Like heaven and like hell, pop music is well-stocked with angels and devils. From “Devil or Angel,” the magnificent mid-1950s ballad by the Clovers, through Bobby Helms (“My Special Angel”), Elvis Presley (“The Devil in Disguise”), the Beatles (“Devil in Her Heart”), the Rolling Stones (“Sympathy for the Devil”), and many more, lyricists have found these mythical figures apt symbols for good and bad.
The tradition is maintained in “Salvation Town,” the new album by Jonny Two Bags (a.k.a. Jonny Wickersham, guitarist for Social Distortion). And although we get more references to angels than to devils, the best — or better — life remains elusive.
In the album’s strong opening number, the singer has “One foot in the gutter and one foot kickin’ in the door to heaven.” This is a song of anxiety, if not desperation. The stalemate can’t last, and the center won’t hold. As for God, he/she/it is not around much.
“Salvation Town” celebrates without apology or irony LA rock of the early 1980s, especially the Blasters and the electric side of Los Lobos. Most of the album’s 10 songs, all of them written by Wickersham, feature the irresistible country/rock punch that kept Club Lingerie in business for so many years.
The trademarks are there in the opening song, “One Foot in the Gutter”: big and easy chord changes, which the listener can hear coming from far away, the tight, rigid beat of Pete Thomas’s drums, and Wickersham’s vocals, which are always in front of the instrumental backing.
Wickersham has not just captured a sound: he’s also captured the architects of the sound. Contributors on the album include David Hidalgo from Los Lobos and guitarist Greg Leisz, who previously worked with Dave Alvin of the Blasters, among others. LA-based performers from the 1970s are also featured on the album, including Jackson Browne, who shares vocals on “Then You Stand Alone,” and the great David Lindley, who plays on four tracks.
The opening bass string riff of “Hope Dies Hard” immediately suggests those LA mainstays, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. After the song ended, I had the chorus to Petty’s “Refugee” running through my head.
“Then You Stand Alone” may well be the first track in the history of rock to mention the big cross that you can’t help but see while driving south on the 101 Freeway through the Cahuenga Pass. Visible from the Hollywood Hills, the cross is a nagging reminder to drugged-out musicians, egomaniacal stars, and shady agents that there’s another way. Wickersham considers his options in a song that boasts an irresistible shuffle beat and friendly power chords.
On the album’s two acoustic numbers, the singer switches to a light drawl, which befits the mood and theme. He fools us in “Alone Tonight”; instead of melancholia and loss, as suggested by the title, we get the message that it’s not so bad living by yourself. “Clay Wheels,” however, is the sorrowful tale of a man who can’t seem to get his life started.
We all know the type: sometimes he wears a suit and makes a million dollars per year. Fear of falling short is not confined to a particular class or region of the country.
“Salvation Town” is an introspective album that will find plenty of fellow travelers. After all, how many of us — man or woman — also have “One foot in the gutter and one foot kickin’ in the door to heaven”?
And the best part is, in America, you don’t have to be a practicing Christian to achieve salvation.