Like a virgin

The cover of Malcolm Holcombe’s much-lauded 1999 major-label CD A Hundred Lies contains a deceptively wholesome-looking picture of him. But mostly there are photos of the random detritus of his life on the road.

We see ticket stubs, a calendar from 1985 listing regular $75 gigs at the now-defunct Gatsby’s, and a tattered, telling fortune-cookie message: “Life is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those who think.”

No stranger to tragedy and dark, soul-numbing excesses, Holcombe writes music that is messy, raw and visceral. His songs are filled with often-oblique allegories that nonetheless convey twisting emotion. Consider the title track of A Hundred Lies (Hip-O/Geffen): “Cheeks as red as a mirror/ Sunken eyes made o’ stone/ See ’em meltin’ in the honest sun/ As a hundred lies unfold.”

Or, as he put it in a recent phone interview, “I’m trying my best to steer clear of lollygagging fluff.”

Which is pure Malcolm: deadly serious, but somehow weirdly funny.

Yet his often-gothic lyrical intensity and whiskey-scarred vocals — infused by his deep-baritone rasps and growls — are hardly the vehicle for lollygagging fluff. And, oh yes, he likes to slap his guitar a lot (he actually seems to be beating it at times), though the tones he coaxes from it still have a bluesy liquidity.

Holcombe received glowing adulation from no less than Rolling Stone for A Hundred Lies; senior editor David Fricke praised his “disheveled croon.” And Lucinda Williams has proclaimed him “a rare find.”

The singer has, of course, been a fixture on the local music scene for decades. And his propensity for excess has overshadowed his considerable talent for at least that long.

But it seems that all that’s changed now. Holcombe says he’s been sober for more than a year.

“Just recently I was watching an old videotape,” reveals the newly inaugurated family man, now a husband and father. “To see yourself drunk on TV is a humbling situation.”

And as for his music career … well, there’s no need for him to be humble about that. Holcombe, who consistently sells out venues throughout the South and Northeast, recently discovered that an album of his was released in the U.K.

“I didn’t have anything to do with it, and I don’t know anything about it,” he says in his typical deadpan fashion. “A guy who owns some of the songs just put it out. So if you ever pass by the U.K. to pick up a loaf of bread or something, pick it up, [too].”

As befitting his change in lifestyle, Holcombe is a man newly organized. He’s got a publicist now, and various “handlers” — including a booking agent who works with Madonna, whom he met at a club in New York City when he was opening for Merle Haggard.

Hmm. Is the world ready for a Malcolm & The Material Girl world tour, a la Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake’s “Stripped and Justified”?

I think not.

Because whatever else can be said about Holcombe, he’s historically been anti-hype, an attitude he picked up in Nashville in the ’90s. Back then, he worked by day as a cook and dishwasher in various songwriter clubs, while by night he prowled such legendary song spots as the Blue Bird Cafe.

“I met [late country great] Harlan Howard once in 1991,” Holcombe reports. “He just said, ‘We don’t need singers; we need songs, son. Good luck.’ He was sitting behind the bar with his arms folded. And I believe you’re only as good as your last song.” (Unfortunately, Holcombe lost the rights to many of his own early tunes when he sold them for quick cash during hard times.)

And what of his current “last song”?

“You have to have someone rattle a butter knife in your ribs to get your attention,” he declares in his inimitably bizarre style.

“Ever since I lived in Nashville, I’ve tried my best when a tune comes about — a heart chord or a brain chord — I try to convey it with some weight in this cynical, twisted life everyone is leading these days.

“So many people want to hear nothingness, but a few people need a little sustenance,” he adds. “I hope to achieve that. You, me or a cop on the street corner — we need to be productive and do something worth doing.”

[Marsha Barber is a frequent contributor to Xpress.]


Malcolm Holcombe will play Westville Pub (777 Haywood Road; 225-9782) at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 26. Cover is $4.

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