Dan Stuart bounced back into view two years ago with his excellent recording, The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings. Long missing from action (apart from some sorties with revived Green On Red and Danny and Dusty line ups) he resurfaced in Oaxaca, Mexico with a tale to tell of suicidal leanings and incarceration in a mental hospital. Since then he’s issued forth from his Mexican bolthole on a few occasions (appearing with Robyn Hitchcock in Norway for example) but otherwise he seems to be living a Lowry like existence down Mexico way.
While the world (or a few of us at least) wait patiently for further musings from Mr. Billings (and Dan promises a “false” memoir in book form sometime soon) Cadiz Records have done us the grand favour of unearthing the two albums Stuart made in his wilderness years following the implosion of Green On Red and compiling them (along with three unreleased songs) into a handsome double pack with liner notes from Stuart and his compadre Al Perry.
Perry co wrote the songs and got equal billing on the first of these albums, Retronuevo, released in 1993. A Tucson musicians’ musician Perry seems to have been landlocked in what Wikipedia insists is “The Old Pueblo” although he’s recorded with scores of Arizona musicians including Rich Hopkins, Giant Sand and the legendary Fish Karma. On Retronuevo he picks up where Chuck Prophet left off as he and Stuart deliver an album that is not a million miles removed from the last couple of GoR albums, Scapegoats and Too Much Fun. Stuart, released from the confines and expectations of Green On Red ( “I was the guy paid to throw up in his shoes” he notes) appears to relax and engage in what he calls the “Tucson tempo, ” as they wallow in a very fine set of songs that are based in the blues and country sounds that permeate the south west. There’s a loose and lazy groove running throughout whether they’re mainlining some grungy blues notes on Daddy’s Girl or Mamacita or sweeping skywards on the sweet pedal steel of Neil Harry on Better Than I Did while Eyes Of A Fool is a brisk return to the early Green on Red garage sound and Little Slant Six is early Beach Boys in the desert instead of on a beach. Stuart and Perry reminisce on the making of the album in the new liner notes recalling that they were both in the throes of trying to save their respective marriages and that drugs were still an item. Despite this the pair managed to record an album that Perry refers to as “not a masterpiece or anything but it’s a lovely snapshot of that time period..in a sense it’s a perfect album because we expressed exactly what was going on in our lives at the time.” Well put and it says it better than anything we could come up with.
Can O’ Worms followed in 1995 and was Stuart’s first solo album although there is a great deal of collaboration with JD Foster who co wrote several songs and plays guitar. Can O’ Worms is a darker affair than Retronuevo with Stuart writing some pretty naked sleeve notes relating to his marital troubles at the time, troubles that seem to have been subsequently resolved but which reappeared and eventually rent his relationship asunder 15 years later leading to his breakdown and eventual emergence as Billings. Indeed he claims that Can O’ Worms and The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings are essentially the same album with the same woman driving him to a dark space which he can only express in his music. Here the template remains the latter Green On Red albums but there’s a bite and bitterness that was lacking in their twilight years along with a decidedly Spanish flavour to several of the pieces. Foster and fellow guitar player John Dee Graham excel throughout and the production by Foster is superb with What A Day in particular standing out as a wearied vocal from Stuart is buttressed by some tender guitar and very fine percussion by Daren Hess. This is a song you can wallow in for a long time and never feel sated, it has a Lou Reed feel to it but with a clear desert air, not the grime of New York. As Stuart says, this is a break up album and we all know that makes for great art (Blood On The Tracks, exhibit one) or so they say. “I was living in Arizona after a very bad time in Madrid, we had been married five years when she ran off with a carpet salesman from Santa Barbera.” This bathetic description of Stuart’s situation at the time drives the album. There are recollections of Spain on La Pasionaria, a deceptively attractive cancion that relates a drug deal carried out in muggling heat while In Madrid appears to be a requiem for the fallen of the Spanish Civil War. Stuart bemoans his lost love on a brace of songs that form the heart of the album. Home After Dark shimmers like a heat haze as he sings “You can call me a liar, go ahead say it to my face. You can set my soul on fire, feel free, put me in my place. Twist the knife in a little deeper, I’m only flesh and bone.” It’s always been an outstanding song but Stuart’s revelations add an insight to the hurt he was feeling at the time adding to the song’s intensity. Who Needs More is surprisingly enough a celebration of love given a fine loose limbed bluesy feel but What A Day returns to the confessional with Stuart sounding weary and broken proclaiming “If I’d known what today would bring, what would I change?…only everything.” He’s pleading here for a return to the happy go lucky feel of Who Needs More but instead he tumbles into the nightmare neon flashing twilight world of Expat Blues with gutbucket guitar and leery saxophone. Filipina Stripper is another trip into the underbelly with Stuart finding succour and danger in New Orleans as the band flail around in Tom Waits style. Going back to the liner notes Stuart describes his ex wife as leaving a lot to be desired but he celebrates her as a muse and her inspiration certainly fills two of the best songs here. Waterfall returns to the chugging majesty of Green On Red at their best while Can’t Get Through is a dreamlike wisp of a song with sweet lap steel and harmonica as Stuart sings in his tenderest voice as he tries to communicate with his lost love. At the end, despite his stories of desperation and despair, Stuart rallies himself on The Greatest where he cites Mohammed Ali and his comebacks as inspiration for his own comeback.
Dust settled, we know now that Stuart and his muse made up and he disappeared from view for a decade and a half until a final separation lead to Marlowe Billings. However, tucked at the end of the Can O’ Worms disc are three songs, previously unreleased, recorded in 1995. With JD Foster back in the producers chair and on guitar along with Daren Hess again on drums these sessions included Joey Burns, Nick Luca, Craig Shumacher and Jud Newcombe. Loosely produced, these songs tumble out rubbing their eyes in the daylight but all three are excellent and for firm fans well worth the price of admission here. South of The Pyrenees recounts again Stuart’s time in Spain and his meeting with his wife while the band hit a loose groove around his vocals. What’s The Use? is as fine a song as Stuart has ever delivered as he ponders on his relationship with his vocals again recalling Lou Reed. The jewel here is the backing with the band coming across like the Rolling Stones in their Fool To Cry period, the Wurlitzer and coiled guitars funky as hell as they slink around Stuart’s extended rap like a New York Van Morrison. Your Arab Friend is a pointed barb at that “carpet salesman” and Stuarts adopts his vintage sneer for a fine put down song while massed guitars ripple behind him and then improvise like a boozy countrified Grateful Dead.
While Can O’ Worms and Retronuevo are not exactly “lost” albums it’s a fair bet that they slipped under the radar of most folk. This package is an excellent opportunity to grab these documents of Dan Stuart’s first curtain call while we wait for his next missive.