MySpaced Out: The Whacked-Out Genius of Phil Lee

Categories: MySpaced Out
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Phil Lee (second from left) and friends chillin' at Neil Young's (left) crib
I've been planning a MySpaced Out column based on an array of oddball songs for some time now, and always planned to include at least one Phil Lee song because the Nashville headcase has beaucoup odd songs. But the other day I was listening to some of his new stuff and thought, "What the hell - Phil's got enough odd songs to do an entire column on."

Lee has always had a split songwriting personality, one minute cooking up some beautiful Beatlesque love songs that can cut your heart in half ("We Cannot Be Friends Anymore"), but in the next breath cutting loose with something totally out of left field like his popular blues song, the inimitable "Jemima James." Some of Lee's material actually harkens us back to the day when Nashville and country music weren't afraid of odd, quirky songs. Singer-songwriter and country music historian Robbie Fulks once did an entire album called 13 Hillbilly Giants that consisted of oddball Nashville stuff no one remembers anymore. So here it is, an entire column devoted to nothing but odd Phil Lee songs.

What Phil Lee does in his spare time...

"Jemima James" (You Should Have Known Me Then): This gut-bucket blues is so out of left field I almost can't believe anyone wrote it or will perform it. Lee is a clever tongue-in-cheek humorist, and almost always turns the humor upside down on himself.

What are you going to do with a lyric about your true love that says, "The woman I love is twice my size/ She's a big brown woman with big brown thighs/ She knows me by one of my other names/ She's not very friendly, can't tell you why but I love Jemima James"? Lee goes on to inform us that "she eats boiled chicken and her lips get greasy." There's no point trying to explain "Jemima James" any further. It is what it is.

"Neon Tombstone" (So Long It's Been Good To Know You): This thing reminds me of a whacked-out riff on the old Coasters tune "Charlie Brown." A litany of all the crazy things that have happened - "and Dad's still rockin'" - Lee's lyrics just get crazier and crazier:

"I been hog-tied, Shanghaied, stuffed into the trunk of a car/ I've been hated, decapitated, had my head displayed in a jar/. Yes, I met the Dalai Lama, he hit me with a hammer/ God told him I could take the pain." They don't write 'em like this anymore.


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"Les Debris, Ils Sont Blancs"
(Mighty King of Love): This love song is so upside-down there's no way to find right side up. In a thumbnail, our sorry protagonist brags that he's with a completely trashy woman, but he realizes both her status and his own and he's fine with it.

"Les Debris, Ils Sont Blancs, she's my trashy little one/ Excuse me, I must light her cigarette/ Do I love her? No, I don't/ Will I leave her? No, I won't." It gets deeper: "You'll find no Jean Paul Sartre (Lee pronounces it "sar-tee") on her shelf/ She can hardly write her name. She's kinda plump and slightly lame, but with her I can be my sorry self." Yeah, let's hear Tim and Faith duet this one.

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"You Should Have Known Me Then"
(You Should Have Known Me Then) Told through a loser's eyes - by the end of the song we understand he's living on the street but still hasn't realized it may be the karma for all the bad shit he's done - Lee finger-picks and plays that spare Bob Dylan-style harmonica, and then cuts it to the bone right from the beginning:

"I used to run guns and dope for a motorcycle group/ It was more than a means to an end/ I loved my life of crime, I'd slit your throat for a fuckin' dime/ Yeah, you should have known me then." I actually remember a review of this where the reviewer 'missed' the fact that this is irony and went off on Lee for putting out material as shocking as this. I found it more shocking that some publisher was letting someone write about music who didn't get what this was actually about.

Lee plays his first-ever Houston show 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 25, at Under the Volcano, 2349 Bissonnet, 713-526-5282. Check him out on MySpace or his official Web site.
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