Perfect Sound Forever

Langhorne Slim

by Mairead Case
(April 2006)

There are those who make music as their everyday, regular selves, and there are others who make every performance into a kind of masqueraded circus, complete with seals and tightrope walkers. Of course, anyone who cried through Hedwig knows that the masquerade is eventually the rite of passage for the true artist, but at the same time, it is hard to take the cookie-puss glitter-lips without a grain of salt.

Initially, it seems as if folk/blues guitarist Langhorne Slim needs plenty of the rock crystal. He dresses in bowlers and too-large pants; sings about going home, walking home, coming home, and once claimed he got the blues from a rabid fox's bite. Once a whippersnippet clutching anti-folk coattails and his own CD-R's, Slim is now headlining his own shows in support of 2005's When the Sun's Gone Down (Narnack). Half barn-raising, half field holler, 'Sun' was recorded in friends' apartments but is still deeply lonely: "A man's heart is his own/And only he can break it./I'd start all over alone/If only I could take it." The cover image is Slim's face, an empty house with three windows and his eyes blurring at something above your head.

Consequently, I expect an enigmatic interview à la Dylan's coffee in a glass, or at the very least some elaborate masks and flailing tightrope walkers. What comes is much more candid. "It's not that I don't want to talk," Slim says, "but it frightens me." He says this self-consciously, waiting for a train to take him out of Philly and back to New York. A crow caws; he swears and drops his Parliament in a puddle. "I'm glad I'm not a little kid anymore."

Slim grew up in Langhorne, PA, and went to a "hippie school" after being kicked out of the public one. "There were bikers and hippies and gay men and lesbians. Flamboyant gay guys and these don't-fuck-with-me biker dudes. They all got along." Somewhere in there, Slim's cousin introduced him to New York, and as the cliché would have it, he fell in a dangerous sort of love. "It's a great place when it's working for you and your life is ordered," says Slim, a SUNY-Purchase graduate. "But it's a hard place if things aren't going well." The train comes; his phone crackles.

When we talk again, it is after midnight and Slim is a city mouse again. Some dude is razzing him for the bowler and trenchcoat, but Slim ignores it in the name of tradition. "My grandfathers wore suits and hats and Aqua Velva," he says. "Grandpa Jack taught my brother John and I how to shave. He had a hot, damp towel that he'd moisten his face with, lather, shave, and then sprinkle himself with what he called toilet water. I think in that generation of older Jews, they called it toilet water, and he would just douse us with it. To this day, I can't take anything stronger than Dove Unscented. The best smell, though, is this woman's deodorant. It's baby blue with a pink stripe down the side – do you know it?" Secret. "Maybe."

Slim passes a panhandler and stops to apologize. "I'm sorry, man; I got nothing. Really. Nothing." He is sincere.

Slim's parents split when he was two, but he's got no sob story. "I come from a good family. We believe in the things we believe in, and we have short tempers. If you put me in the ring with somebody, I'm gonna be down for the count, but I still get angry. I'm missing a tooth in my head."

In a way both paradoxical and poignant, Slim's dad taught him music instead of fatherhood, but he saw his grandparents every weekend. "Both of my grandpas went off to World War Two. Afterwards, Grandpa Jack was supposed to go off to San Francisco and meet his jazz band, but he decided to stay home and marry my grandmother instead. I always knew in some way that I was going to be a guitar player, but that stuck with me as a lesson – follow your dream. I'm not looking to get married or get anybody pregnant."

The music is what stays, says Slim. "My Grandpa had a stroke, and when he came around and could talk a little bit, he said ‘do you know how I got through it? I couldn't say a goddamn word and didn't know what the fuck was going on, but I could whistle some of my favorite songs.'"

When he was young, Slim listened to everything from Nevermind to church music to 103.3 Princeton, but his Enid Coleslaw/Skip James moment (from the modern cult classic Ghost World) came in a car, as a kid, with a driver he doesn't remember. "The person said, ‘it's a goddamn shame that "Dock of the Bay" was Otis Redding's biggest hit. As great as it is, that wasn't really what Otis was doing.' That really piqued my curiosity."

"I was at a flea market in Florida with my grandparents, and in this flea market, one of these guys had a little cassette stand. They had Otis Redding, Live at the Whisky-a-Go-Go and as soon as I got back into my grandparents' car, I put that thing on. It was one of those moments in my life; it was a religious experience. It was like nothing I'd ever heard. I'd always loved music and known that music moved me more than anything, but I think this was one of the first times that tears came to my eyes."

Here, Slim steps inside his apartment building. He has to whisper, and the perfume lingering in the elevator makes him cough. Quickly then, we talk about the future. "My aspiration at this point is to be completely self-sufficient, artistically and financially and in all ways," he says. Tomorrow, he is starting work coat-checking at a local bar, in hopes to earn enough to buy a van for his next tour. The purpose is two-fold: independence and escape.

"When you get off the stage, it's like dispossession. The ghost leaves you, and it's like ‘What the fuck?' The last thing I want to do is go back into the crowd. Ideally, I would have my own car and drive for twenty minutes, put the windows down, and put on some music and just get back to life - because performing isn't life." We talk about Janis onstage - making love to a thousand people and going home alone. This is much the same.

Much, but not exactly. Suddenly, there is a girlfriend's voice, sleepy in the background, and I realize that it is nearly two. I tell him, "Hang up; be with your woman."

"O.K., thanks," Slim says. "I'll call again tomorrow." He never does.

See more about Slim on his website

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