King's Highway pt. 57: "Black Ribbons" with Shooter Jennings

From the inside-packaging of the album Black Ribbons by Shooter Jennings/ Hierophant. For a song-by-song breakdown and for all of the packaging, see here, and for some more good reviewin', see here and here.
This was on my radar well before I started the King's Highway project. A friend with whom I share an affection for crazy conspiracy theories gave me a copy back when it came out. I listened to it once or twice, enjoyed it, and put it away. At that time, I only had ears for The Teaching Company lectures and Bill Cooper's wildly-erratic-and-misanthropic "Mystery Babylon" series. (Link does not represent endorsement. RIP, Bill, just the same.)

Dusted it off and listened to it a couple of times over the past few days, though, for inclusion here.

Some celebs-info-context, for those who don't know, and I was among them - the last time I was something remotely near musically hip" was circa 2004 - Shooter Jennings is a) the son of country-legend Waylon Jennings, b) as Ron Burgundy might say, "kind of a big deal,"

 c) engaged to Drea "Adrianna from The Sopranos" De Matteo, with whom he has a couple of kids,
and d) author of this spot-on evaluation of John Mayer.

Black Ribbons is a concept album, sharing conceptual space with Queensryche's Operation: Mindcrime and musical space (as described pretty well here) with artists as diverse as Roger Waters, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Faint (particularly on "Fuck You I'm Famous"), And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, Nine Inch Nails, and The Doves (particularly on "The Illuminated.") That it accomplishes this without sounding derivative of any of them is no small feat. Stephen King enters into things by way of providing the voice (and adding to the text originally written by Shooter) for "Will o'the Wisp," a DJ who has barricaded himself in the studio. We hear his last rants in-between songs he plays by the band Hierophant that bemoan the fate-of-the-world , and then the feds break down the door and gun him down.

So what is this thing? A vanity project? Paranoid rants around which some tunes were thrown together? Or is it a collection of songs given a false "through-thread" with the paranoid rants?

I'm happy to report that no, neither of these is the case; it's a kick-ass album. The rants are great, the songs are great, and it holds together as a solid effort as well as any other concept album you could mention, from The Who's Tommy to Kiss's The Elder. 

One of the above endorsements might be a bit tongue-in-cheek.
When I first heard this a few years back, I concentrated mainly on te rants, not because King was doing them - like I say, this was out of context for the King's Highway project - but because they're well-written and not entirely unreasonable. Taken to an extreme, no doubt, but I love this kind of stuff. This time around, I tried to evaluate how well they integrated with the rest of the album, as well as giving the songs a few listens apiece. And focused a lot more on the fact that this is Stephen King delivering this performance. I love radio, radio programs, audiobooks, you name it, so add all this together and each spin was a focused beam of acoustic appreciation. 

I won't break it down song-by-song, but here are my observations:

 - Well, first, here's the wiki, if you want a garden-variety breakdown / some quotes on Shooter's approach and inspiration.

- I know at least one reader of this blog will enjoy the shout-out on track ten to Carol Pearson. I've never read Pearson's book The Hero Within, but, as has been mentioned elsewhere and many times, I'm familiar enough with the concept of the archetype and as sympathetic to it as I am to eff-the-NWO rants.

- King's role in the album's origination was minimal. It is my understanding he simply altered a few of the lines he was given to read (and, according to Shooter, improved them) and suggested the feds-bust-into-studio-and-shoot-him-down ending, which Shooter was happy to use. I'm actually surprised to hear it was planned a different way. I assumed it  was a nod to Vonnegut's story "Harrison Bergeron" or something comparable. Isn't it the natural / archetypal ending for The Martyr, to tie it in with Pearson's stuff? But King's line delivery is so good. I love listening to him in interviews or on audiobooks. And here, his flat and world-weary tone of voice, with the ominous computer-sounding background accompaniment, is perfect.

- I had a great mix tape "back in the day" full of stuff like Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys, and his collaborations for NoMeansNo and Lard) and this:

which I mention for no real reason except Black Ribbons would have fit quite-well in that mix. (I still don't know why this tune ("Goofy's Concern") never became a classic, cult or otherwise.)

- It would be interesting to do a back-to-back of this and then Pump Up the Volume.

which is a movie that was dated about five minutes after it came out. But, man, when I was 14...! A comparison of the two might demonstrate the many ways the paranoia/defiant-last-stand of Black Ribbons succeeds (or at least comes across more compellingly) where Volume fails. Sort of the difference between the indictment of the suburbs in All That Heaven Allows vs. American Beauty. 

With Black Ribbons being the All That Heaven Allows of that scenario, which is kind of funny, when you consider that's a Rock Hudson/ Jane Wyman movie. You'd figure nothing subversive could arise from such casting. But there it is.
- The NES-chiptune accompaniment that swirls in the background of several tracks (most notably in "Everything Else is Illusion" and "When the Radio Goes Dead") is pretty cool.

FINAL VERDICT:  Pretty damn great. Great tunes, great audio experience, great concept. Listen to it before mentioning things like "Bohemian Grove" gets you on a 21st century blacklist. (If it doesn't already.) (JULY 2013 EDIT: Redacted.)

