way as that writer. The lazy comparison would be to Daniel Johnston, the bipolar Texas songwriter, who is often appreciated for his oddness as much as his great songs. Charles may be as good as good a writer as Johnston, which is no small praise.
The thing to take away from my sessions with Charles is that there is no easy comparison to make. He is a pretty singular composer and he performs for free, on the same park bench in Washington Square Park every weekend. He is an example of the quality that a free performance space can cultivate. A talent being allowed to grow into its own sprawling, unrestricted shape. Grotesque, yes, but often great and captivating. Charles isn’t going to get hired by a club to sing his songs. His age and hostile, guarded personality would not suit him well in the music business. He is not looking to “make it” like many other buskers are. We can discern this by his lack of a tip jar. His performance style is too rough and he seems to delight in his own misanthropy as is evident from his discussion of the other musicians in the square and treatment of women. Charles comes to the park to play music. He may not like a lot of people, but he does want to bring his songs to the world and connect with people. He will take a tip when offered (He is awfully proud of that twenty dollar donation he got for one song). Without the Square, he would not have this performance space.
Charles is not a classic busker, but he would be prohibited from playing in permitted areas just the same, especially because of the confrontational nature of his performance. Washington Square Park offers a place of free expression, where Charles can compose and practice his songs. This is important. His unorthodox style of writing is fascinating, but it could not be showcased and perhaps wouldn’t exist without the venue of the Square. Charles is not as much a musician as he is a guy with a guitar and some songs.
Permitting is regulating the expression of people, not just musicians. Just like the invention of the record industry in the 20th century, the permitting system in Manhattan outside of the Square, discourages people to sing, dance and peform and places a barrier (mental, professional, legal) between the citizenry and the musicians. Being able to play music in such an open space allows people to sing without the fear of a stage and the audience below or the hesitation that comes in front of a microphone, plugged into a recording device, the potential posterity lingering over your performance. Most people will still not sing or dance, but Charles does and we are better for it. This endearing old grouch can come to the park and not be bound by rules of time, poetry, social norms and invent songs that are unique and brilliant. The governmental behavior takes away the potential of millions of people to contribute art to the city. I count myself fortunate to have been able to hang out with Charles and listen to him in a place where a person can be obnoxious, untrained and perform great songs. In the Square.
Track Name: Charles - Southern Woman (About A Dog)
“Untitled #1 (Southern Woman, Really About A Dog)”
That looks like king skirts
No, that looks like king pants
No, that looks like king leotards
No, king culottes
You pick the style of wear
I don’t care
(to me, almost whispering) See the whole trick is, I sing this song about a Tennessee woman, but it’s not about a woman. It’s about a dog. I just wrote it today, while you were standing there, two minutes ago.
She’s from Tennessee
And it’s easy to see
(makes a fart sound with tongue and lips)
She’s got style and grace
(to a woman walking by) Show king shoes
She’s a queen
She’s a southern belle
From the old south
With style to share
Pardon me sir, would you give that woman your chair
(to me) Then it goes like this
She weighs 170 lbs
But she’s poetry when she saunters about
And here’s the catch
As Shakespeare would say, “There lie the rub.”
I’m talking about a dog you jerk!
That’s why she don’t have square pants like your-
I mean, uh, king shorts
Or king culottes
Or king skirt
Or king pants
Or king feet shoes and a square pair o’ pants
She’s from Gone With The Wind
A regular Scarlet O’Hara
And her Tara
IS HER DOGHOUSE!
She don’t have to say, “Oh, Tomorrow’s a better day.”1
She don’t look at eagles up trees
All she has to do is look for the cat in the neighborhood
And she’s off like, as fast as the breeze
Cause I jog from the Verrazano bridge
In an ice storm
We had five months ago
From the Verrazano bridge to Garrison beach
With no gloves, no hat, no scarf
Three backpacks on my back
Shorts and a ripped up short sleeve
Jesus helps 100%
(to me) That’s it.
Track Name: Charles - That Desk You Never Got or Battle Creek, MI
“Untitled #2 (That Desk You Never Got or Battle Creek, MI)
Sooner or later, you realize nothin’ hits the spot
(to a girl walking by) King skirt
Take your love life for instance
(to another girl walking by) King square pants
Are you batting red hot?
Enjoy the little things in life...
(to himself, finding the right melody) Your choice
Enjoy the little things in life
Like a lemonade on a hot day
A friend’s friendly smile
Or a great coffee from a hard-find café
Or Vinegar Ben Mizell
Winning one for the Mets in 1964
Just one ballgame
Now, you’re looking up people today in history
See who had a better life than yours
Even though they been dead for hundreds of years
Compared to the sound notes you’re hittin
They went over wrong
Even the one
What’s her name?
The eleven-year-old Bidell in the 1860s
Who told Lincoln to grow a beard
Or Charles W. Howard
With the first Santa Claus School
In Albion, New York
Now, you’re back in your kitchen
Sittin at that kitchen table
Looking at the Corn Flakes Box
Saying, “Battle Creek, Michigan
Sounds like a nice place to live.
Better than 8019 17th Ave.
Around the corner from Joe Columbo’s club
MAFIA, YOU JERK!
I guess the missing part of the puzzle
Is the desk ya never got
You want that desk so badly
You would be happy with somebody
Hitting you over the head with one!
Green lamp and all.
Track Name: Charles - Julian From Laramie
(to me) I’m gonna write a song about you. I’m gonna make it up on the spot.
How do you call your regular name?
He’s from Wyoming
I don’t know if he’s from a famous town
He’ll tell me right now...
(to me) Where ya from?
Laramie! That’s cowboy country!
Can I chew some tobacco
And spit it in somebody’s face?
Can I have a sundown duel
Like High Noon?
Like Gary Cooper?
(Gary Cooper impression) “Let’s head ‘em off at the pass”
Too bad when I write my songs
I get twenty dollars from one guy you bum.
We changed the name again
Like he’s one of The Beatles
And he has a famous other name
Well, if it worked for Lennon
It could work for him2
“Give up your guns men.”
I just did Artemis Gordon
From Wild, Wild West
He could imitate anybody
Or Sammy Davis Jr.
He did it too
“Give up your guns men. It’s all over.”
Hey stupid, I wish I could write lyrics like...
Hey stupid, I wish I could write lyrics like Shakespeare
And T. S. Eliot
Oh, wait a minute
I was told to write lyrics like Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot