Review: ‘Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs’ by Jay Farrar

Categories: Chicago Tribune

Jay Farrar reveals too little in frustrating memoir

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Tribune

April 21, 2013

When it comes to memoirs written by musicians, the divide between the stage and page can be quite stark. Some of the best — Keith Richards' "Life" or Bob Dylan's "Chronicles: Volume One" — place the reader square center in the backstage action, while others — Pete Townshend's recent "Who I Am" — smooth out all the rough edges in a determined effort to groom the legacy.

Then there's the reserved vignettes of "Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs," the debut memoir by Jay Farrar, the Midwest rock auteur behind Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo, two bands that established, and then shaped, the alt-country resurgence over the past two decades. Farrar's mournful baritone, the abstract imagery in his lyrics, his brutal guitar manipulations and the steely country-rock backbone of his music combine to create a kind of rural psychedelia, capturing both the ache and stoic pride witnessed though long stretches of driving the blue highways of small Midwest towns. His music has continually swung between traditional country and rock distortion, but its constant is lyrical imagery rooted in marginalized America, filtered through a lens to blur it so it feels out of no particular time.

In the terms of fine art masters, if John Mellencamp is the Heartland's Grant Wood, then Farrar is most likely its Monet.

So it's not much of a surprise that this slim book swerves far from the traditional memoir form. Instead, here is a collection of vignettes involving his family, road stories, brief interactions with influential musical mentors and thoughts on topics as random as hermit crabs and Buddy Rich. Written in a frank but haphazard style, the short-shorts read as if they're ripped from the road, written on the back of a set list in the idle hours before showtime.

Farrar devotes a portion of the book to many of his brushes with the canonized, including Keith Richards (who comforts Farrar's crying daughter), June Carter Cash (who invites Uncle Tupelo to Johnny's 61st birthday party), Doug Sahm (a fan of Son Volt) and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds (who advises Farrar against his interest in "the country stuff"). Most potent here is Farrar's recollection of the late Texas songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt, a legendary alcoholic who pulled Farrar aside after a show to ask, "Are you taking care of yourself?"

"I didn't respond with what I was thinking which was, 'are you taking care of yourself?'" he writes. "The irony and impact of his question has never left me. Part of me wanted to stay and soak up the paradoxical magic of Townes, but the part of me that wanted to keep the image of the master songwriter of the heart intact (the way he is on recordings) won out."

The central figure here is his father, Jim "Pops" Farrar, a former merchant mariner who grew up in the Depression-era Ozarks in Arkansas and whose eccentricities — sucking on marijuana cigarettes to school his sons on their dangers, collecting beater cars, playing "Taps" whenever a family pet died and whacking moles in the backyard with a U.S. Calvary sword from the Spanish-American War — provide many of this book's best anecdotes.

But none of them sink in as does the way Farrar describes his father's transformation following a terminal cancer diagnosis at age 70. "With this news, my father awoke from his fifteen-year retirement trance and began to fraternize with writers, artists, and musicians," Farrar writes. The father also started recording music — a revelation to all around him. His death, by seizure, burned an indelible image into the son's memory: Paramedics hoisting his father's body up by his belt buckle.

"He went out the same way he came in — finding inspiration and solace in music and seeking camaraderie in others whose ethos echoed his own," he writes.

Whether he meant it or not, those lines reflect Farrar's own musical journey, which has remained committed to his traditionalist roots. Obsessives of Uncle Tupelo, a band more famous now than during its active years, will likely seek out this book for crumbs explaining Farrar's split with co-founder Jeff Tweedy, who went on to front Wilco.

For them, Farrar gives a single peek: his side of why the band broke up (Tweedy's profession of love to Farrar's girlfriend, and disagreements on the band's direction) and a description of an uncomfortable last meeting in their manager's office in which Tweedy (referred to as "the bass player") refuses to shake his hand.

The hesitation to reveal too much, or choosing to avoid a linear telling of his life — of which there must be much more than this — is not a surprise coming from a songwriter known for his uncomfortable stage presence, and who has aligned himself less with contemporaries and more with anachronistic figures such as Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac, around whose writings Farrar has fashioned albums.

But that doesn't negate that this is an odd memoir, weighed with mystery, fragmented memories, but often delivering the unexpected: humor. Perhaps as a way of explanation, Farrar writes, "Being an observer seems paramount to me and anonymity is priceless."

In these pages, he risks vanishing behind his very words.

Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs

By Jay Farrar, Soft Skull Press, 147 pages, $15.95

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