NEXT: Probably Pet Sematary. If I could show you the behind-the-scenes at-this-given-time of the King's Highway, you'd see me with four or five different books open, the Kindle glowing, and Under the Dome humming away on the stereo, and flipping between them all like Spock from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home... How do I feel? How do I feel? HOW DO I FEEL???


  1. p.s. I should also mention - the end of "Summer of Rage" is pretty awesome.

    Listening to it again and figured it was worth a mention.

    Rock on, Wayne; rock on, Garth.

  2. Yep, it's a fine album, and I feel guilty for not having listened to more Jennings since buying this one.

    I don't buy into a heck of a lot of the conspiracy-theory type stuff that is perpetually floating around in our culture. But I buy into a lot of it juuuuuust enough to keep me wondering, so of course, I can chennel that long enough to really dig a concept album like this one.

    (By the way: yes, I am aware that above, I misspelled "channel" as "chennel." However, when I saw that I had done it, it caused Walter Koenig as Chekov to pop into my head, and with that in mind, I decided to leave it right where it was.)

    1. I hear you. "Conspiracy" is such a big (and mostly crazy) umbrella. You've got people who think Republicans are behind everything/ block everything; you've got people who think Obama is the anti-Christ; you've got people who think the royal family are lizards; and then there's aliens. Who knows, who knows. But like you say, however little or much one wants to "buy," an album like this appeals to it. One doesn't need to believe Hitler's brain is kept alive in a jar in Paraguay (which IT TOTALLY IS) to enjoy "The Nazi Brain That Wouldn't Die."

      (If that's not an actual movie, it should be.)

      "What chennel plays the nuculurr wessels, Kepten?"

    2. p.s. Just to be on the safe side, let me say, hey, whatever people believe is fine by me. I don't mean to sound dismissive.

      I mean, of some things, sure. (The Queen is not a lizard. I mean, on this, I feel like I can be dismissive.)

      But whatever floats your boat - we all have reasons for believing what we do. Shouldn't stop anyone from rocking out to a really cool album/ enjoying some well-spun phrases and paranoia!

    3. Yup, you're a Prisoner fan alright. You REALLY should start a conspiracy enthusiast (note I don't theorist) blog of some kind, just for the cool of it.

      BTW, if you're looking for more in the vein of Bill Cooper's Mystery Babylon, only marginally saner(?) try Exegesis by Philip K. Dick, one SF writer's attempt to get at life, the universe, and 42 (actually I think PKD has a different number as "The Answer!").

      Be seeing you.


    4. I like "conspiracy enthusiast," that works nicer than "theorist." "Conspiracy theory" has such an association to it of tinfoil hats et al. (It's interesting that any criticism of the government/ status-quo has been so associated via the media/ public officials, isn't it?)

      My stock answer when someone writes me off (not sure who said it first but it wasn't me) is usually "Hey, you can call me a conspiracy theorist, if I can call you a COINCIDENCE theorist."

      (Not that you're writing me off or anything, just saying)

      Anyway! Thanks for the PKD rec - I've got a bunch of his novels in the queue, but not sure if that's one of them. I'm a fan, though. A Scanner Darkly is one of my favorites. (I even love the movie)

    5. Whether Exegesis counts as novel, I doubt it. Whether it's nonfiction...well,he sure seemed to believe it....Actually, PKD himself admitted he was never sure what to believe.

      ...Technically there's his whole problem.

      Also, for a good listen check out Richard Belzer's UFO's, JFK,and Elvis. It's not only funny but what's more important, the first half is a veritable catalog and rundown of all there is to know about the JFK assassination including list of suspects.

      Belzer believes it was Big Bankers, I say either the Mob or that George Hickey moron (turns out that's my actual idea of the two most likely scenarios, no joke).


    6. That Belzer book's been on my Amazon wish list for awhile.

      One of my favorite books is AB Jones's "How the World Really Works." It's a collection of reviews of other books and serves as a sort of "Greatest Hits" of conspiracy theories. I like things that offer a variety of perspectives from which I can triangulate my own best-guess rather than tie everything into one specific through-line.

      I'll be sure to check out Exegesis.

    7. I just remembered something. There's another concept album featuring a collaboration between a famous musician and and well known author.

      It's Alice Cooper's Last Temptation and he even got a comic adaptation out of it. Yeah, yeah, I know those generally aren't the best comics have to offer. Still, it's a set up similar to Kin and Jennings except with a different story.

      Here's the wiki page for Cooper's album: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Temptation_%28Alice_Cooper_album%29

      The comic adapt of Last Temptation is still worth a check if for no other reason than the author's name is Neil Gaiman.


    8. What I've read by PKD has been uniformly excellent, and -- as I do with so many authors -- I intend to read him fully someday.

      (Alternative, but rejected, versions of the comment include:

      "I've experimented with Dick, but never took him in fully."

      "I've enjoyed my tastes of Dick."


      "I really need to grab more Dick at some point soon."

      Crude jokes, but it's hard not to make them.)

    9. I struggle with the same issue!

    10. How do you phonetically type Butt-head's chuckle...?

  3. Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Dude, Unh?

      (Original comment: "Dude, Uh?" I couldn't frickin' remember which one was the right one. So I went to sub-space Phonetic Speed five.)