The first thing I noticed about David Ackles was the total absence of anything cool or hip. He sings like an honest man speaks, and this probably accounts for why he was not successful. There was no taint of romantic escapism, nor any guile or guise or persona to him.
The second thing I noticed was the sheer density of his writing. In songs such as Mainline Saloon and Everybody has a story, every word has a precise function and nothing is wasted or excessive, redundant or repetitious. The acute accuracy of his lyric-writing is stunning after the meandering obscurantism of much that passes for serious lyrics in popular music.
The third thing I noticed was his fearless embrace of extreme ideas. In Candy Man he tells the story of a returning Vietnam vet who has lost his hand in the war and who decides to seek revenge on the society that brain-washed him into enlisting in an immoral war. He sets to passing out pornographic pictures to children, until:
Last week a girl came crying home
Look what I found today
I got it from the Candy Man
He’s giving them away
Her mother cried, ‘Love is not that way
Dear God he’ll pay.
It contains such verses as:
When the parents came for Oscar he said ‘Now do you see
I only did to some of you what you all did to me.’
On the day he went to prison he said ‘I’m not ashamed.
I took their minds as payment due – the healthy for the maimed.’
Oh no, I’m not the Candy Man, my injuries aren’t new
But the world that made me what I am must owe me something too
And I only want what is my rightful due from you and you!
But he could be equally fearless when being tender:
My grandmother waits in the depth of her pillows for – God only knows
To see her you’d say her life’s not worth the living, still onward she goes
She eats three meals a day from the porcelain tray and they all taste the same
When you’re in pain
And it all seems so lonely, you just want to cry
It’s so lonely, you want to ask why does she go on
How can she survive? And she’ll tell you:
“I’ve been loved so I know I’m alive
I’ve been loved alive.”
He was not in any way intimidated by pop fashion (with an almost complete absence of electric guitars), seeming to take a perverse pleasure in expressing square sentiments with great integrity:
Will you come and live here with me in my house above the strand
I’ll have pomegranates ready so they ripen in your hand
Will you be the sun in winter and a cool breeze when it’s warm
Will you light my footsteps homeward when I get lost in the storm
Will you set my life to music, will you make my tunes come true,
I will dance awake the mornings if I spend the nights with you
Mmmm, will you marry me
Mmmm, and be my song.
In 1973, to put out a song that was a marriage proposal was professional suicide.
He made four albums, all pretty much equally good although American Gothic has been compared to Sgt. Pepper’s (it’s actually much better than the Beatles’ album). He was not a great melodist but could rise to the occasion wonderfully, most especially with the subtle and understated When love is gone on his first album eponymously titled David Ackles, and magnificently with Moving van from American Gothic. One of the few times he used an electric guitar was on When love is gone, which also has an exquisite lyric:
So take back your ribbons and cast off the vow
We said ‘Tomorrow’ and have only now
And now is the end.
Seldom did he write predictably; the notable exception being Surf’s down where he adopts the surfing pop-song format to lampoon aging surfies. He also wrote some beautiful pastiches such as Family Band, an utterly sincere tribute to old-time religious hymns. Montana Song from American Gothic is an extraordinary ten-minute tone-poem with an unspeakably sad narrative.
I went out to Montana with a Bible on my arm
Searching for my fathers on a long-abandoned farm
And I found what I came looking for.
He explores the old farm and tracks his family’s origins by reading their handwritten entries from the family Bible:
Born James McKennon 1862
Married Leantha, 1884
Two sons born in Montana
Praise the Lord!
He tracks their triumphs and losses, the endless struggle with the land, and the changing times that they never really understood, until finally:
…and by the dappled lighting
I read again the last few words, in a woman’s writing:
March 1st, 1921
Last night Papa died
Left one plow, a horse, his gun
This Bible and his bride.
Perhaps not so curiously, given this song and some others such as Family Band, Ackles became a Christian. I know nothing about that.
Ackles pretty much did it all (apart from rock ’n roll), but always with great authenticity and a unique poetic voice. He has been the most influential lyricist for me.