Malcolm Holcombe – An appalachian ghost story
I’ve never met Malcolm Holcombe, but he used to call me late at night. The phone would ring in the hours between midnight and 2 a.m., and I wouldn’t pick up. Calls at that hour normally involve romance, intrigue or tragedy. In the late 1990s, the first two possibilities weren’t possibilities. I would have needed some time to think about how to react to tragedy.
This happened several times. I had an answering service, not a machine, and I’d call to check the message.
“This is Malcolm,” he’d begin, in a voice that sounded like an Appalachian Keith Richards with strep throat. It’s the voice that could make Tom Waits feel like an innocent. “What are you doing? I’m calling to pick your brain.”
I was sleeping. And I didn’t want my brain picked. Still don’t. He never left a number. I never called back. But I knew who he was. I’d listened to him, a lot. I used to play his music — either on the stereo or, haltingly, on the guitar — for people. I suppose he had heard about that. I’d listen to that Steve Earle song about somebody or another being the last of the hard core troubadours, and then I’d listen to Malcolm Holcombe and I’d know Steve was wrong on that one. Then again, Steve Earle is awfully good and it’s tough to peg Holcombe as the last of anything. He’s not one for a line. He’s elliptical, obtuse, indistinct and vague, and yet somehow he hits the nail wherever it is that you’re supposed to hit the nail.
“Strong soap, and lots of hot water,” he’d sing/snarl, on an album that someone gave me, thinking (incorrectly) that maybe I could help. “Behind my ears, pound by pound/Before my eyes, one moment to moment/Pages rockin’, justice in a cradle.”
“When I first met Malcolm, he was in a one-room apartment off 12th Avenue in Nashville,” said Frosty Horton, a Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer who co-produced a brilliant Holcombe album that will probably never be released. “He was playing these songs, and I said, ‘Malcolm, man, what is ‘Justice In A Cradle’ about?’ He gave me that wolf-eyed look and said, ‘Frosty, what do you think?'”
I never knew what to think, so I just felt. And what I felt was that Malcolm Holcombe could jab a heart from a different angle. That didn’t mean I wanted to answer my phone at two in the morning, but it meant I wanted to listen to him when I re-woke up at eight or nine. Not that Holcombe’s music was easy over eggs. He was bracing, always. Malcolm Holcombe is lullaby-less. Somebody once told me he played brilliant songs that she didn’t want to hear.
He reinvents our language, this Holcombe fellow. Or he subverts it, at least.
“I’ve heard misfortune losses/And wasted ways before me by the costs,” is what he wrote. “Of givin’ someone time enough for spendin’/Love only borrowed.”
David Olney, another brilliant enigma, drove him to the 12 Oaks Motel one time in Nashville.
“That’s kind of a last stop, or at least it looked like that to me,” Olney said. “It looked like a place for people heading toward oblivion, and he had a room there. I went into the room, and he had a picture of his son, who had died. It was the saddest thing you could imagine, but it was totally real. There was nothing you could do, except have a good word for him.”
Malcolm Holcombe, 52, isn’t to be pitied, and, anymore, he’s not to be scolded. He’s to be heard, though.
“When I first caught him, I thought, ‘This is like knowing Robert Johnson. This is one of a kind. This is as good as it gets,'” Olney said. “Every image is completely organic. I think anybody who does this stuff and is not just pandering always has some feeling that they don’t quite fit in the world. Like the world’s only a size 6-and-a-half and you’re a size 7. But even of all those people, Malcolm is the one who really doesn’t fit. He’s his own brand.”
His guitar playing is completely atypical. Holcombe bangs and pounds on his acoustic, which he tunes down a whole step and then capos at the first fret, thus raising it a half step from the whole step down. It’s the musical equivalent of one step forward and two back. In his lyrics, he creates patterns of images that aren’t bound by any notion of achieving specificity of anything other than emotion. Wasted words and untruths are nonexistent.
“I have been known disappearin’ now and then,” he once sang.
He even writes truths about untruths.
“Knowin’ right, still doin’ wrong/As a hundred lies unfold.”
“Everything has something to do with the writing,” Holcombe told me on the phone one November morning. “Rain or shine, or a butter knife in the ribs, it makes a noise, don’t it?”
God, how would I know? I’ve never seen, heard or felt a butter knife to the ribs. I think Malcolm probably has. I don’t know why on earth anyone would attack anyone else with a butter knife. I can’t imagine such a storm of impotence and brutality. I think Malcolm probably can. You can hear it in his voice, if you’ve listened to his voice.
“Mother said I sang through my nose,” he said. “I just tried to carry a tune some way or another, just to pass the time.”
Malcolm Holcombe doesn’t give linear answers to direct questions. He doesn’t give direct answers to non-linear questions, either. He doesn’t like to give answers at all. Or really to ask questions, save for the occasional “Don’t it?” As in, “It makes a noise, don’t it?” or “Shit happens, don’t it?” or “She saved my life a couple of times…like everybody else on this planet, it seems like, don’t it?”
And so the notion of enlisting Malcolm’s help in writing The Malcolm Holcombe Story is inherently ridiculous. And the notion of calling up his friends, peers and associates to help fill in a timeline is inherently ridiculous. If there is an omnipotent being, then that’s the fellow or madam who can fill in the Malcolm Holcombe timeline. The rest of us glean from glimpses and fragments.