Posthumous live album shines a light on a troubled star

drinkin with some angelsDrinking With Some Angels – Cranford Nix Junior (I-94 Recordings)

As soon as I saw the beautiful album cover, my first thought was, how lovely it is, that Cranford Nix Junior's grown kids can look at all this stuff - the albums and heartfelt tributes and fanatical cult followers – appreciate the sentimental testimony of old friends and collaborators and understand how loved and talented their dad was.

Cranford Nix Junior was the charismatic, charmed life, bon vivant, hard-drinking, fringe dwelling, abyss mocking, gone-too-soon, the son of a famous Nashville studio musician. An Americana type songwriter, he was a little bit country, little bit glammy punk ‘n’ roll, like somewhere between Pat Todd and Tyla from Dogs D'Amour, with maybe a little Waylon Jennings, and Paul Westerberg thrown in.

He wrote a lot of songs about death, drugs, booze, endless partying and did I mention the boozing.? "Met A Girl At N.A.", "Klonopin", "Whiskey", "Cigarettes & Heroin", "Suicide Or Alcohol", "Pawnshop", "Barroom Angel". You can see a recurring theme is starting to emerge, here.

He was a pretty dude, looked kinda like a preppie surfer, you know, like a Hardy Boys kinda guy. Blue eyes, big toothy smile. Malibu Ken. What commercialized capitalists might see as Star Potential. He had a bigger than life ROCKSTAR personality. An appetite for consumption. Notorious in underground music circles for his crazy, self-destructive lifestyle and caustic sense of humor, you either loved or hated the guy, in the words of one of his most loyal friends. He was by all accounts a fun loving, world renowned, merry making, all night party animal.

He had a habit of shooting his mouth off and getting punched by people, maybe even seemed to somehow enjoy it, there was  always another “Cranford got beat up again” story. I think his close friends saw him as a witty insult comic, but people who did not know him, found him less hilarious. One of those things, I guess, where you had to know him, for it to work on you, you had to be there.

Cranford's father nicknamed him, “Little Man”, and he, very, very tragically, is who found his son dead, when he overdosed and died in 2002.

Everybody I used to know in Detroit absolutely loved that cat like crazy, he was their golden boy, a could-do-no-wrong super hero, celebrity, living myth, spot-lit star; he was like the Class President. I never knew anyone so popular, and I remember being around all his grieving friends when he passed and seeing how crestfallen and devastated everybody was.

His cult following has grown substantially since his death, with online fanclubs and memorial sites, you can even learn how to play his songs at one of those pages: Cranford Nix - The official web site of the late great Cranford Nix. The underground music label, I-94 Recordings (outta Detroit) devotedly continues to promote his punk band, The Malaka's CD, and his songwriter legacy. There are lots of videos available on YouTube.

This live album lovingly showcases how good he was in a small bar, just being lovable, sincere, and self-deprecating and singing his tortured heart out, apologizing for his raggedy vocals because he says he'd been up smoking hash for several days. He seemed to have a real startling self-awareness about all his addictions, druggy behaviors, and related lifestyle, what he called "The Cranford Nix Way Of Life".

He's on this record here telling us how he is going to die young in every song though he never really reveals what intimate pain is driving his self-destruction, he tosses off these tender confessions, but then always turns the underlying woe and grief causing his impulses into a punchline.

"Spiders & Snakes" is very reminiscent of old Soul Asylum or very, very early Goo Goo Dolls, but with better lyrics. He sounds sweet as apple pie earnestly thanking his comrades and cronies for coming to his gig to singalong with him. "Fading Fast" is almost unbelievably sad, though. Particularly because the topic of all his songs has very literally happened, he has come to pass, which is predominantly what he is detailing in all these lyrics that people are all cheering him for. 

It's hard to really wrap my mind around the whole Cranford saga, as you hear a whole barroom of people going gonzo hoohah wild for these 11 sonic suicide notes, it's a little bit troubling. At least he blazed his own trail, did things his own way, had a lotta good times according to all the survivors he shared 'em with, and left a storied legacy behind.

I never knew the guy, some mutual associates urged me to interview him for a national punk magazine I had a column in, back in the day, as it seemed like we had some stuff in common, but alas, he was immediately crass and insulting on the phone, mistaking me for one of his worshipfully adoring fanboys and I just hung-up, confused by it. Our mutual friends said he must have been drunk, but you know, I didn't even know the guy at all and he was saying appallingly rude shit to me, for no reason. Not even original, rude shit, as I had already heard approximately the same insult from TWO other guys in bands that same year.

I don't know why all those Nuge-dudes in those other bands decided being antagonistic and impolite to strangers was cool that year. Something to do with wanting to seem "tough" and the sudden popularity of like, the Dwarves and Zeke and Nashville Pussy. Seemed like a lotta people were growing bushy sideburns, being suddenly tattooed, and trying to be Motorhead cowboy metal for awhile, all the Eddie Spaghetti wannabes were all over the Midwest. Randomly insulting people. I seriously doubt Eddie Spaghetti is anything like that-just his devil horns making college-town imitator Fonzies. In the trucker baseball hats and flannel shirts. All the bands that had all those songs about hot rods and strippers and the devil. I dunno, man. I found it tedious.

So anyways, somebody gave me Cranford's Malakas disc, though, and it had some good songs on it I could begrudgingly appreciate, back then. He was a bit of a self-saboteur, I was gonna get him three or four pages of discussing his music in a national music magazine, basically just outta me wanting to support the guy who ran his record label, and he just kinda fucked it off for no reason. Seemed senseless, but people insisted he was not really a dick. Just a drunk like me. I believed 'em, but never understood what all that shit was about. Only time I brushed with him.

Growing up, pretty much all my friends were raunchy and debaucherous booze swilling glam cowboys, so Cranny's songs about drinking and fucking up were pretty familiar, we kinda occupied a similar space, we were even supposed to be on the same record label until all my bands broke up.  I remember smiling that he rhymed getting head with Motorhead, or something like that, but you know, lots of people have assured me he could be sensitive, kind, caring, smart, and charming in real life. We had so many common friends. He just happened to start our only conversation with a foul remark and that made a lasting first impression. So that was that. I kinda became dismissive of the dude. Then, he died.

I seem to recall some story about him crashing his car, intentionally, through some kind of storefront and being on probation. I remember really liking his tune, "The Toast Of Roseville" and relating to it, deeply, which makes it a bit of a shame I seemed to have caught him at the wrong moment or whatever, did not see his best side. I'm sure I've offended people while shitfaced, probably thinking I was being funny, too. I did have a memorably good time whilst drinking with his widow, who was dating my writer friend in Ann Arbor one time, they were really nice to me and good company that day. I was going' through my own shit and we were all mutually consoling each other.

Somewhat legendary in his own right photographer/superfan/Detroit music aficionado, Brian T., unearthed a soundboard tape from a show Nix played at the Hamtramck Pub in the early ‘90s, and Motor City anti-mogul Jim Rinn and an outstanding artist by the name of Anthony Franchina did a real whizbang job at packaging this beautiful document in memory of their cherished amigo. It's really elegant, gorgeous to behold, I always think music should look as good as it sounds and they did a stellar job with this whole project, which was obviously a total labor of love, I mean none of my hard drinking cowboy friends who died even got like, funerals. Some of 'em got grown kids who don't even know their dads were songwriters, it all got thrown away when they found the bodies, ya know? No record. No record.

So I can appreciate how meaningful it must be for Cranford Nix' loved ones to unexpectedly discover some previously unheard performance. This is like the sweetest memorial album I've ever seen, I mean they really put a lot of passion into the booklet, the liner notes, the old photos are all ace. He looked fab in his Johnny Thunders clothes. He reminded me, from afar, of some of the cats I'd known on the Sunset Strip who were all real influenced by Dogs D'Amour-all those Coconut Teaszer Jazzys and Dizzys and Shemps with the black hair and hundred drinking songs.  I always liked his tune, "Sorry Bout My Drinking", but this album effectively shows me why everybody was so wild about the guy. I'll be listening to it again real soon, it's pretty beautiful. 

You can hear his real genuine soulfulness when he sings, "Sorry Bout My Drinking" , it's just too bittersweet hearing a catchy tune about needing to go to rehab with so much good cheer and gusto and positivity, pre Amy Winehouse. Every glitter punk outlaw boozer of my generation was, of course, required by law to cover "Dead Flowers". We ALL did it. They used to love it in front of Blanchard's liquor store in Allston when we used to busk for big bottles from the discount cart.

Cranford's signature, "Motherfuckin' Blues" is a blotto booze blast right the fuck on hell yeah hootenanny, really fun stuff. This song is impossible to dislike, honestly, he wins everybody over by the end of the show and the special souvenir recording really makes you wish you coulda been there on that crazy fun night.

"Shit I Forgot To Say" is another of his raggedy voiced, heart on his sleeve classics that lingers in your head. Kinda reminds me of that John Belushi song, "Guilty". A really genuinely loving artifact, all parties involved seemed to sincerely adore the fallen singer in an intense way.

If you're a fan of his, you will treasure this beautiful record. If you're just some guy he insulted on the phone, you will better understand why all his friends are still talking about him with such affection and animated admiration 20 years later. If you like live fast die young rock ‘n’ roll in the style of Johnny Thunders and Paul Westerberg, this dude was good at it. (RIP) Cranford! 

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Tags: detroit, i-94 recordings, cranford nix junior, the malakas, Drinking With Some Angels

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